Barack Obama is probably not familiar with the lesser-known quotes of Winston Churchill, which is a shame. One might bring a wry nod of recognition. After contemplating how World War I had changed patterns of thought and belief, Churchill turned to the unending Irish question. "As the deluge subsides and the waters fall short," Churchill told the House of Commons in 1922, "we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again."
For a couple of counties in Ulster, read North Korea. Like a nagging toothache, the hermit kingdom won't go away. Obama may be able to change the national conversation in his own country, but when it comes to figuring what to do with a state that responds to neither the carrots nor the sticks of conventional international relations, he appears as powerless as those who have preceded him. Yes, a new Security Council resolution may tighten sanctions on the North. But if anyone thinks that will persuade the regime of Kim Jong Il to give up its nuclear ambitions, I have a dish of cold kimchi for them.
This is a lesson that all U.S. leaders learn. A President cannot dictate the terms of political debate in the U.S., but he can at least set them. Yet as Obama prepares for a foreign trip in which he will give a much heralded speech to the Islamic world, he has to come to terms with the fact that, beyond the water's edge, he depends on the cooperation of others to get things done European armed forces, Chinese bond holders, an Arab public suspicious of any American initiative, and an obdurate Stalinist Korean dynasty.
In politics, the things that cause most trouble don't change, or change slowly. It took 85 years from Churchill's condescending comments for the villages of Fermanagh and Tyrone to be subject to a government which (just about) calmed political passions to a whisper. If they are to crack the most difficult problems, Obama should remind himself, leaders need patience. They must never, never, never, give up. That was Churchill, too.