It was not uncommon for a pharaoh to deface the monuments of his predecessors, insert his name in their inscriptions, or impose his likeness on the heads of their statues. The enterprising ruler—whoever he might have been—responsible for introducing this practice debased the respect traditionally accorded to a Pharaoh’s postmortem, opening the door of precedent for successors to usurp his monuments and achievements in turn. Fiddling with the permanence of the past in exchange for artificial boosts to a leader’s legacy tends to be self-defeating.
Today the Obama administration is behaving as if its mandate—conferred by a majority of voters frustrated with the Bush administration—carried sufficient authority not only to break with the past but also to undo it. The new man in the White House is bringing retroactive changes to foreign policy and showing no scruples about reneging on the long-term commitments of his country when they interfere with his own plans. On September 17, President Barack Obama officially announced that he would abandon the Eastern European missile-shield program, thus scrapping the treaties Gorge W. Bush had signed with Poland and the Czech Republic. The decision has drawn expressions of dismay from the governments of both countries.
“Catastrophic for Poland” is how a spokeswoman at the Polish Ministry of Defense described the suspension of the program. Mirek Topolanek, the former Czech prime minister who had gone out on a limb with his own electorate by signing the missile-defense treaty two years ago, interpreted the decision as another sign that “the Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before.” He added ruefully that “this is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence.” Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland and founder of Solidarity, observed with bitterness: “I can see what kind of policy the Obama administration is pursuing toward this part of Europe. The way we are being approached needs to change.”
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About an hour ago I was holding an umbrella against the wind and rain, in the outer skirts of the crowd that had gathered on Foley Square, Manhattan, to protest Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s impending civil trial. Judging by how much space had been barricaded, I’d say the city must have expected a bigger turnout. Doubtless, the weather deterred many would-be attendees. But the 300-400 people who had shown up were determined and righteously angry—at the president’s and attorney general’s measly arguments for extending to the 9/11 mastermind the same legal privileges of American citizens; at the travesty of justice that his civil trial would entail; and at the cheap rhetorical shots through which the administration is dismissing the critics of its decision.
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