Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Obama’s Legacy of Deceit

by Victor Davis Hanson// Defining Ideas

In its remaining days in power, the Obama administration suddenly punished Vladimir Putin’s Russia for allegedly interfering in the U.S. presidential election. It claimed that Russian or Russian-hired hackers tapped into the records of the Democratic National Committee as well as the correspondence of John Podesta, a Clinton advisor.But what the Obama administration did not say was that such cyber-crimes are by now old hat. Both the Russian and Chinese governments have been hacking into far more important U.S. records and government archives for years without earning retaliation.

The administration also did not mention that the election hacking occurred largely because of Podesta’s own carelessness in using his security password. Moreover, it failed to acknowledge that the Republican National Committee was likewise targeted, but apparently had enough safeguards to prevent successful entry into its records. Finally, the administration refused to mention that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange went on the record saying that he did not receive the email trove from the Russians.

The truth is that Obama, throughout his presidency, has appeased Putin. As president, Obama ended the previously agreed-on Eastern European missile defense; he made open-mic promises to be more flexible with Putin after his reelection; he barely responded to Russia’s aggression toward Crimea and Ukraine; and he constantly criticized both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney for being inordinately tough on Russia.

Until now, he saw no reason to stop enabling Russia. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, Putin’s alleged hacking would not have earned any administration attention. But this time around, an emboldened Putin allegedly went too far and crossed the only red line that Obama might have enforced by supposedly enabling the release of information that might have turned off some voters on Clinton. Blaming Putin for Clinton’s loss was a more convenient narrative than admitting that Obama’s own policies have turned off even traditional Democratic constituencies and for now reduced the Democratic Party to a minority coastal party.

All administrations play fast and loose with the truth. It is the nature of high politics to fib, cover up, and fudge in order to ensure the success of a so-called noble agenda for the greater good. But not since the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations have we seen a president so institutionalize misrepresentation.

There are ample examples. It was clear from Clinton’s own leaked emails and from real-time memos from intelligence agencies that the September 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was not a spontaneous riot over an insensitive video produced by a reactionary Coptic zealot residing in the United States, as the administration claimed. But such a concoction fit Obama’s 2012 reelection narrative: the recklessness of right-wing Islamophobes endangers national security abroad. In contrast, the reality—a preplanned al-Qaeda-affiliated attack on an unprepared and semi-covert American consulate—challenged Obama’s reelection myth that Al Qaeda was “on the run” and that the administration was vigilant in ensuring security for our diplomatic personnel in the Middle East.

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. at the time, Susan Rice, went on five Sunday morning talk shows to insist, quite wrongly, that the deaths of four Americans in the attack were the tragic result of ad hoc furor over intolerance. The video-maker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula was abruptly jailed on probation violation charges, in a display of swift American justice never matched by a commensurately prompt arrest and prosecution of real terrorists.

Another example of Obama administration’s misrepresentation concerns U.S. army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who went AWOL from his post in Afghanistan and ended up a captive of Taliban affiliates from June 2009 until his release in May 2014. The Obama administration conducted lengthy and stealthy negotiations to return the deserter to U.S. custody. As part of the bargain, it agreed to release five Taliban terrorists from the detention center in Guantanamo Bay. In an about-face, an Army command announced last year that Bergdahl will soon be facing charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Yet to gain Bergdahl’s release, the Obama administration fabricated a completely different narrative to justify the embarrassing swap and concessions to the Taliban. Bergdahl, in National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s words, “served the United States with honor and distinction.”

Upon his release, Bergdahl parents were brought to the White House for photo-ops, where his father appeared with a long beard and shaved lip—not unlike the facial hair worn by his son’s Taliban captors. Bill Bergdahl thanked the concerned parties and broke into rudimentary Pashto and Urdu, praising Allah for his son’s release. The staged press conference was designed to underscore the administration’s view that the son of a multicultural family had naively and innocently wondered off from his compound. But now, young Bergdahl was safe with his family, due to the Obama administration. The disturbing truth was more likely that the administration traded prisoners for a U.S. deserter, while pushing the false narrative of returning an American patriot to his parents.

The far more important Iran nuclear deal of summer 2015 followed a similar pattern of dissimulation. “Bold” and “courageous” Middle East diplomacy nonetheless required White House subterfuge and deceitfulness. Ostensibly only Barack Obama was unaffected by past presidents’ prejudices against the revolutionary regime in Iran and thus could appreciate the mutual advantages of a breakthrough agreement to deter Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb—as part of a larger diplomatic effort to return Shiite and Persian Iran to its natural role as a balancing force in the otherwise largely Sunni and Arab Middle East

In exchange for the U.S. and its allies dropping sanctions and commercial penalties—some of them approved by the UN—the theocracy purportedly agreed to reduce its installed centrifuges for 10 years. It promised to put limits on the purity of its enriched uranium and to reduce existing stockpiles. It agreed not to expand its enrichment facilities, while allowing on-site inspections.

But after 18 months, the true character of the deal has been revealed through slow leaks. In a secret side deal, Iran can update and improve its centrifuges; it can also inspect its own enrichment centers and report the results to international authorities; beyond that, Iran received a $400 million ransom payment on the exact day that Iranian-held U.S. hostages were let go.

More recently we learned that Iran got the sanctions lifted before it met all its obligations outlined in the deal. Ben Rhodes, an architect of the swap and deputy national security advisor, boasted about the administration’s affinity for deceit. Rhodes, described by a New York Times interviewer as “a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal,” explained the methods of concocting an Iran narrative to a guidable media: “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” Rhodes intoned. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. . . The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

Rhodes’s cynicism was reminiscent of the boasts of another administration advisor, the MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who bragged of the administration’s ability to get passed the Patient Protection and affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), largely through deliberate deceit about the inevitable consequences of higher premiums and deductibles, the dropping of existing coverage and doctors, and increases in federal outlays. Some of the bill’s more obvious and unpopular elements—such as the employer mandate—were not enforced until after Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. Gruber admitted that the law was composed “in a tortured way” to delude people into accepting that “healthy people pay in and sick people get money”—a subterfuge that was both necessary and worked because of “the stupidity of the American voter,” a fact confirming that the “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage”

Other examples of dissimulation exist—from Obama’s about-face on border enforcement, in which he redefined deportation and reneged on his promises to enforce existing law, to the linguistic gymnastics he employed to mask the disastrously abrupt pullout of peacekeepers from Iraq (ISIS as “the “jayvees”). Most recently, the administration has not been candid about the details of its latest estrangement with Israel. Obama and his foreign policy team hid the fact that they had helped to engineer a UN resolution condemning Israel, by suggesting to the public that they were unaware of the depths of apparently spontaneous expressions of anti-Israeli anger.

Why does the Obama administration contort reality and mask the consequences of its initiatives?

Two reasons come to mind. One, Obama advanced an agenda to the left of that shared by most past presidents. Obamacare, the Benghazi catastrophe, the Iran deal, his strange stance toward radical Islam, and the Bergdahl swap were unpopular measures that required politically-driven recalibrations to escape American scrutiny.

Second, Obama’s team believes that the goals of fairness and egalitarianism more than justify the means of dissimulation by more sophisticated elites. Thus Gruber (“the stupidity of the American voter”) and Rhodes (“They literally know nothing”) employ deception on our behalf. Central to this worldview is that the American people are naive and easily manipulated, and thus need to be brought up to speed by a paternal administration that knows what is best for its vulnerable and clueless citizenry.

Such condescension is also why the administration never believes it has done anything wrong by hiding the facts of these controversies. Its players believe that because they did it all for us, the ensuing distasteful means will be forgotten once we finally progress enough to appreciate their enlightened ends.

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