Simon Schama’s “Obama's America” on BBC TV

“The Administration has a long way to go to meet the Truman Standard, and its most serious impediment is the Iraq problem.”

―James M. Goldgeier and Derek H. Chollet, American Interest (2006)

A year on from Barack Obama’s inauguration, Simon Schama presents a thought-provoking two-part film in which the British historian analyses the daunting challenges faced by the current administration, starting with the war in Afghanistan and asking: “What price should America pay to defend its freedom and guarantee its security?”

Schama is a strong supporter of the 44th President, but in Obama’s America: The Price of Freedom (BBC Two) he sounds a note of caution. Schama suggests that while George W. Bush and the Neocons cheapened the “glorious liberation” of the Second World War by “endlessly invoking it in the present,” Obama would be better served by considering Harry Truman’s handling of America’s forgotten war in Korea when planning his strategy for Afghanistan.

The University Professor at Columbia University has taken history to a wider audience with the successes of his earlier BBC work: A History of Britain (2000), The Power of Art (2006), and The American Future: A History (2008).

The accessibility of his programmes, which Schama writes and presents, has won him acclaim for being able to convey subjects considered dry in an absorbing and new-fangled way. His latest TV outing is no different: stirring music, brilliant archive footage and wonderful narration together ensure Obama’s America is another hit in the making. Or, so you would think.

His jocular but never patronizing style has won him a repertoire of television prizes over the years, despite criticism from some about his pushy omniscience and vaingloriously contorted vowels not to mention that he was “dumbing down”.

Talking of which, Schama’s dumbed down the history so much that the Korean War analogy is, frankly, dumb. Being a supporter of the Commander-in-Chief, Schama inevitably signs up to the thesis that the Iraq War was a “war of choice.” Yet some say this is what Korea was, and not the “war of necessity” that Afghanistan is deemed today.

However, it could be argued Schama is not so much talking about the war as Truman’s strategy of containment which finally ended with the disintegration of the Soviet empire. The (flawed) parallel made between General Stanley McChrystal’s request for troops and the showdown between President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur sixty-seven years ago only confirms this.

What is clear, however, is that any talk of Truman equating North Korean actions with those of the Nazis would not fit within Schama’s Neocon-bashing routine. Therein, Schama blasts that in the days after 9/11 “they were not going to draw on the messy lessons of Korea – what they heard instead were the bugles of World War Two.” This is unforgivable on Schama’s part, given that U.S. policy toward Korea changed on the basis of parallels between the North’s aggression and the aggressive actions of Hitler in the 1930s. After watching this one-hour documentary, though, you would not think the analogy with Munich was cited at all during the Korean War. However, I digress.

“[R]ight now, Barack Obama needs all the wisdom he can get,” Schama informs us. He’s right. And there’s no doubting Truman’s example shines bright when it comes to healthcare reform. Yet Walter Russell Mead, author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2002), reminds us that “To engage in a limited war is one of the costliest political decisions an American president can make; neither Truman nor Johnson survived it.” “MacArthur has been proved right,” Mead concludes, “‘There is no substitute for victory.’”

And yet Schama remains fearful of escalating the war. The fact is, though, limited war leads to limited objectives and produces limited results. (Only recently, the two Koreas exchanged fire near their disputed sea border over the need for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.) To be sure, Korea teaches us that limited war waged simultaneously with peace talks gives the enemy no reason to fear an escalation.

Regrettably, in an effort to appease the far left of the Democratic Party, President Obama attached a date for troop withdrawal, totally undermining the very message he spent his 35-minute address to the US Military Academy at West Point enunciating – basically that America was engaged for the long-haul, which might have incentivized the Taliban to pursue talks with the Karzai government. Schama understands the middle road option better than most - and its pitfalls, yet it’s he who’s undergone “a kind of historical amnesia” (film two: The End of the Dream).

Obama’s 18 month sunset provision puts Kabul on notice that America’s patience is not unlimited. Rest assured, the president’s commitment to fight within defined boundaries specified at the beginning is the hallmark of limited war. Unlike the Bush Administration, Obama’s has gone some way to meeting the Truman Standard in its Afghanistan problem.

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