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The too-usable past obscures present realities

Clausewitz defined war as a continuation of politics by other means. The same could be said of writing history. Every great rhetorician understands that history is an arsenal of arguments, and he chooses his with care and purpose.

Speaking on the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Ronald Reagan's purpose was clear — not only to pay tribute to the brave men who stormed the beaches, but to unite the West in the defense of freedom. As it was united on June 6, 1944. One might disagree with that president, but there was no misunderstanding him.

No one would ever write a headline about Ronald Reagan like the one that appeared in the Boston Globe after Jimmy Carter had given one of his forgettable speeches: "Mush From the Wimp." It was typical of the Globe that the best headline it ever ran was printed by mistake; an editor had meant it as just a temporary label, an in-house joke, but naturally it got into the paper. At least in the early editions.

There was nothing mushy about Ronald Reagan's speech that day at Normandy. His point was unmistakable: "We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We've learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response ..."

Soon enough the Soviet Union would be gone, and the Cold War with it. Fortified by the heroism of the past, Ronald Reagan shaped his present, and the world's future. A future free of the Soviet threat and the constant shadow of nuclear war.

This year Barack Obama went to Normandy with his own view of the past, the better to support his policies in the present. For him, the titanic struggle of which Normandy was a decisive part represented an exceptional time when choices were clear and values universal. Unlike these vague, uncertain times. Or as he put it:

"We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true. It is a world of varied religions and cultures and forms of government. In such a world, it is rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity. The Second World War did that."

Barack Obama's is a highly compressed version of that conflict, for if universal values emerged from that struggle, they did not emerge by themselves, or without strong leadership and constancy of purpose. Even by the time Ronald Reagan spoke at Normandy, 40 years after the war, an Iron Curtain still was drawn across the middle of Europe. And there still were many who could not bring themselves to take a clear stand against the threat posed to Western values.

Nor had there been anything like a consensus behind American policy as Franklin Roosevelt set out to prepare the country for the test to come. He did it by waging an undeclared naval war against Nazi Germany to supply the British, who stood alone after the fall of France in June of 1940. He did it by trading American destroyers for British bases, and setting up Lend-Lease to aid the Allies against the Axis powers. He did it by reviving the draft, conferring with the British on military strategy long before we formally entered the war, and moving every day to prepare for the gathering storm anyone not blinded by denial could see was coming. For appeasement had only whetted the aggressors' appetite.

Meanwhile, Congress kept passing neutrality acts, showing a fine impartiality between good and evil, aggression and defense. And FDR kept trying to get around them.

At one point an isolationist senator, Burton K. Wheeler, an old progressive from Montana, called Lend-Lease the foreign-policy equivalent of the New Deal's approach to agriculture, warning it would "plow under every fourth American boy." Though he did not accuse FDR of fighting "a rash war" or a "war of convenience," terms Barack Obama has used to denigrate American efforts in Iraq.

According to this president's simplistic scenario, his is the good war (in Afghanistan) and his predecessor's the bad war (in Iraq). He has yet to connect the dots between the two, and recognize that the enemy is the same on both fronts: the fanatical jihadism that seeks to unite Muslim passions against the West.

But this president has invested too much political capital in having opposed the war in Iraq to make that connection now. He's decided we live in a world of competing beliefs and claims where universal values rarely emerge, and so we dare not champion our own. At least not very clearly.

It is a cloudy world this president describes so articulately but vaguely. Clear away the phrases that sound so exact when he first pronounces them, and there is no uniting vision behind them, no over-arching cause like freedom to defend. There is little but mush.

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. E-mail him at pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.