Opinion: It's D-Day for the three great powers of Europe's rescue

Photo by Kent Rebman on Unsplash
Tuesday 11 June 2024

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

When Volodymyr Zelenskyy met survivors of the D-Day invasion at the 80th anniversary ceremonies in Normandy, it was as if history's hand had reached forward through time to say, 'wake up! we've been here before'.

The joy on the President's face was instantaneous as a wheelchair-bound former Staff Sergeant, Melvin Hurwitz, 99, kissed his hand and pulled the Ukrainian close to say "oh, you're the saviour of the people". Yielding warmly to the American's frail embrace, Zelenskyy corrected Hurwitz and his fellow veterans, responding "no, no, no, you saved Europe". And they had.

A peel of applause went up, tears rolled down.

It was one of countless poignancies amid a tide of gratitude toward the "greatest generation".

I was fortunate to be at the 70th anniversary travelling with then-prime minister Tony Abbott. There will not be a 90th - 'least, not with anyone who survived those landings and the unusually bitter European winter to come.

Someone who probably will be there in 2034 is Arlette Gondree. She was just four when British parachutists seized control of the strategically crucial Pegasus Bridge right next to the café in which she lived and still operates today. Hers was the first building liberated from the Nazis on D-Day.

Another who was there in 2014 but not this year was Vladimir Putin. The Soviet Union's heroic defeat of German Nazism has always been under-appreciated in the West's popular narrative. Yet now it is Putin's lawless territorial aggression which threatens European security and risks a wider war. In a double irony, Ukraine, the locus of Putin's violent rage, gave more lives even than Russia in the fight against Hitler.

The scale of sacrifice made to defeat genocidal German authoritarianism was not lost on any of the survivors in Normandy last week, nor, you would hope, the world leaders in attendance.

Yet duty and sacrifice have apparently had less personal purchase with Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden, despite their perfectly scripted words.

US President Joe Biden, with wife Jill, reaches out to touch a US soldier's tombstone while touring the Normandy American Cemetery on the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Picture Getty Images

First, the Brit.

Fighting an election he will lose badly, Sunak attended British commemorations and then quietly scarpered back over the very same channel that the 150,000 had sailed in '44, knowing their chances of return were low indeed.

Sunak's priority was his own political skin. He needed to get back to pumping his shrill claim Sir Keir Starmer's Labour would lift taxes by £2000 per year per household. It was a lie buttressed by another - that the figure had been verified by the independent civil service. It had not.

Within hours of his return, and facing bewilderment even from Conservative MPs, Sunak issued a pitiable apology.

"After the conclusion of the British event in Normandy, I returned back to the UK," he wrote on ex-Twitter.

"On reflection, it was a mistake not to stay in France longer - and I apologise."

As a PM, Sunak is a miserable combination - a heartless technocrat in thrall to spin-doctors and pollsters. His behaviour exhibited a woeful lack of basic political nous, to say nothing of the underlying smallness it betrayed.

An evangelist for the illusory benefits of a disastrous Brexit, the leader of the very nation whose defiance through 1940-41 provided the crucial months required for the other great powers to enter the war and roll back Hitler's Third Reich, didn't have an afternoon to spare for Europe.

Sunak will be remembered as the last inconsequential leader of a shambolic 14-year government which became so lost in lies and partisan rancour it blithely prioritised campaigning over the generational sacrifice of free nations, including Britain, against genocidal tyranny.

Biden's error, even though he did not leave early, could turn out to be several orders of magnitude worse. He is now trailing a criminal who actively refused to accept the last election result, inciting a deadly insurrection. Yet Donald Trump intends to pardon those convicted, should he win back the White House. America teeters on a precipice in which its very claims to democratic membership could be tossed into the void.

Biden's win in 2020 was historic. Since then, he has restored orthodox middle-way government (such as America's hopelessly flawed system allows). Moreover, he means everything he says when honouring the heroic sacrifices of the men and women who saved the world from tyranny. In a well-written, if abysmally delivered speech, he lauded the values of loyalty to justice and nation, ahead of one's own life.

But the problem is, he has not applied this nation-first selflessness to his own circumstances. By doggedly insisting on an increasingly improbable second term, Biden has put his legacy on the line but far worse, he has put his nation at grave risk.

This is crazy because, unlike the vaporous Sunak, he has already done something extremely important. He is the man who ended Trump's destructive administration in 2020, saving his nation and the world from further debasements and unconscionable appeasements of strongmen like Putin and Kim Jong-un. Now, he could help start it up again.

With every appearance, it is palpable to voters Biden, who was 18 months old on D-Day, is not up to the rigours of another presidential term. To claim Trump's continued rise is unrelated to Biden's observable unfitness is delusional.

When Biden praises those who gave their lives for their country, he might reflect on why he did not make the smaller sacrifice of cutting his own presidency short to install an energetic Democratic candidate capable of defeating the eminently beatable Trump.

With big-D democracy on the chopping block, what greater love of country could he have bequeathed?

Mark Kenny is the Director of the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  11 June 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications