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From an Angry Reader:

Mr. Hanson,

I don’t know anything about Stanley Baldwin, but I’ll assume your description of him is accurate. In that case, you have to stretch quite a bit to make Obama into Baldwin. For instance:

You call Baldwin a pacifist. Obama is decidedly not a pacifist. He is a Niebuhrian realist who was willing to bomb and assassinate. Just because he was given the Nobel Peace Prize and preferred diplomacy over the use of violence does not make him a pacifist or appeaser.

You claim that Obama, like Baldwin, seems “to believe that war breaks out only because of misunderstandings” that “can be remedied through more talk and concessions,” and that Obama was opposed to strategic deterrence. Is this not a simplistic and one-sided view of Obama’s actions? He readily acknowledged the evil of organizations such as ISIS and sought the most effective ways to neutralize them—not only through “soft power” that appeals to hearts and minds, but also through military alliances, training local fighters, and through a much stepped-up program of drone warfare.

You fault Obama for Iran taking 10 US sailors into custody, but you fail to mention that the sailors were in Iranian territorial waters, were therefore legally apprehended by Iran, and that Obama’s calm approach got them released quickly.

You fault Obama for the uranium enrichment agreement with Iran despite the fact that the majority of strategists have hailed this as a great success; that most analysts believe that trying to bomb Iran out of a nuclear program would not have worked and would have led to far more dangerous problems.

You claim that when Assad “called Obama’s bluff” about the red line of using chemical weapons, that Obama “did nothing other than call … Putin to beg Assad to stop killing civilians with chemical weapons.” That’s not my memory of events. My memory is that the US was on the very brink of war with Assad when, during a news conference, Secretary of State Kerry was asked if there was anything that could prevent the beginning of US bombing. Kerry replied that Syria would have to immediately destroy all of its chemical weapons—something Kerry didn’t believe Syria would do. It was at that moment that Russia offered to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons. Obama, on balance, decided that was a better option than widening a destabilizing war with an uncertain outcome. Trump’s recent correct decision to bomb a Syrian airfield because of Syria’s recent use of chemical weapons was made possible by Obama’s red-line stance. Syria clearly violated the agreement, and Russia was exposed as a fraudulent actor.

North Korea building more and better missiles (and nuclear bombs) was not due to Obama’s policies. On the contrary, that was due to the blundering of Bush. Bill Clinton was in the process of a negotiated settlement with North Korea to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but the Bush administration then torpedoed those efforts and instead threatened North Korea. There is no military solution to North Korea arming itself with nuclear weapons short of exposing South Korea and the North Korean population to mass nuclear carnage. North Korea will continue to pursue nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles as long as it feels threatened. If you have found some other magical solution, I’d like to hear it.

I’m not saying Obama made every right decision in Syria or elsewhere. He almost certainly did not. It may be he was too hesitant to use force in some situations. But that is a far cry from the blanket assertions you make in your column. And time may vindicate him rather than fault him. It may be that his complex strategy of diplomacy and military action was about as good as we could have done under the circumstances. In any case, I urge you to be more accurate, knowledgeable, and nuanced about the uses of diplomacy. 

Ryan Ahlgrim

Richmond, VA

Victor Davis Hanson’s Reply:

Dear Angry Reader Ryan Ahlgrim,

When I listed various attributes of Stanley Baldwin’s agenda, I ended with “Obama, the Nobel peace laureate and former president, resembles Baldwin.” And then I listed the areas of commonality, and most certainly did not include Baldwin’s pacifism as an Obama trait. Did you really read the column?

But that said, Obama’s targeted assassinations via drones and bombing of Libya had nothing to do with maintaining deterrence, which was largely lost after slashing the defense budget, appeasing Iran, letting ISIS, Syria, and North Korea fester, and offering various apologies and morally equivalent rationalizations to our increasingly bellicose enemies.

I suggest, Ryan, that it is not in your argument’s interest to invoke “ISIS”—given that Obama wrote the growing terrorist cabal off as a “jayvee” organization, and allowed it to sprout in Iraq and thrive in Syria, by foolishly pulling all U.S. peacekeepers out of a largely quiet Iraq in December 2011. No need to elaborate on Obama’s Syria policies or his “redline”; the genocide speaks for itself. One can read Ben Rhodes’s interview about an “echo chamber” and a “know nothing” media that was easily manipulated for a taste of how foreign policy was conducted. I don’t think the foreign policy of Ben Rhodes, John Kerry, and Susan Rice (as opposed to that of Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster) was anything but extremely dangerous.

With all due respect, your assertion that Obama’s false redline empowered Trump’s bombing of a Syrian airfield is unhinged. Obama, John Kerry, and Susan Rice bragged that all chemical weapons were destroyed and that there were none left in Syria—as if they had any way of knowing, at best, and, at worse, must have known that assertion was untrue. Such statements were no more accurate than were Benghazi’s being caused by a video-maker, or Bowe Bergdahl being a POW who served with honor and distinction as alleged by Susan Rice.

Obama’s redline not only eroded U.S. deterrence (giving confidence to rogue states like North Korea and Iran to call our bluff), and led to hundreds of thousands of civilian dead in Syria, but also ushered in Russia’s return to the Middle East after a near half-century hiatus.

Ditto North Korea where you display the same historical ignorance. Bill Clinton bragged that his “settlement” would shortly lead to the dismantling of all North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Nothing of the sort happened.

During the Bush term, it became clear that North Korea had stealthily used Clinton’s naiveté to rush toward nuclearization; Bush did not threaten North Korea with force, but rather suggested that if it were to continue its trajectory, its behavior might lead to the nuclearization of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

North Korea does not starve its own people and build nukes because it feels “threatened” but because it has hit on a two-decade long winning strategy of getting a few nuclear weapons, acting deranged, and demanding bribe money—and it has worked brilliantly in winning attention, cash, and influence for an otherwise failed and genocidal state.

The 10 sailors, incompetently led, amateurish, and poorly trained, were experiencing mechanical problems in their tiny flotilla, were unfamiliar with the environs of Farsi Island, and wandered into the waters off an Iranian island in the middle of the Persian Gulf. What followed was a propaganda coup, as they were blindfolded, told to put their hands up, humiliated, video-taped and interviewed. The incident was emblematic that the Obama Defense Department was not on full alert in the Persian Gulf, that the Iranians assumed that the U.S. would not demand that the sailors be immediately released, and that Iran saw no downside to an iconic act of humiliation—part of their larger publicity offensive during the tragic Iranian negotiations, whose full details were hidden by the Obama administration and are only now leaking out.

Given recently released information about secret side-agreements and concessions in the Iran Deal, the 2016-2017 aggressiveness of North Korea, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and Putin’s post-reset assertiveness, I don’t think it is wise to praise Obama’s foreign policy. And I stand by my obvious and unoriginal statement that Obama appeased enemies, and made the world a less safe place, especially for his own country.

Lead from behind foreign policy was, in fact, like Stanley Baldwin’s (read up on the well-meaning naïf), who left office self-satisfied after ensuring the world would blow up under the watch of his successor Neville Chamberlain.

In any case, I urge you to be more accurate, knowledgeable, and nuanced about the nature of deterrence and European history of the 1930s.

Victor Hanson

Selma, California

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