More than 400 years ago, William Shakespeare wrote a riveting tragedy about a young, charismatic Danish prince who vowed to do the right thing in avenging his murdered father. That soon proved easier said than done. As a result, Hamlet couldn’t quite ever act in time — given all the ambiguities that such a sensitive prince first had to sort out. In the meantime, a lot of bodies piled up through his indecision and hesitancy.
President Obama wanted to give us all universal health care. But then he discovered that the country was broke and that most people did not like his massive federal takeover. So we got both his health care and, so far, more than 1,000 exemptions from his landmark plan for unions, corporations, and entire states.
The president wished to please his liberal supporters with more government redistributive programs and higher taxes on the wealthy. But such entitlements cost lots of money — more than $4 trillion in new borrowing in just three years –
and scare to death the job-creating private sector. So the president not only borrows at record levels, but also sets up a commission to warn us that his borrowing will soon bankrupt the country. He damns the “fat-cat bankers” and the rich who “at some point” have made enough money, even as he courts them for campaign donations and begs their companies to start hiring new employees.
Obama warned us that we could not drill our way out of the ongoing gas crisis and needed instead to develop new green energy. As proof, he borrowed billions to promote wind and solar power, and stopped most new leases for fossil-fuel exploration in Alaska, the west, and offshore. But it turned out that we still need lots of oil as gas nears $4 a gallon. So the president brags that America is now pumping more oil under his green administration than ever before — but neglects to mention that this is true only because Presidents Clinton and Bush long ago approved the sort of oil leases that Obama had rejected.
President Obama wanted so much to discontinue George W. Bush’s war on terror that he banned the phrase “war on terror” altogether. He apologized to the Muslim world, promised to “reset” our foreign policy, and vowed to close Guantanamo Bay and stop the other nasty Bush antiterrorism protocols. But our “to be or not to be” Hamlet also wanted to continue to keep the country safe from another 9/11-style terrorist attack, so he kept Guantanamo open, quadrupled the number of Predator drone attacks, and either preserved or expanded all the Bush protocols that he had once derided.
Abroad, a new multilateral Obama wished to act only in concert with the United Nations and our allies. He vowed to respect the sovereignty of other countries and not “meddle” in their affairs by imposing American values. And yet the president also embraced eternal and universal human rights and wanted the United States to be on the right side of history. So he criticized our intervention to foster democracy in Iraq even as his vice president praised it. We surged in Afghanistan even as we posted deadlines to leave. We promised not to meddle to support Iranian protestors, and to meddle to support Egyptian protestors.
Hosni Mubarak was a dictator and was not a dictator, who had to leave yesterday, today, or maybe tomorrow. The situation in Libya is deemed “unacceptable,” but how exactly it could be made acceptable is never spelled out. Intervening there to support rebels is said to be good; but apparently so is supporting Saudi troops intervening in Bahrain to put down rebels and protect the status quo.
Middle East strongmen, the president tells us, are cruel and must leave. But the why and how of it all are also never stated. Are they supposed to flee only when protests reach a critical mass? In Egypt and Tunisia, but not in Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Iran?
President Obama has spent most of his life either in, or teaching, school — or making laws that he was not responsible for enforcing. His hope-and-change speeches were as moving in spirit as they were lacking in details.
But now Obama is chief executive, and learning, as did Prince Hamlet, that thinking out every possible side of a question can mean never acting on any of them — a sort of Shakespearean “prison” where “there is nothing either good or bad.” Worrying about pleasing everyone ensures pleasing no one. Once again such “conscience does make cowards of us all.”
Hamlets, past and present, are as admirable in theory as they are fickle — and often dangerous — in fact.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.