COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — After the speeches were over at the American cemetery above the Normandy beaches on Friday morning, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande walked in front of the scores of surviving American D-Day veterans to lay a wreath. But one of them—pale and bent beneath his baseball cap as if it weighed him down—stepped forward and took Obama’s hand, and would not let him go until he had said his piece.
Was the infirm old soldier, perhaps, taking Obama to task for the scandals in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs? Was he telling the president that American policy needed more spine? An old survivor has a kind of license to say whatever he wants, even to the president of the United States. Obama smiled warmly. But then, in front of the crowd and the world’s television cameras, he would. None of us in the crowd could hear.
Obama had given a long speech on what would be a very long day commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Longest Day, the Allied landings in Normandy that began the final, successful push to crush the Nazi Reich.
At another ceremony in the afternoon near the strand the British forces had called Sword Beach, the heads of 19 governments gathered for the commemoration, and the world watched for body language among them that might hint at the resolution, or worsening, of today’s conflicts, especially in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was there. He could not fail to be invited to such a momentous event, given that his country had helped win the war, losing tens of millions of people in the effort.
In public, he and Obama circled each other warily, mostly pretending to be too busy talking to someone else—in Obama’s case, Queen Elizabeth—to pay attention to each other.
But then the television feed broadcast around the world, and projected on enormous screens in Normandy, appeared to show the two men glancing at each other from a distance with challenging smiles, like rivals on a playing field. Earlier, they had met on the sidelines of the formal luncheon for about 15 minutes, but the readout from both camps revealed little about what really was said, or not. It all appeared to be about atmospherics.
Putin, adroit as ever, had made absolutely sure he’d be the focus of Friday’s media frenzy with an interview he gave to French television earlier in the week. He flouted so many conventions of what the West regards as good taste that he seemed to be angling for a role as Dr. Evil. (“All he needs is a white cat” is a current cliché, although not yet a trend.)
When Putin talked about Hillary Clinton, for instance, he got especially ugly. Had she likened Russian action in Ukraine to the Nazi Anschluss? “It’s better not to argue with women,” Putin said, according to a Russian-to-French translation by AFP. “But Madame Clinton has never been very elegant in her statements.”
In addition to Putin’s meeting with Obama, his other headline-making encounter on Friday was with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire often called “The Chocolate King” because he built his fortune manufacturing candies. The brief get-together was brokered by French President Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But D-Day diplomacy notwithstanding, by all indications the violence in eastern Ukraine is getting worse, not better, and it continues to serve the Kremlin’s apparent ends.
Indeed, one sign of the contempt that Putin and his circle feel for Obama and his circle is a headline that ran in the Russian daily Izvestia about Obama’s sit-down with Poroshenko earlier in the week: “The Meeting of Two Chocolate Presidents,” it said.
French national security analyst François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris was watching all this closely from the sidelines and says some of his worst fears about the decline of American power are being confirmed.
Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have been “running around the world trying to reassure us” that the United States will honor its military commitments, said Heisbourg, and that it is prepared to use force as a vital tool of policy.
But at least since the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons last August and September, that crucial credibility is gone. While Obama achieved the narrow goal he wanted in Syria—neutralizing the chemical arsenal—his clumsy back and forth with Congress played out in such a way that the world understood that neither he nor the American people were willing to engage in new fights in far corners of the world.
So as Obama spoke about the price of defending freedom with a massive military action like the Allied effort in World War II, the rhetoric must have seemed, to many of those old men listening, more than a little hollow. The only really enthusiastic ovation at Colleville-sur-mer was when Obama turned to the veterans on the stage and said, “Gentlemen, we are truly humbled by your presence here today.” After all, they had seen so much, survived so much, and understood so well the real and terrible experience of combat. They may have been afraid, and in most cases no doubt were, but their fears did not paralyze them.
When the ceremony was over, I made my way through the arrays of marble crosses to the stage and to the man in the blue hat who had taken Obama’s hand.
His name, it turns out, is Irving Smolens, and he was only 19 when he took part in the Normandy landing. Afterward he spent much of his life as a buyer of women’s and children’s clothing in Massachusetts, leading a quiet, peaceful life with his family.
“What did you say to Obama?” I asked him.
“I thanked him for keeping us out of war,” said Smolens.
—With Tracy McNicoll in Paris