Period? Full Stop?

“Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that. That’s what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into [a] war theater should expect not just from their commander in chief but the United States of America. .  .  . The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule. And that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind, and that dates back to the earliest days of our revolution.”

—President Barack Obama, June 3, 2014

Lexicographers are no doubt penning learned treatises on the transformation of the words “period, full stop” from a term of art in punctuation to a rhetorical device meant to .  .  . well, meant to what? The answer: Shut down debate before it begins.

That’s what President Obama tried to do following his trade of five terrorists for one deserter. First he sought to shield himself from criticism by flanking himself in the Rose Garden with the long-suffering mom and dad of a soldier who had been behind enemy lines for five years. Then he sent his national security adviser out to try to deflect criticism by praising that soldier for serving “with honor and distinction” before, supposedly, being “taken in battle.” When these ploys didn’t work, the president chose to appeal to American history.

What the president wanted above all was no debate. “Period, full stop” means: This is unequivocal; this is unconditional; this is incontestable. What he said was: If you challenge this, you’re challenging “every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into [a] war theater”; you’re challenging a “sacred rule” of the United States, one “that dates back to the earliest days of our revolution”; you’re asking to be labeled by the White House, using all the PR resources at its disposal, as at best uncaring, at worst un-American.

And so the president himself and his minions have done their best, or their worst, to preclude debate and to silence criticism. Their effort has failed. It failed not because pundits or politicians came up with especially clever lines of criticism. Rather, the administration failed because the American people didn’t fall for it. In particular, military families—the prime audience of the president and his team—didn’t fall for the administration’s spin. Instead there was a spontaneous reaction of dismay, a sincere and heartfelt disgust on the part of the American public. Late in the week, the president claimed that the whole controversy was “whipped up in Washington.” He had it backwards. America led Washington, not the other way round. 

Indeed, nothing has been more heartening than the reaction of Americans to the Obama administration’s attempt to preclude discussion and then overwhelm critics. Americans know about the stresses on parents whose sons and daughters are in combat. Americans know soldiers and Marines who’ve seen the face of battle. Americans know their historical traditions. So they know that trading five terrorists for a deserter when a war is far from over, and then not telling the truth about what has been done, is wrong.

Last week, reacting to the president’s decision to remove troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 and, more broadly, to President Obama’s policy of American weakness and retreat, we quoted in this space Winston Churchill: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

Is it too much to hope that one can see, in the spontaneous reaction of the American people to the actions of Bowe Bergdahl, to the statements of his father, and to the rationalizations of the Obama administration intimations of such a “recovery of moral health and martial vigour”? Is it too much to hope that their revulsion at being told to sit down and shut up by the president of the United States may inspire in the American people a determination to “arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time”?


Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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