Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
They Said It:
Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, regulator, the standard of them all. Metaphysics cannot live without definition; but prudence is cautious how she defines. Our courts cannot be more fearful in suffering fictitious cases to be brought before them for eliciting their determination on a point of law than prudent moralists are in putting extreme and hazardous cases of conscience upon emergencies not existing.
Edmund Burke, Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, 1791.
TWO CHEERS FOR BARACK OBAMA?
In case you had better things to do this weekend than pay attention to politics, we thought it might be nice to start this week’s offering with a brief update on Barack Obama’s grueling and weighty schedule over the past few days. On Friday night, he and Michelle flew to Palm Springs, California. On Saturday afternoon, he reached out to his opponents in his usual magnanimous way in a commencement address at the University of California-Irvine covering a subject that his Secretary of State has called the greatest national security threat facing the country today. To wit:
When President Kennedy . . . set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it wouldn’t be worth it . . . but nobody ignored the science. I don’t remember anybody saying that the moon wasn’t there, or that it was made of cheese.
And today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change. They will tell you it is a hoax, or a fad. One member of Congress actually says the world is cooling. There was one member of Congress who mentioned a theory involving “dinosaur flatulence” — which I won’t get into.
You get that? Those who take the danger of “global warming” lightly are simpletons, incapable of serious dialogue about imminent dangers. Targets of presidential humor. Yet, his own plan for addressing this pending apocalypse of warmness includes, believe it or not, the regulation of cattle flatulence. You can’t make this stuff up.
Of course, this is not a story about what the President said to a bunch of young adults who have spent the last four years of their lives in California’s version of Plato’s cave. At least it’s not just a story about that. It’s a story about the hardest working man in show-business. You see, after his speech, the President played a round of golf to help him relax after a hard day of presidential chores that began early that morning with a DNC fundraising breakfast.
Fortunately for our overworked chief executive, he had “no public schedule” on Sunday, which is to say that he could spend Father’s Day morning with his wife and daughter, after which he played golf again.
Meanwhile, as you may have heard, the world was falling apart. Among other things, America’s red-headed step-child, Iraq, in whom the nation has invested staggering amounts of blood and treasure, was collapsing into civil war. And Iran, which lovingly describes America as “the Great Satan,” was weighing its options with respect to expanding its on-going military intervention into Syria’s civil war into Iraq’s pending civil war. Then, of course, the Taliban was escalating its war in Pakistan, attacking the country’s largest airport, thereby prompting retaliation from the government and presumably precipitating open civil war in that nuclear-armed Islamic stronghold. Russian tanks were rolling across the Ukrainian border. And thousands of children from Central America were similarly rolling across the American border demanding to be housed, fed, and, yes, adopted, while Israeli children were being dragged across the border by Palestinian kidnappers, likely affiliated with the new junior partner in the American-approved Palestinian governing coalition, i.e. Hamas.
Now, don’t get us wrong. We are not complaining because the “most powerful man in the world” was not Johnny-on-the-spot, dealing with each of these issues personally. Indeed, in our opinion, the further away he stays from the woes of the world, the better off all of us are. Yet, we couldn’t help but remember our immense excitement when he declared that his sudden appearance on the world stage would be remembered as the moment “when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless . . . when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal . . . when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.”
How, we ask ourselves, do we deal with this great disappointment? What do we tell our children? What, pray tell, went wrong?
A couple of weeks ago, the inimitable Walter Russell Mead addressed these questions somewhat obliquely by suggesting that the White House handling of the Bowe Bergdahl fiasco, (a public relations disaster that the Obama administration cleverly knocked of the front pages by resurrecting al Qaeda) was evidence that “somebody” has lost touch with the real world. Specifically, he put it this way:
The utterly counterproductive and inappropriate rollout of the news indicates that somebody in the President’s circle has at least temporarily lost his or her grip on reality. How a competent professional could have thought this story was the kind of big win to put on center stage escapes us. The President would be wise to ask whether some of his political operatives are losing their edge; his enemies create enough trouble for him without his friends getting involved.
We’d argue that Mead is right in that somebody has “lost his or her grip on reality.” But we would argue that he’s wrong in concluding that that somebody is an Obama aide, that it’s somebody in the President’s circle. It seems far more likely to us that the person who has become a stranger to reality is the President himself.
And in keeping with this rare disagreement with Mead, we would suggest that the proper question isn’t what happens to a President when he gets bad advice? Rather, it is what happens to a country, to a party, and to the world, when an American President becomes a lotus eater.
But before we attempt to answer that question, we first want to take a brief moment to offer a few thoughts of our own on the nature and importance of the ruling class. The first of these is that, contrary to the frantic discussions among the talking heads, we do not believe that every problem requires a political solution. We certainly don’t believe that every problem screams out for Barack Obama’s attention, much less John Kerry’s or Hillary Clinton’s or even Rand Paul’s. As befits a conservative temperament, we tend to believe that some problems are better left alone, allowed to sort themselves out. And this nugget of truth applies as well, we believe with respect to foreign affairs.
In short, we subscribed to the wise words of Calvin Coolidge, one of America’s greatest presidents, who noted that “When you see ten troubles rolling down the road, if you don’t do anything, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you.”
Or as the great conservative historian F. J. C. Hearnshaw put it: “It is commonly sufficient for practical purposes if conservatives, without saying anything, just sit and think, or even if they merely sit.”
Yes, we realize that American soldiers fought and died trying to keep Iraq from descending into civil war. We know that allowing Iraq to do so now makes their sacrifice – the ultimate sacrifice – seem somewhat less esteemed, less valued, less respected. But then, we also know that two wrongs don’t make a right. Which is to say that it would hardly validate the sacrifices of the brave men and women who fought and died trying to save Iraq by compounding the mistakes that the American political class has made in that country, thereby adding to the existing tally of sacrifices. Or to put it more bluntly: American soldiers fought and died in pursuit of a futile goal imposed upon them by a delusional political class. It does no one any good whatsoever to compel more American soldiers to fight and die in pursuit of the same futile goal.
We were not, of course, the only ones to warn of the futility of this goal, all those years ago. But we did do so, repeatedly and forcefully. The nature of the mission in Iraq and the intensity with which it was embraced shocked and worried us. Or as we put it in an article dated August 11, 2003 entitled “Over the Edge with Condi.”
This was followed by a front page piece in the Post the very next day entitled “U.S. Promises Democracy in Middle East,” which discussed a speech that Ms. Rice had given the day before in which she, in the words of the reporter, “made a broad pledge to spread democracy and free markets to the Middle East, promising to move beyond the recent focus on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an ambitious but vaguely defined project to transform a troubled region.”
This time our reaction was somewhat harsher. In fact, we came to the conclusion after reading these articles over several times, along with Ms. Rice’s actual speech on the White House website, that if Ms. Rice’s views do indeed outline what George W. Bush and his foreign policy team have in mind for the Middle East, then the United States is headed down a road toward a foreign policy disaster. An ancillary thought that came to us at the same time is that these people are insane.
From a humanitarian perspective, the wanton slaughter of Iraqi Shiites by Iraqi Sunnis is a dreadful, horrible, stomach-turning atrocity. About that there should be no mistake. But from a geopolitical-strategic perspective, one can be forgiven for wondering if the explosion of the long-awaited Sunni vs. Shiite intra-religious war is necessarily a bad thing for the United States. It has long been said of the world’s Muslim fanatics that they have embraced a “cult of death,” which is to say that they respect neither their enemies’ lives nor their own (and hence the fixation on suicide bombing).
All of which leaves us wondering: Is it necessarily a bad thing not to bristle when these fanatics act upon the dictates of this death cult against one another? After all, if the al Qaedists are killing Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Syrian Alawites, they’re aren’t killing Americans or Israelis. No one wants to see innocent people die, but from a purely self-interested perspective, it would be better if they died killing one another in a religious fight-to-the-finish than if they died as “martyrs” blowing up the Sears Tower. Or the St. Louis Arch. Or another Sbarro in Tel Aviv.
When the first Iran-Iraq war broke out nearly thirty-five years ago, Henry Kissinger, the quintessential American statesman, reportedly said that “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.” And while he was mostly right, for eight years the two countries were primarily focused on one another – and not on the rest of the world. And the attrition was ghastly – for them. For us, it was mostly a reprieve. The “martyrs” who died fighting the Sunnis, along with the corresponding martyrs who died fighting the Shiites were, by definition, not available to kill the American infidels. From a geopolitical perspective, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
And it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it happened again.
Now, we understand that there are long-term as well as short-term consequences to letting the fighting rage over there without bothering to do anything. In the long-term, a full-on Sunni-Shiite conflict, in which the Shiite side is on the verge of attaining nuclear weapons, will all but certainly push the Sunni side to do so as well. But frankly, that’s inevitable anyway. The Saudis and Pakistanis – the latter being the owners of the so-called Islamic Bomb – have been cooperating a great deal more over the last few years and particularly since it became clear to both that the Obama administration is, as the eminent Bernard Lewis warned, “harmless as an enemy, treacherous as a friend.”
This past February, Voice of America reported that “defense experts say that Saudi Arabia’s close military ties with Pakistan, though not new, now have a new dimension – namely countering the threat of a nuclear-capable Iran.” Worse yet, last November, Marc Urban, of BBC’s “Newsnight,” reported that this “new dimension” was indeed quite deadly. To wit:
Saudi Arabia has invested in Pakistani nuclear weapons projects, and believes it could obtain atomic bombs at will, a variety of sources have told BBC Newsnight.
While the kingdom’s quest has often been set in the context of countering Iran’s atomic programme, it is now possible that the Saudis might be able to deploy such devices more quickly than the Islamic republic.
Earlier this year, a senior Nato decision maker told me that he had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery.
Last month Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference in Sweden that if Iran got the bomb, “the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.”
Now we don’t normally consider ourselves fatalists, but it strikes us that this confrontation between the Sunnis and the Shiites was inevitable. Iran’s aggressiveness and dogged determination to be the regional hegemon has virtually assured this. And if the consummation of this inevitability happens to take place before Iran is a full-blown nuclear power, then who are we to complain?
As for the near-term consequences, we understand that there’s a touch of panic with respect to oil prices and the effect that a prolonged conflict in Iraq might have on them. We share these concerns to a certain extent, though we must say that we’re a little more sanguine than most observers appear.
It is, we suppose, possible that prices would spike on the uncertainty. But then, they might not, given that the Iraqi Kurds are already in charge of much of the country’s oil and are taking advantage of the current turmoil to advance their territorial control and their concomitant control over Iraq’s oil reserves. Kurdish troops have taken full control of Kirkuk, one Iraq’s most important oil cities. And that’s largely an inarguable positive. In the eleven years since Saddam was toppled, Iraqi Kurdistan has blossomed. Moreover, it has become the lone bastion of true independence and democratic spirit in the country. If the civil war between the Arab Sunnis and the Arab Shiites creates a greater opportunity for the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, then all the better for everyone.
If, however, oil prices do spike, then that too can be turned into a positive. With gas over $5/gallon, does anyone believe that Obama and his environmental allies will still have the political capital to deny the construction of the Keystone Pipeline? Does anyone believe that the full-throated green war against fracking will continue? Already an unexpected player in the global energy market, the United States will be pushed, by necessity, to expand its domestic resources. And frankly, even the environmentalists should be happy about such a development, since the higher the cost of international crude, the more reasonable the price of expensive alternative energy sources start to look. Tell us again what the downside is?
All things considered, then, we think that a reasonable case could be made that the proper response in the midst of all of this turmoil is for the United States to do nothing. Or at least not to do anything that could be perceived by anyone as intervening. But in order for this to be a viable option – from a foreign policy perspective – the United States would have to project an image of confidence and self-assurance as it waited patiently for the proper moment to make the proper move. The problem is that no one expects that from the United States, least of all the American ruling class.
The new civil war in Iraq is roughly a week old now, and already politicians on both sides of the aisle are insisting that the United States must do something – ANYTHING! – to right this wrong. Just yesterday, for example, both Lindsey Graham, the allegedly conservative Senator from South Carolina, and John Kerry, the allegedly liberal Secretary of State and former Senator from Massachusetts, suggested that the Americans partner up with the Iranians to defeat the Sunni militants.
Think about that for just a moment. Here we have Graham, a noted hawk, and Kerry, a longstanding dove, both panicking and insisting that the only way to solve the world’s problems is to make an ally of the world’s most prolific state sponsor of terrorism. Note as well that the regime in Iran is the very same regime over which Kerry and his Democratic fellow travelers tried to destroy Ronald Reagan, because Reagan had the temerity to sell said regime a handful of trinkets and baubles in return for the release of Americans held in Beirut. And now Kerry wants to make these same Mullahs his partners in war? Is there any way this could possibly get more absurd?
This brings us back to the question we posed up top, i.e. what happens to a country, to a party, to the world, when an American President is out of touch with reality?
We’ll start with the last part of the question first, because we think we have already answered it, at least in the present context. As it turns out, whether the American President is involved in world affairs matters, but it only matters if that President is involved in a serious way with a serious purpose and with serious consideration given to the consequences of his actions or inactions. Barack Obama demonstrated long ago that he is not and never will be serious about his role – or America’s role – in global affairs. As we and countless others have noted, Obama ran for president because he wanted to transform the United States. To him, global affairs are mere distractions that keep his from accomplishing that goal.
As such, he has slowly but surely surrounded himself with foreign policy naïfs and outright nitwits. James Jones, Obama’s first National Security Advisor was a serious man, a retired Marine general and a longtime national security player. But then, he was, by and large, a Bush holdover and, moreover, he only served two years. Jones’ replacement, Tom Donilon was a lawyer and a friend of Obama’s, while Susan Rice was a career political appointee and fun to be around. Obama’s two Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, were also political appointees with no formal diplomatic background. All things considered, the Obama team has been heavy on politics and light on policy. Or as Kimberly Strassel put it two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal:
This is what happens when political hacks formally take over foreign policy.
It’s the “formal” point that bears some meditation. Barack Obama isn’t the first president to make foreign-policy decisions on the basis of domestic political calculations. He does, however, win the distinction of being the first president to utterly disregard — to treat with contempt — the institutions and procedures that were designed to help the commander in chief insulate the serious business of foreign policy and national security from baser political concerns.
At the heart of this effort is the National Security Council, which has served presidents since its inception under Harry Truman. Made up of the president, vice president, a national security adviser, various Cabinet secretaries, and representatives from the military and the intelligence agencies, the NSC has been by procedure and fierce tradition a rare apolitical forum, a place for the president to hear hard reality. NSC staff are foreign-policy grownups, and its meetings are barred to political henchmen.
Or that was the case, until the Obama White House. By early March 2009, two months into this presidency, the New York Times had run a profile of David Axelrod, noting that Mr. Obama’s top campaign guru and “political protector” was now “often” to be found “in the late afternoons” walking “to the Situation Room to attend some meetings of the National Security Council.” President Obama’s first national security adviser, former Marine General and NATO Commander Jim Jones, left after only two years following clashes with Mr. Obama’s inner circle.
He was replaced by Democratic political operative and former Fannie Mae lobbyist Tom Donilon. Mr. Donilon joined Ben Rhodes, the Obama campaign speechwriter, who in 2009 had been elevated to deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Also present was Tommy Vietor, whose entire career prior to NSC spokesman was as an Obama spinmeister — as a press aide in the 2004 Senate run, and campaign flack for the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and assistant White House press secretary. In fairness, his credentials also included getting caught on camera in 2010 pounding beers, shirtless, at a Georgetown bar. America’s foreign-policy experts at work.
In the final analysis, what all of this means is that Barack Obama has signaled from the beginning of his presidency that he doesn’t care a lick about any global agenda. And having been president now for more than five years, the world has adjusted accordingly, which is to say that no one expected anything else from him in the wake of the Iraqi civil war . . . or . . . for that matter any other global crisis you care to name. The fact that the guy has checked out of late hasn’t really altered the global calculus. He never checked in to the global responsibilities of the presidency and thus the world has turned and will continue to turn without paying him any mind at all.
How, then, does his dissociation from his job and from reality affect the global condition? It doesn’t. And as we argued above, the world might just be better off because of it.
The same, we think, can be said – and indeed was said – with respect to the country. Things get a little tricky here, of course, what with the perception in the Islamic world that refusal to enforce one’s will is tantamount to cowardice. But again, Obama’s current resignation to his fate doesn’t really change the calculus on that count. The United States has been the “weak horse” in Osama bin Laden’s phraseology, for the better part of a decade now anyway. The Americans were the strong horse when they toppled the Taliban and when they did the same to Saddam. But then they set about “democratizing” the nations they had conquered and went right back to the back of the pack.
This weak-horse-conundrum has, we think, grown marginally worse under Obama, but only marginally, and not because his policies have differed all that much from his predecessor’s. The difference between Bush and Obama is that Obama likes to run his mouth, setting “red lines” he has no intentions of keeping and blustering on about how he will deal decisively and harshly with global miscreants that he has no intention whatsoever of punishing. In the end, though, this is more of a personal problem for him than it is a national problem for the American people. Obama’s bluster has made him a global laughingstock. His policies, by contrast, have merely confirmed the general global suspicion that Americans are soft. But those suspicions are long-standing and are hardly Obama’s doing alone.
All of this leads us, unfortunately, to a rather grim conclusion. If Barack Obama is, indeed, out of touch with reality; or if he is as others, more friendly to him have put it, worn out by the job and by Washington more generally; and if this bewilderment or malaise on his part has not necessarily impacted the global scene or the nation’s prospects in any new and notable way, then why does anyone care? Who, exactly, is unhappy about this? And why?
To some extent, the members of the political class as a whole are panicking over the course of global affairs. And they are panicking because, as we said, they believe themselves to be indispensable in the smooth operation of the world. America runs the world, after all, and they run America. So it only figures that they should have large hand in running the world as well.
When Barack Obama ignores the world to focus on his short game, the members of the ruling class tend to feel powerless, impotent, if you will. And that makes them uneasy, to say the least. They want to fix the world and they want to fix it now. More to the point, they want everyone, everywhere to know that they and they alone have the brilliant ideas that will allow the world to be fixed. Republican, Democrat, retired, active, whatever. They’re all foreign policy Gnostics who ask for nothing more than total attention and unadulterated worship for their solutions to the world’s problems. And when the absentee President denies them that opportunity, denies them their due, it really ticks them off.
The real “victims” here, however, are the Democrats. Over the course of the last two decades, the Democrats have tried their very best to rehabilitate their image in two fronts. First, they have worked very hard to rebuild their reputation with respect to economics and policy. Jimmy Carter was a disaster economically. And he was a largely incompetent manager as well. After twelve years wandering in the proverbial desert, the Bill Clinton-led Democrats had a chance to change all of that, and, for the most part, they did. Clinton presided over a strong economic expansion and appeared to be a competent and capable manager and policy wonk. He left office very highly respected professionally, if not so well respected personally.
Barack Obama, of course, squandered Clinton’s economic and policy rehabilitation. Not only has he presided over an historically weak recovery, he has done so with inarguable incompetence. His signature achievement, the long awaited health care reform, will all but certainly go down in history as one of the most incompetently executed policy implementations in Western history. And this, by extension, has severely damaged the Big Government “brand.”
The second field on which the Democrats had to rehabilitate themselves was on foreign policy. The Democratic Party emerged from the Vietnam era with a well-earned reputation for foreign policy frailty. The post-Vietnam Democrats were sure of almost nothing in foreign affairs other than the notion that the United States was a force for evil in the world rather than for good.
Again, after twelve years in exile – and some serious foreign policy triumphs for the political opposition – Bill Clinton took office attempting to rehabilitate his party’s image. And again, he left office largely having done so. In the case of foreign policy, Clinton was more the beneficiary of good fortune than anything else. But still he managed to project American force globally and to refrain from sounding like the wannabe peacenik he had been in his youth. In short, he did the best he probably could, given his core beliefs (or lack thereof).
Barack Obama, by contrast to Bill Clinton, entered office with the deck stacked in his favor. All he had to do was be “not George Bush” and he would be a success. Or so it seemed.
As it turned out, of course, even with historically low expectations, Obama managed to come off looking foolish and feeble. In war he was lackluster. And in pursuit of peace he was overly accommodating and flaccid. He gave new life to the idea that the Democratic Party is “Blame America First” party.
And now, when confronted with real crises, he seems not even to want to blame America, but to do nothing at all. You know and we know that sometimes doing nothing is simply being “prudent.” But no one in the Democratic establishment (or the Republican establishment for that matter) thinks of prudence as much of a virtue. They believe – and rightly so – that the public is all but certain to perceive Barack Obama’s indifference not as prudence, but as weakness. And given this, they are inclined to panic.
Over the next several weeks, we expect the harshest criticism of Barack Obama to come not from the usual suspects, but from his purported Democratic allies. This criticism will likely be anonymous at first and then, depending on the course of events, will come out into the open. Democrats have too much invested in the notion that they can restore America’s standing in the world after the debacle of the Bush years to let the disinterested and disconnected Barack Obama ruin it all for them. They will not – CANNOT – stand idly by and watch him do nothing. So they will panic.
In the worst scenario we can possibly imagine, the Democrats’ panic will become infectious and will reach the White House, which is to say that they will convince Obama to panic on their account. They will convince him to do something stupid, to send troops back into Iraq or to partner up with the Mullahs.
It would be far better, we think – for the country and the world – for Obama to continue his vacation from reality. Even if the Democrats grow so tired of his neglect that they turn on him openly, it would be less troubling than it would if they find they don’t have to; if they find that he is, despite his detachment, still willing to defer to their judgment on the broader questions of policy. That would lead to disaster.
In the meantime, however, we can take solace in the fact that Barack Obama prefers the perks of the presidency to its power. Better he put the former to good use than the latter. If he wants to play golf and take long strolls with his family, we say good for him.
The United States is, of course, the world’s indispensable nation. But only when it is run by somebody who takes that responsibility seriously. Now is not one of those times. And so it is far better, we think, if the nation dispensed with that indispensability, at least temporarily, and let the course of events unfold. If it all works out somehow, then we can all pat ourselves and the back and congratulate ourselves for our prudence. And if it doesn’t, then what else is new?