As part of my research for a new book on World War Two, I’ve been learning a lot about the travels of the two leaders of the Western Alliance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Cramped into a wheelchair by his polio, Roosevelt was understandably the less mobile of the pair, but he did — under immense discomfort and stress — make three incredibly important journeys abroad as the war against the Axis was intensifying, both to negotiate with Britain and Russia as well as to consult with commanders like Eisenhower.Between January 9 and 30, 1943, he travelled to join Churchill and the Combined Chiefs at the vital strategic conference at Casablanca; between November 13 and December 11, 1943, he made the even more difficult journey to Cairo and Teheran, where he and Churchill were joined by Stalin; and between January 22 and February 27, 1945, he travelled to the Yalta Conference, where, his exhausted condition showing plainly in photographs, he played a critical role.
A photographic essay of his war years would tell it all: Churchill amidst the smoldering ruins of London houses in the 1940 “Blitz”, Churchill with Montgomery and his troops in Egypt, Churchill in Sicily, Churchill with Eisenhower on the Normandy beaches.It was often difficult to keep him away from the front-lines. One remarkable photograph of July 1944 shows him standing, cigar in mouth, at a British Army observation post, watching shells burst on German positions along the road below in the midst of the Normandy fighting.
To most members of the present Bush administration — and to American neoconservatives more broadly — Churchill himself is an icon, the historic embodiment of what they in their turn have been pursuing in their own global war.
It is, therefore, instructive — and to me, rather disturbing — to list the number and the duration of the visits that President Bush has paid to the actual theatres of war since our invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, beginning in 2001, nearly seven years ago (remember, Churchill was prime minister a lesser time).
For Iraq, the tally reads:
Nov. 27, 2003, for two and a half hours , at a Thanksgiving dinner with American troops, exclusively in the large U.S. base at Baghdad International Airport
June 3, 2006, for five to six hours , in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone Sept. 3, 2007, for six to seven hours , visiting Al-Asad Air Base, the American fortress in western Anbar Province.
That’s not even a full day in Iraq in more than five years of fighting. Wow! Those who doubt presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s experience of, and familiarity with, the world outside the United States may have forgotten that during his January 2006 visit to Iraq, he actually spent two days (according to ABC News) “flying to areas outside the safety of the green zone to meet with American and military commanders on the ground.”
The president has visited Afghanistan only once, where he spent five hours in Kabul, on March 1, 2006, when conditions were fairly stable. What, one wonders, was the point?
How can we explain this? In the case of Iraq above all, how can a leader instigate a long, messy war, keep demanding hundreds of billions of dollars for it, appeal to the American people to stay the course, and not actually spend some time there to see what is going on?