President Obama’s ‘Chamberlain’ problem

by John Burris ([email protected]) 165 views 

Editor’s note: John Burris is a former member of the Arkansas Legislature and the author of this opinion column.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.


President Obama addressed the country from the Oval Office on Sunday night (Dec. 6). He told us his strategy for fighting terrorism was succeeding, implying that critics should have patience to let him do the job his way.

He said banning individuals on the terrorist watch-list from owning guns would help the problem, though no recent act of violence would have been prevented by such a measure. He closed by defending the religion of Islam, almost with the tone of a father scolding a child for not understanding complicated things.

He’s a man who mismanages his country’s affairs, dismisses his critics, and underestimates his enemies. The world has seen this personality and style before. He was Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Great Britain from 1937 to 1940.

In the book “Troublesome Young Men,” author Lynn Olson tells the story of Chamberlain’s fumbles, as well as the flawed but courageous members of Parliament (MP) who persistently challenged their government and its strategy. They ignited the political revolt that installed Winston Churchill into his rightful place in history, defeated Hitler, and won a war. But under Chamberlain, she describes a country without a strategy, a parliament without a leader, and a war without a vision.

The threats of today aren’t the same as Nazi Germany, but the attitude and approach of Chamberlain then and Obama now are almost exactly the same. Obama promised to end wars. He didn’t promise to start them, or even finish them. For that reason, he prematurely withdrew American troops from Iraq and failed to enforce his “red line” when chemical weapons were used in Syria. His lack of action caused the rise of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Chamberlain, like Obama, was an unwilling participant in the events of the world that surrounded him. MP Leo Amery, an under appreciated hero from the era, wrote that the Prime Minister “loathed war so passionately, he was determined to wage as little of it as possible.” Another MP, saddened by inaction, explained, “The tragedy is that there are always so many plausible reasons for doing nothing.”

Maybe that’s why both leaders failed to see threats while they were forming. Obama just last year called ISIS the “JV team,” and on the day before the massacre in Paris called them “contained.” In 2012, he smugly lectured Mitt Romney for calling Russia our greatest geo-political threat, a statement that has since proven worthy of Romney’s warning. 

Chamberlain, as history remembers, signed the Munich agreement with Germany and declared his accomplishment of achieving “peace in our time.” Hitler, he had declared earlier, simply “missed the bus.”

After Hitler violated the Munich agreement and invaded the country of Norway, Chamberlain did enough to say his was doing something. His campaign to retake Norway and stop Hitler’s advance failed miserably. On May 7, 1940, when Chamberlain gave what amounted to his State of the Union speech, MP’s wanted to know why Norway had so easily fallen and, more importantly, what the plan was to stop Hitler from advancing. But he misunderstood the mood. MP’s received a lecture from a man determined to “stay the course.”

MP Harold Nicholson said he “felt the confidence of the House of Commons dropping inch by inch. Dull as ditchwater. It might as well have been the secretary of a firm of undertakers reading the minutes form the last minutes.” MP Anthony Eden said Chamberlain’s speech “seemed like more of a lament of a man deploring his own failure rather than call of a nation to arms.” Another MP remarked, “We were being told, not consulted.”

All the same criticisms could be levied against the president and his speech on Sunday.  He failed to inspire confidence in a country in which it is so desperately needed. He sounded like a Professor in Chief, not a Commander in Chief. He sounded like Chamberlain.

MP Amery, in the most stinging indictment, told his colleagues “the Prime Minister gave us a reasoned, argumentative case for our failure. It is always possible to do that after failure. Making a case and winning a war is not the same thing. Wars are won, not by explanations after an event, but by foresight, by clear decision, and by swift action.”

Obama, like Chamberlain, has misjudged the greatest opponent he faced.

It’s true that lessons from history can be misapplied and comparisons aren’t always perfect. Then and now are very different. Still, men can repeat the same mistakes, even if the consequences turn out to be not as severe.

Amery, in closing his call for a change in direction, quoted Oliver Cromwell’s words to another parliament that stalled in a moment of crisis. Staring at his friends on the front bench of leadership, he told them, “You have sat too long here for any good you might have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

I think most of those watching the president speak on Sunday felt the same as Leo Amery in May of 1940.

We need a Churchill who can simply utter the word victory, not a Chamberlain who seems almost unsure of whether we’re even right.