Barack Obama’s visit to the Memorial Peace Park in Hiroshima captured the main headlines of most serious newspapers on Saturday, but the news networks’ coverage kept to a bare minimum. Ratings-wise, it was hard for the history that Obama was making in Japan to compete with the hysterics that Trump was sparking with his faux-agreement to a television debate with Bernie Sanders. Between the sublime and the ridiculous, the latter won hands down.
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It’s hard to conjure a starker contrast. Obama is intent on bringing down old walls while Trump is erecting new ones in their stead. Obama clears a path through complex situations with careful rhetoric while Trump tramples his way to the top with all the sensitivity of a bull in a china shop. Obama is trying to accommodate America to a new multi-polar world while Trump disperses empty promises to return it to its former glory. The gap between Obama’s lofty pledges and his achievements on the ground may garner widespread criticism, but the possibility that Trump’s words reflect his view of reality is a cause for genuine alarm. America might not miss Obama yet, but the world is already “rattled” by his impending departure and his potential replacement.
Obama’s navigation of that delicate task that faced him in Japan was nothing less than masterful. He made it clear in advance that he would not apologize for Harry Truman’s decision to drop two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 but he captivated the Japanese nonetheless with heartfelt empathy for their pain and suffering. Press reports indicate that the White House was wary of direct contacts with survivors of the inferno, but the picture of Obama’s embrace with 79-year-old Shigeaki Mori, who was eight when his world was incinerated, moved the entire world.
Well, maybe not the entire world. Trump, for example, pooh poohed the gesture by saying, “As long as this pathetic president doesn’t apologize, it’s fine. Who cares?” But even this apathy was too moderate for some of Trump’s more ardent supporters. Groupie Sarah Palin told a Trump rally in San Diego that Obama’s “apology lap” was “dissing our vets,” while Trump as President would deliver “a boot in the ass” of anyone who harms America. Popular columnist and practically-out-of-closet anti-Semite Ann Coulter promised that next Memorial Day American wouldn’t have a President who “grovels before Axis countries.” She said that a President “born in Hawaii” — in quotations marks, in line with Trump’s assertion that Obama’s birth certificate was forged — would do better to visit Pearl Harbor than Hiroshima. And that anyone who conducts a “sneak attack” against the U.S. deserves nuclear retaliation.
In his Hiroshima speech, Obama called for a “moral revolution” that would constrain humanity’s power to destroy itself and the tendency of nations, even those rich and powerful, to launch destructive wars. Echoing two slogans that the White House used in the battle over the Iran nuclear deal, Obama noted that countries must learn to use diplomacy to solve conflicts instead of military confrontation, and that nuclear weapons should not spread to countries that currently don’t possess them. “We can chart a course to the destruction of existing stockpiles,” he said, though a report issued concurrently by the Pentagon highlighted Obama’s difficulties in translating his lofty intentions into actions on the ground. His predecessors, it seems, were better than him in actually reducing the number American nuclear warheads.
Obama’s visit resurfaced the decades-old debate about the justification for the decision to drop the bombs known as “Little Boy” on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and “Fat Man” on Nagasaki on August 9. The claim that using the bombs was the only way to get Japan to surrender and to save the lives of up to a million American soldiers who would have been needed to conquer it was met by the counterclaim that using the bombs crossed red lines, was inhuman under all circumstances and brought humanity closer to self-destruction. The discussion inadvertently highlighted what is perhaps the greatest concern voiced by Trump’s critics, especially those on the conservative right: that he is unfit to control the codes that would unleash America’s nuclear arsenal.
The nuclear issue has tripped up Trump throughout the campaign. In a GOP debate in December he ad-libbed his way through a question about America’s nuclear triad — which marks the three main systems of delivering nuclear weapons, by air, by sea and by intercontinental ballistic missiles — by saying that “the power and destruction” of the weapons is the leg that appeals to him most. Then Trump shocked observers who care about these things by threatening to use nuclear weapons against ISIS and by refusing to rule out their use in Europe. In March he suggested that Japan might need to arm itself with nuclear weapons to counter the threat posed by North Korea, but when asked about it this week, against the backdrop of Obama’s visit, Trump simply denied ever having made such a proposal. Case closed.
One thing that Obama and Trump do have in common these days is growing self-confidence and a consequent willingness to break rules and defy conventions. With Trump it means refusing to play “presidential” and continuing to use personal insults as his weapon of choice — Mitt Romney walking like a penguin is the latest; floating proposals completely divorced from reality, such as his pledge to cure America’s economic ills by increasing production of domestic oil, even though that the ensuing glut would cause prices to plummet even lower than they are today; and alienating all countries and demographic groups in the U.S. other than his hard core, mainly white nucleus of supporters. This is the formula that won the GOP nomination for him and could take him to the White House as well.
Obama, for his part, is using his last year in office to cement his legacy and to carry out some of the missions that he had postponed, especially on the international stage. His visit to Hiroshima closes an old wound with America’s foremost Asian ally just as his groundbreaking tour of Hanoi a few days earlier closed a circle with its once deadliest enemy half a century ago. Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March ended decades of estrangement with a hostile southern neighbor, just as his push to reach a deal with Iran, derided by many in the Middle East and Israel, reversed Iran’s nuclear drive and preempted another potential war in which the United States could be embroiled.
Obama calm determination has translated into the highest approval ratings he’s had since returning to office in 2012. He has regained the trust of the slim majority of Americans who voted him into office. Israel and its supporters might be wary that Obama will turn his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this is nothing compared to the dread felt by many Americans at the thought that Obama would be replaced by a brash real estate tycoon and reality star with no experience, no knowledge and no inhibitions. Obama himself seems increasingly concerned by this scenario and perhaps by the fact that Trump isn’t facing a consummate campaigner like him but a charisma-challenged Democrat like Hillary Clinton. One can assume that as the elections draw nearer, Obama will do whatever he can to avert the possibility that he will have to try and explain America’s nuclear policy to a President Trump in January 2017.