Politicset Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

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They Said It:

The last two Democratic presidents – Clinton and Carter – at least viewed the United States as a force for good in the world, assuming, that is, that its actions could be seen as altruistic, rather than self-interested.  During the Clinton presidency, Michael Mandelbaum, our old friend and the Christian A. Herter Professor and Director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), described this application of American power as “foreign policy as social work.” More recently, the columnist and author Mark Steyn called it “‘liberal interventionism,’ which boils down to: The fact that we have no reason to get into it justifies our getting into it.”

For Obama, by contrast, nothing justifies “our getting into it.” Nothing makes it OK for America to start dropping bombs or threatening to shoot down planes.  Nothing at all can justify sullying the great and noble indigenous movements with dirty American residue. At the very least, American action must be sanctioned by the global community – specifically the United Nations – thereby lending said action the imprimatur of globalist morality and removing the United States as the primary or even essential actor in any interventions.

All of this may make Obama feel better about himself and may fulfill decades of hard-left foreign policy fantasies.  But it also condemns the people of the world to a rather cruel fate.

Stephen Soukup and Mark Melcher, “Obama and the Hard Left’s Foreign Policy Fantasy,” Politics, Et Cetera, March 8, 2011.



For such a sparsely populated state, Nebraska has nonetheless provided its share of unique and captivating political characters.

J. Sterling Morton, for example, was the third U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, serving under President Grover Cleveland.  More notably, Morton was an agricultural and arboreal pioneer and the founder of Arbor Day.  His son Joy, was the founder of the Morton Salt Company.

William Jennings Bryan, of course, was one of the godfathers of the Progressive movement.  He was a prominent “silverite,” and as such, gave the legendary “Cross of Gold” speech.  He was a world-renown speaker.  Bryan, like many Progressives, was an ardent prohibitionist and an early pacifist.  He was, quite famously, the champion of the anti-Darwinists at the Scopes monkey Trial.  He served as Secretary of State under fellow Progressive Woodrow Wilson, and he is still the most prolific presidential loser in American history, having run for and lost the Oval Office three times.  Oh . . . and he’s the guy on whom L. Frank Baum based the character of the Wizard in his classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The list, as they say, goes on from there.

One of the least interesting Nebraska politicians, but one who won some renown for one incredibly famous statement was the Senator Roman Hruska, who in 1970 earned his proverbial fifteen minutes.  Hruska’s New York Times obit framed this “famous” statement thusly:

It was his defense of President Richard M. Nixon’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge G. Harrold Carswell of Tallahassee, Fla., that brought him some uncomfortable celebrity in 1970.

Liberal Democrats had mounted a strong campaign against Judge Carswell, a member of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Florida, contending that he was too “mediocre” to deserve a seat on the nation’s highest court.

When Senator Hruska addressed the Senate in March 1970, speaking on Judge Carswell’s behalf, he asked why mediocrity should be a disqualification for high office.

“Even if he were mediocre,” Mr. Hruska declared, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers.  They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?  We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

The Democrats gleefully jumped on Mr. Hruska’s argument, reducing it to “What’s wrong with a little mediocrity?

As you might have guessed by now, mediocre Nebraska politicians have been on our minds a great deal this week (and also, apparently, on the mind of the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, who likewise uses Hruska as the hook to his column).  Although truth be told, the Nebraska politician about whom we’ve been thinking is one who would have a rather serious and lengthy climb up to mediocrity.  We are referring, of course, to the former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who is also Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary-designate.  More specifically, we are referring to his performance during his confirmation hearing last Wednesday in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  That performance was – how should be describe it?  Surprising?  Frightening?  Depressing and hilarious, both at the same time?

CNN’s Dana Bash quoted one Senator as saying that he and other Senate Democrats were ‘shocked’ by how ill prepared Hagel seemed for questions about his own past comments.  The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin found another “long-time Capitol Hill Democrat” who was “astounded” by Hagel’s performance and told her personally, “It is very clear from the testimony that Sen. Hagel will not be bringing the potato salad to the next Mensa picnic.”

To say that Hagel impressed no one would be an understatement.  Worse yet, he made it impossible to deny what anyone who has paid attention to him over the years has long known, namely that the only reason he’s not considered an “amiable dunce” is because he’s not amiable.  Or, as The Transom’s Ben Domenech put it:  “As I said from the beginning, the problem with Hagel isn’t Israel – it’s that he’s not very bright, and he’s a **** about it.” [Edited for this family publication.]

Now, in case you’re wondering, we found Hagel’s testimony “enlightening.”  Yes, enlightening.  Not because we learned that he is a duplicitous, dimwitted, self-important twit, mind you.  We have long known that.  (One of us IS from Nebraska, after all.  Not that Hagel has spent more than a weekend or two in the state in the last four decades.)  No, we found Hagel’s blithering incoherence instructive because it confirmed for us a great deal of what we have long believed about the Obama presidency and about the likely course and tenor of “The One’s” defense and foreign policies over the next four years.

We’ll begin our explanation of this by noting that Chuck Hagel isn’t exactly the first rube in the history of the nation to find himself sitting before the Senate seeking confirmation to the president’s cabinet.  Indeed, as we watched Hagel (and re-watched Hagel, in horrified bemusement) we couldn’t help but think of a man of similar intellect (though much different demeanor) who wound up in a similar position.  That man was Edward Stettinius, Jr.

Long story short, Stettinius was a successful manager at GM who became friendly with FDR and others in the Roosevelt inner-circle.  He was eventually brought into the government by his friend – and Roosevelt’s – Harry Hopkins, who asked him to manage the War Resources Board and then to run the Lend-Lease Program.  Stettinius moved to the State Department in 1943 as undersecretary.  The following year, when the long-serving Secretary of State Cordell Hull took ill and resigned, the President tapped Stettinius to replace him.

Interestingly, Stettinius was not Hull’s first choice as his successor.  Hull, who had served the entire Roosevelt presidency as the Secretary of State, wanted James Byrnes, the former Senator and Supreme Court Justice, to replace him.  The President, however, had other plans.

Roosevelt wanted greater control over State than he’d had with Hull in charge.  And given this, he wanted Hopkins, who was his closest advisor and who had been living at the White House for almost four years, to be the de facto Secretary, running foreign policy from 1600 Pennsylvania.  Roosevelt and Hopkins needed a figurehead, someone to look like the Secretary of State and to act like the Secretary of State but not to get any wild ideas about actually being the nation’s top diplomat.  Enter Stettinius.  Charles Bohlen, Roosevelt’s interpreter at Yalta, explained the Stettinius pick as follows in his book Witness to History 1929-1969:

Stettinius, who knew very little history but who had shown considerable ability in handling Lend-Lease affairs, could devote his time to reorganizing the State Department.  His mild personality was an asset, too, since it was unlikely that he would cause much trouble.  He would not be disposed to disagree with anything Roosevelt or Hopkins wanted to do.  These were qualifications that could not be overlooked, because Hopkins intended to be a power in postwar foreign policy.

Senator Walter George of Georgia, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, described the new Secretary as “a nice enough lad, if not too bright.”  And, as not-to-bright lads are oft wont to do, Stettinius kept his mouth shut and followed orders.  He fell in line at Foggy Bottom, did precisely as he was told, and took his direction from the administration’s point man at State, the infamous Alger Hiss, who would eventually be convicted of perjuring himself while testifying over his role as a spy for the Soviet Union.  Of course, that is a story for another day, and perhaps for another article (or a long chapter in a long book that’s been under construction for several years now . . .)

The point here is that Stettinius was a stooge.  He was the guy whom Roosevelt and Hopkins wanted at State so that they could run things from behind the scenes without any interference.

. . . which brings us back to Chuck Hagel.

Much has been made over the past few days about Hagel’s fumbling of the “containment” strategy.  Much has been made of Hagel’s inability to remember, much less defend his own words.  Much has been made of Hagel’s repeated demonstrations of unfamiliarity both with the administration’s official policy and, sadly, with reality.  And much has been made of all these for good reason.

At the same time, we don’t want Hagel’s most embarrassing gaffes to distract from his most telling and most important gaffe, which was a “Kinsey gaffe,” meaning that he told the truth, albeit inadvertently.  This gaffe took place near the end of his long and embarrassing day and was part of an exchange with New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte.  It (and a little more of Hagel’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day) was captured for posterity by the inimitable Mark Steyn:

“There are a lot of things I don’t know about,” said Hagel.  “If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do.”

He then denied that “I will be running anything.”  Don’t let the fact that the secretary of defense presides over 40 percent of the entire planet’s military spending confuse you.  He’s not really “running” a thing — or, as he was anxious to assure us, “I won’t be in a policy-making position.”

Really?  So what’s the job for then?  Just showing up at the office and the occasional black-tie NATO banquet?  Most misspeakers loose off one round and then have to reload, but Chuck Hagel is a big scary “military-style assault weapon” of a misspeaker, effortlessly peppering the Senate wainscoting for hours on end.  Late in the day, after five o’clock, he pronounced definitively: “It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“It does matter what you think,” insisted New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte.

With all due respect to Senator Ayotte, she is wrong here and Hagel is right.  We’re not sure that Hagel quite grasps why he’s right, but he is.  If confirmed, he would not be in a policy-making position.  He would not be running anything.  And it really does not matter one little bit what he thinks.  Hagel, like Stettinius before him, is a flunky.  He’s the guy who would do the press conferences and give the testimony and take the blame, while the real work would get done and the real policy made behind his back and over his head.

A bit further down in his piece from the bit quoted above, Steyn adds:  “There are over 300 million Americans, and another 20 million more Undocumented-Americans about to be fast-tracked down the soi-disant ‘path to citizenship.’ Surely, from this vast talent pool, it should be possible to find someone who’s sufficiently interested in  the planet’s biggest military not to present himself on the world stage as a woozy, unfocused stumblebum”  He is right, of course.  The President should be able to find a competent Defense Secretary.  But that’s assuming that the President wants a competent Defense Secretary.  And he doesn’t.  He wants Chuck Hagel.

Interestingly, Hagel is not the only guy whom Obama wants to serve this same function.  The public debate over the President’s other high profile cabinet choice has been less lively and less comical than the debate over Hagel, but that’s only because of Hagel’s unique boorishness and ineptitude.  Although he was confirmed without trouble and without public humiliation, we would argue that John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, is every bit the stooge that Hagel is.  Kerry may not be as obvious and indefensible a tool as Hagel.  But he’s close.  As with Hagel, there is really very little chance of Kerry being asked to bring the potato salad to the Mensa picnics.

Even setting aside the fact that Kerry’s grades at Yale were less than stellar and were, in fact, lower in sum than were those of his near-contemporary, George W. Bush, there is also the simple matter of Kerry’s positions on the major foreign policy debates of his lifetime.  And on every one of those debates, he’s been wrong.  And not just a little wrong, but flabbergastingly, idiotically wrong.  From Vietam to the decency of the American military; from Nicaragua to El Salvador to Grenada; from the Soviet threat to the need for American cruise missiles; from Gulf War I to Gulf War II; from the Iraqi surge to the Arab Spring: the guy has missed on them all, and missed widely.  Not that he’ll admit that.  Not that he even knows it.  Kerry is a prickly, hypersensitive, supercilious half-wit who mistakenly believes that “breeding” and another man’s money make him qualified to look down his nose at almost everyone with whom he comes into contact.

So, again, why make a guy like that the nation’s chief diplomat?  Well, since no one else has a logical explanation, we’ll go out on a limb here.  You may think, far out on the limb.  But that’s okay.  It will give you something to think about.

These two nominations serve three purposes.  First, they place the decision making process firmly in the White House, among those whom Obama trust the most.  Outside of Valerie Jarrett, we don’t know who those people are.  Of course, we are afraid that if we did it would keep us awake nights.

Second, these nominations represent the mother of all apology tours.  They tell the world, once again, that America is sorry about her past.  But don’t worry.  There will be no more neo-imperialism.  No more wars of national liberation.  No more “cold wars.”  These actions were wrong.  They were racist.  They were the mark of a bully.  And in case you don’t believe me, I have gone beyond simply putting people who agree with me in charge of the two monuments to America’s meddling in the affairs of other people.  I have put dunces in charge.

Think about it for just a minute:  you’re the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and you’ve spent the last few weeks talking to branch chiefs, to various operational commanders, to field officers – whomever.  And now you’re ready for your first sit-down with the new Secretary, ready to brief him on the condition of the services and on your expectations for a reasonable working relationship.  And in walks Hagel.  He sits down, starts babbling incoherently, yells randomly and inappropriately, and generally makes everyone around him uncomfortable.  What do you think?  Do you think that the President – whose liaison this guy is – has any intention of working with you?  Or do you think maybe – just maybe – the President is sending you a sign?  Mocking you, perhaps?

It may also help to think about it from the perspective of, say, the French President.  You have very sensitive operations in North Africa.  You’ve helped to topple Gaddafi, but you know that Libya is still a mess.  You are trying to keep Muslim insurgents from taking control of Mali, but you know that you can’t do it alone.  You want desperately to topple the murderous Bashar Assad, but worry that doing so will push Syria into the arms of the Muslim Brotherhood or, worse yet, make it the central battlefield in a raging hot war between the region’s Sunni and Shi’ite powers.

Fortunately, you can count on the world’s only hyperpower and, as luck would have it, the Secretary of State of that hyperpower is on his way into your office.  Unfortunately, when he gets there, all he wants to do is show you how well he speaks French, tell you about his time in French finishing school, and discuss how valiantly he came to the aid of your country 50 years ago in Indochina.  He even shows you his war wounds and his medals, which he carries with him at all times, on the off chance that he may have to throw them over a fence somewhere as part of a cheap publicity stunt.  What do you think?  Do you think that the President of the United States – whose liaison this guy is – has any intention of helping you out or of helping anyone else in the world out?  Or do you think maybe – just maybe – that this idiot’s presence in your office is the American President’s way of metaphorically flipping you – and the rest of the world – the bird?

In our estimation, it is pretty clear what the Obama is saying here and what he is doing.  In a recent piece on the Hagel nomination, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg called it a “petty pick” by the President.  He put it this way:

President Obama has named former senator Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) as his nominee for secretary of defense . . . The interesting question is, why?…

The most ridiculous answer is among the mainstream media’s favorites: bipartisanship.  According to Politico, the choice “appeals to Obama’s bipartisan spirit.”  The Washington Post, in a front-page news story, says that “Hagel’s successful nomination would add a well-known Republican to the president’s second-term Cabinet at a time when he is looking to better bridge the partisan divide, particularly after a bitter election campaign.”

What is particularly bizarre about this talking point is that it often appears in articles that go on to talk about how tough and grueling the nomination battle will be thanks to strong Republican opposition.  So which is it?  Is it a bridge across the partisan divide?  Or is it an “in-your-face” nomination (South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham’s words) aimed at eliciting a fight with Republicans?

From the perspective of nearly everyone on the right, it’s the latter.  Whether it’s payback for the scuttled non-nomination of Susan Rice to be secretary of state or whether it’s simply of a piece with Obama’s efforts to divide and conquer the GOP that were on display throughout the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, the consensus in much of conservative Washington is that Obama is making this nomination at least in part out of spite.

Goldberg is right, of course.  Hagel and Kerry were both picked by Obama “at least in part out of spite.”  But he’s flat out wrong about the people at whom that spite is directed.  It’s not the Republicans.  It’s anyone, anywhere counting on the United States for military or security aid and assistance.  It’s the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Libyans, the French, the Brits, the Japanese, and yes, the Jews.  They’re all going to find out in a hurry that Barack Obama is not just indifferent to their petty little problems, but is disdainful of them.

We’re not sure if the rest of the world is ready for this; if those who have long insisted that they just want America to go away are entirely aware of what it will mean when America does, indeed, go away.  But they should be.  And if they aren’t, they might want to begin making themselves aware, begin planning for a much uglier and much more violent world.  Because that’s what they’re gonna get.  As countless wags have noted over the last few weeks, the nominations of Hagel and Kerry indicate that Obama is finally, some 40 years later, putting George McGovern’s words into action and telling America to “come home.”  The good guys in the rest of the world – and yes Dorothy, there are some good guys – are going to learn in a hurry that this homecoming, joyous though it may be for America’s isolationists, is going to be rather miserable for them.  It’s true that Obama decided that he couldn’t or shouldn’t free the freedom fighters in Guantanamo.  But he’s going to free those on the outside to do as they wish.

Depressing?  Frightening?  Well, of course.  But that’s mostly the case if you happen to be one of the unfortunate souls living elsewhere in the world and counting on the blessings of ongoing American global hegemony.   If you’re an American, however, things will be different, at least for a while.  How long and how different?  No one can say, but we are all but certain to find out.  In the meantime, consider this.

The origin of America’s neo-imperialism was much the same as the origin for any nation’s neo-imperialism, the need for trade and the desire to expand markets.  This may sound shallow or callous or selfish.  It may even sound as if we’re “bashing” America.  But it’s not.  And we’re not.  We’re simply stating a fact.  Commercial enterprise and the need for increased trade have always driven expansionary foreign policy.  The Anglo-American version of this is, perhaps, more noble than previous versions, given the added objective of protecting the world’s sea and trade routes for everyone’s use.  But at heart, it was – and is – still self-interested.

We have neither the space nor the inclination to expand on this point today, but we will likely revisit the topic in the near future, particularly given the impact that the Obama military and security policies will have on commercial and market interests.  Throughout this nation’s history – and especially over the course of the last century – attempts to withdraw from the world and to “nation-build at home,” have resulted in global humanitarian and commercial disasters.  Interestingly, Obama’s “Progressive” predecessors have usually been quicker than anyone to realize this.  Time will tell how his policies play out and how they fit with the Progressive history, philosophy, and constituencies.

Until then, we believe that we promised you three “out on a limb” explanations for the patently absurd nominations of Hagel and Kerry, but have only delivered two.  The third?  Well, that’s complicated.

It strikes us that part of Barack Obama’s success and his inscrutability is the fact that he does not see either politics or his role in the same way that a traditional politician would.  He is, we think, unique in the annals of American politics.  His policies seem, on the surface at least, to be inexplicable, self-defeating, and frankly dodgy.  They appear not to be driven by “the greater good,” but by some other, unspoken objective.  Now, America’s past presidents have all had differing opinions as to how to achieve the greater good.  Still, they have all agreed that that was the goal.  But not Obama.

Pardon us.  But Obama possesses much of the classic authoritarian temperament.  He is, without question, a cult-of-personality politician.  Everything is about him.  His dreams, his prejudices, his fantasies, and his view of the world, all of which are, by any definition, different from those of the average butcher, baker or candle stick maker.  And you can bet, that Obama would not argue with this contention, but welcome it.

This makes for interesting and distressing politics.

In her classic tome, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hanna Arendt noted that virtually all of European history, through many centuries, had taught people to judge each political action by its intended good, and all political events by their particular underlying interests.

However, in the 1930’s a very different type of politician entered the European scene.  These men did not view themselves as representing “the people” per se.  They were completely indifferent to the “greater good,” as previously understood.  They cared for neither the needs nor the interests of the masses.  They were visionaries.  They were the gifted purveyors of an image of a more perfect world.  They were secular god-heads.  They understood that eggs had to be broken if omelets were to be made.  And they were happy to do it.  Indeed, it was cleansing.  “The people,” of course, were bewildered by them, but also fascinated.  And, as Arendt noted, this introduced into contemporary politics an element of unheard-of unpredictability.  And this unpredictability worked in the favor of the men of vision.

Indeed, by the time, those who could have done something about it figured them out, it was too late.

All of us – in the press, in the markets, in the country – are struggling to understand why Obama would pick Chuck Hagel, of all people for, a cabinet slot.  Many of us are wondering the same about Kerry.  We are desperately trying to figure out what Obama is thinking and how he believes that these two men will benefit the country.  It seems to never to dawn on any of us that maybe there is really nothing here to figure out.  Obama isn’t trying to accomplish anything rational or even discernible to the average American.  Only those who share his dreams understand.  Only they know that he promised us a “transformation” and intends, after all, to deliver it.  The rest of us should know this as well.  He was honest with us; he told what he had in mind.  And now he is putting his words into action, placing Tweedledum and Tweedledummer in positions of power.

We doubt very much if the old-school Progressives like William Jennings Bryan would much care for this particular brand of “progressivism.”  We’re not sure that they’d even recognize it as “progressive” or even much understand it.  But then, we’re not in Kansas – or Nebraska, as the case may be – anymore.  We’re in Obamaland.  ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:  All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

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