Obama Seeks to Invoke D-Day Spirit for Modern Alliance

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, President Barack Obama invoked the spirit of the World War II alliance that is now challenged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the resulting turmoil in Ukraine.

“We come to remember why America and our allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at this moment of maximum peril,” Obama said today at the French-American commemoration at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Hours later, Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first face-to-face meeting since the crisis in Ukraine began.

Describing the nearby shoreline as “democracy’s beachhead,” Obama said the Allied victory “shaped the security and well-being of all posterity” and spurred democratic movements around the world. “We worked to turn old adversaries into new allies. We built new prosperity. We stood once more with the people of this continent through a long twilight struggle until finally, a wall tumbled down, and an Iron Curtain, too.”

Putin’s presence at the Normandy events gave Obama a chance to reinforce the message he’s delivered to allies from the Baltic states to the Group of Seven nations over the past four days in Warsaw, Brussels and Paris: there is power in unity.

Obama came out of meetings yesterday with his G-7 counterparts, a session called to purposely excluded Putin, saying the U.S. and its allies are in “lock step” on pressuring Russia to stop a pro-Moscow insurgency in Ukraine.

‘New Direction’

“Perhaps he’s been surprised by the degree of unity that’s been displayed,” Obama said yesterday of Putin. As a result, he said Putin may be moving “in a new direction. But I think we have to see what he does and not what he says.”

Obama’s remarks today at the burial ground for more than 9,300 U.S. military personnel came a little more than a week after he laid out his approach to today’s global threats in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

In that address, Obama emphasized building alliances and favoring multinational pressure over unilateral U.S. military action. The confrontation with Russia over Ukraine has been the most prominent recent test of that approach.

Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday gave Putin just weeks to end support for the separatists who have been battling Ukrainian government forces, and to begin working with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko.

If Putin doesn’t respond, “the G-7 nations are ready to impose additional costs on Russia,” Obama said. At today’s leaders’ lunch, Putin shook hands and spoke with Poroshenko as well.

Sanctions Threat

The U.S. and European Union have imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 98 people and 20 companies, while stopping short of broader curbs on investment and trade that would also damage other economies, especially in Europe. The threat of those sanctions remains on the table, Obama and Cameron said.

While in France for the ceremonies, Putin met separately with Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, indicating a path is opening to ease tension. While there were no such talks on Obama’s schedule the administration did not rule them out and Obama and Putin ultimately met today, informally, for 10-15 minutes, said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both spoke at major D-Day anniversaries during critical junctures in their presidencies, and their remarks gave them opportunities to explain their approaches to foreign policy, said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who served on the White House National Security Council under Clinton and President George W. Bush.

‘Scary Person’

“Reagan goes from being the scary person who’s going to start World War III to something more of a statesman, and then at the end of his term he and Gorbachev forged a partnership that led to the end of the Cold War,” Feaver said.

“For Clinton, this came at the end of 18 months of real struggle” where he was still proving himself as the first Baby Boomer president and one who didn’t serve in the military, Feaver said. The test for Clinton was whether he could hold his own, and “he did OK -- it was good enough,” Feaver said.

Having already ended the war in Iraq, with plans to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by year’s end, Obama sought in his speech to tie the 9/11 generation of veterans to those of World War II.

“Your legacy is in good hands,” he told D-Day survivors, in their late eighties and in their nineties. “In a time when it has never been more tempting to pursue narrow self-interest and slough off common endeavor, this generation of Americans, our men and women of war, have chosen to do their part as well.”

At Normandy Obama is meeting with 14 veterans -- half of them D-Day veterans and the other half veterans of the post-9/11 wars -- according to the White House.

Washington Controversies

Whatever success Obama has in making his speech a capstone for his Europe trip will be balanced against controversies he’ll return to in Washington.

His administration is investigating cover-ups of backlogs at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and is under fire from Republicans and some Democrats for the swap of five Taliban held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan.

“There’s a drip, drip of problems,” Feaver said. “The question is, will we look back on this inflection point as the moment where he couldn’t right the ship? Or will he regain his equilibrium for the last two years? Does he use the symbolic opportunity this presents to be statesmanlike and rise above the challenges and convey an aura of leadership as Reagan was able to do?”

Obama used a portion of his speech to defend his own policies against criticism. “In our age of instant commentary, the invasion would have been swiftly and roundly declared, as it was by one officer, a debacle,” he said of D-Day. “But a race to judgment would not have taken into account the courage of free men.”

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