by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
Reflections on the Speech to Congress
If one were to sum up the Obama speech to the joint session of Congress, it is the same old, same old formula: “I am a uniquely post-American fresh start; the era of Bush and our dreadful past is over; and because this is our moment, you, the world, owe me attention and support for my redefining America more to your tastes.”
The problem with all this is endless:
(1) most existing problems predated Bush and transcended him, as Obama is discovering with Iran, radical Islam in America, North Korea, Russia, etc.;
(2) By separating himself from the past, Obama sends the implicit message to allies (like Israel, India, Columbia, the Maliki government, eastern Europe, Sarkozy, Merkel, etc) that there must have been something wrong with them to have allied themselves with the U.S. during the Bush years — and to enemies and belligerents that their anti-Americanism is perhaps understandable given a shared antipathy for the Bush regime;
(3) By staking out the messianic, prophetic ground, and his strident anti-Bush credentials, observers are going to note his serial hypocrisies, such as keeping the Patriot Act, rendition, tribunals, Predator attacks, the Petraeus plan in Iraq, wiretaps, intercepts, etc., and in fact anything that smacks of a transnationalist protecting U.S. interests first, and global ones, second.
(4) By throat-clearing every speech with “Bush did it” and his own historic ascension to the presidency, Obama has given hope to unsavory characters — as the likes of everyone from a supportive Chávez to Castro have enthusiastically noted — that the United States has now “flipped,” moving away from a Britain or Israel and more closely aligning itself with revolutionary figures on the West Bank or the exiled Zelaya, and thereby giving the impression that the prior regional order was flawed, and necessary change either will not, or cannot, be stopped by the U.S. — and indeed may be silently encouraged by America. In hopes of sowing short-term good will to Obama himself, the president is sowing long-term problems ahead for his country, the United States. There are lots of areas — Iran and its environs, the free former Soviet Republics, Taiwan, the 38th Parallel, Venezuela/Colombia, the borders of Israel, Cyprus, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, etc. — where tensions are scarcely restrained, and major aggressive players could easily try to change the existing order, if any thought the United States either did not care to intervene, could not intervene, or supported their efforts.
The key question is at what point will the American people sense that the Obama feel-good magic comes at the expense of long-term American interests — and that making some unsavory characters like our president now, will mean only trouble ahead for the country itself and its friends abroad.
A Loyal Opposition
1) It is false to suggest that Obama is a multilateralist, while Bush and his supporters were preemptive unilateralists. Bush worked well with allies, especially in the second term, and had close relations with Merkel, Sarkozy, and Blair, as well as with India and China. Most of these unilateralist charges were exaggerated, and based on elite anger in the West over the Iraq War and the European street over his Texanisms and skepticism of cap-and-trade. In contrast, Obama has lurched to the left of France (as we saw in Sarkozy’s Iran worries), left the Eastern Europeans bewildered, tried to dump Gitmo detainees on allies, slapped a tariff on China, and is stimulating/inflating the U.S. economy in ways that make our debtors very nervous. So we should get beyond the notion that anyone who doubts the Obama outreach approach is de facto not desirous of working with allies or prefers military action.
2) Obama will buck public opinion if it is for a liberal-base issue, such as healthcare and cap-and-trade. But his problem on Afghanistan is that it is both unpopular with the public and an anathema to his base. Moderates and conservatives will support him on Afghanistan, since they think stabilizing the country is necessary, humane, and doable, but there are those whom he has so far ostracized and caricatured on other issues, and may not wish to reach out to. So his options and time are limited. For all the acrimony and hysteria, the truth is that Afghanistan has endured for eight years, American casualties have been by historical standards kept to a minimum, and we have attrited al Qaeda to a great degree. We are in a lot better shape than we were during December 1950 or right before the surge in Iraq, crises when most wanted out, but persistence saved the theater.
3) To doubt Obama’s tactics on Iran, with Russia, or concerning radical Islam and terrorism is not to suggest there are easy answers in these bad/worse choices or that when he was inaugurated he was in any way responsible for the problems. The issue instead is whether he mitigates crises or worsens them by a) blaming them on his predecessor with the monotonous “reset” refrain; b) suggesting that his own novel presidency is a way of unlocking preexisting suspicions in a way that seems to allow some very bad actors to excuse their past and present behavior; c) employing moral equivalence in such a fashion that blends the existential differences between, say, a Syria and an Israel, a Honduras/Colombia and a Venezuela, or a Poland and a Russia.
There are alternatives to reaching out to talk with Iran without bombing them, alternatives to constantly pressuring the Israelis without giving them a green light on more new settlements, and alternatives to enticing Putin without going back to the Cold War.
4) Listening to the three lunatic speeches at the U.N., we are reminded that oil or cash reserves or both allow Ahmadinejad, Chávez, and Gaddafi to be what they are, and Russia and China to snub efforts to stop proliferation. Recent oil discoveries in Alaska, California, the Gulf, and the Dakotas remind us we can do a lot to help lower the world oil price, and save money by using our own resources to augment much needed conservation and alternative energy. Saving money, balancing our budget, and curbing borrowing from abroad would help as well, and give us far more leverage with those who intend us no good.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson