The United States’ present reputation on making threats can be summed up like this: We talk tough but we don’t follow up.

It’s mostly talk. Our walk, as my grandmother used to say, doesn’t equal our talk. The recent threat to use force in Syria — the president’s red line that became a pink line and then no line at all is one example.

“I double dog dare ya’ to step across this line! Well, OK, how ‘bout this one? Well, would you mind not stepping across THIS line pretty please with sugar on it and a cherry on top?”

Look, I support our civilian leaders being very reluctant to put American lives at risk. Armed force should be the last choice only after diplomatic, economic and political options have been exhausted and failed.

But when we’ve exhausted all other options and we say we’re going to use force, we better use it. If we say there will be consequences, there had better be real consequences, not just idle words.

Yes, we need to be careful about what we say, but when we say it, we need to mean what we say and then act upon what we say. Our walk has to equal our talk or we lose all credibility.

What credibility you rightfully ask? About the recent incursion into Crimea by Russian military forces over the political instability in the Ukraine, President Obama warned Russian President Putin that “there would be consequences.” What consequences could Putin possibly be concerned about given the United States’ recent mealy-mouthed wishy-washiness?

U.S. officials warned Russia that Obama and other European leaders were unlikely to show up at the G8 summit in the Olympic resort city of Sochi if the Ukraine crisis was not resolved. “Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation,” the White House warned in a statement according to several news agencies.

Unlikely to show up? Wow. Them’s fightin’ words! Big deal. Like the centuries-long ties between the Ukraine and Russia don’t wildly transcend the G8 summit’s value to the Russians.

The Russians know that whatever “isolation” the U.S. can impose is restricted by our need for their influence in Syria. They know our words have little, if any, force behind them. We shouldn’t talk about “consequences” unless we can back them up with real action.

The recent American penchant of late for lots of talk and little action reminds me of General von Lüttwitz sending the following ultimatum to General McAuliffe, United States Army, acting commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division on Dec. 22, 1944. The German general sent the following message to McAuliffe whose 101st Division in the Belgian town of Bastogne was surrounded by German forces:

“To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

“The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

“If this proposal should be rejected, one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A.A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

“All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity. Signed, The German Commander.”

When McAuliffe was given the German message, he read it, crumpled it up, threw it in a wastepaper basket, and muttered, “Aw, nuts.”

After failing to come up with a better reply, McAuliffe’s staff decided his words would be the best way to respond to the German ultimatum. The American response was delivered as follows:  “To the German Commander. NUTS! Signed, The American Commander.”

When the German recipient of McAuliffe’s written response to Lüttwitz asked what the message meant, he was told, “In plain English? Go to hell.” 

The threat of German artillery fire never occurred. The 101st Airborne Division was able to hold off the Germans until the U.S. 4th Armored Division broke through and reinforced the 101st Airborne Division on Dec. 26, 1944.

I’m not fan of Putin, but he reminds me of McAuliffe. His response to President Obama’s idle threats of consequences? “Nuts!” or the Russian equivalent: Пошел к черту!

Instead of Putin, I’d like it better if our president reminded me of McAuliffe. And I’d like it better if our president, very measured and cautious in his threats, nonetheless clearly backed his words up with action and walked his talk.


Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at