by Victor Davis Hanson
A Plodding Goddess
Like a broken record, for the last five years I have invoked the Greek concept of Nemesis, or divine retribution for unchecked hubris, to explain what was in store for the Obama administration.
Most readers have sighed, “OK already, but where’s the divine retribution, given this president’s overweening arrogance and the damage that he’s doing to the economy, our social fabric, and foreign policy?”
Patience — Nemesis takes her time surveying human kind before figuring out the properly ironic punishment.
She must soak in vero possumus, the fake Greek colonnade, the “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” narcissism, the cooling the planet and lowering the rising seas riffs, the tingling legs, the “perfectly creased pant,” the Obama “as god,” the smartest president ever, and the Obama who is by his own admission better at each of the crafts of his specialized staff.
Then she must consider “punish our enemies,” “fat cat bankers,” “you didn’t build that,” “bitter clingers,” “spread the wealth around,” and dozens of additional slurs and banalities. To digest all that takes even the goddess some time.
The young, inexperienced, but haughty Obama is a stereotypical figure right out of Greek mythology. Sometimes he is poor arrogant Icarus — flying too high on his frail and melting waxen wings. Or is he arrogant young Phaethon? The latter demanded the reins of his father’s sun chariot — only to end up in flames as his out-of-control divine car scorched the earth (unfortunately we are the earth). Often Obama seems a know-it-all Oedipus who believed that he was so smart that the far older world of chance and fate had to yield to his superior reason. Or is he vain Narcissus, so taken with his image in the reflecting pool that Nemesis allowed him to stare forever transfixed at himself?
Do we remember the bloody battle over health care in 2009: the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, the war against Catholic institutions, the advice to pass the bill unconditionally to learn what was in it — all at a time of massive deficits and high unemployment, when we could ill afford such a divisive and costly boondoggle?
Obama in hubristic fashion got his wish, as he sought his own “legacy” or “signature achievement” over what was good for the country. Obamacare became the law of the land. Its freebies of wider coverage supposedly at first came at no cost.
Obama vs. Obama
Who, after all, was against putting their 24-year-old kid back on the family health plan? Then started the insidious new taxes, then the planned diversions from Medicare to pay for new humane coverage. Now looms the awful reality of its 2014 enactment and the burdens to come on small businesses that are desperately preempting the law by converting full-time positions into part-time jobs.
Once again comes the ancient warning: beware of what you wish for. Suddenly the 2014 election looms. Democrats in mixed districts are anxious. The new Obamacare rules are slated to hit voters right before most of the Congress seeks reelection. The signature achievement of the Obama administration is ending up as the proverbial albatross around its neck. When the author of the bill, Sen. Max Baucus, dubbed his own creation “a train wreck,” the description stuck.
Then Nemesis struck. Not Republicans in the House, not right-wing judges, but Obama himself tabled much of the most important parts in the implementation of the bill. For now he has almost killed off his own offspring, not in the promised most transparent fashion in the history of the presidency, but cheaply and perhaps cowardly on a little read website at the start of a long holiday. It is as if the president can pick and choose which laws he administers and which he simply ignores, but is terribly ashamed to admit such.
Nemesis warns us on the eve of the immigration debate that if Obama will ignore the legal requirements of his own bill, then he surely will be even bolder in subverting the legislative work of others. When shortly he will again lament that he is not a king or tyrant, remember that the disclaimer usually presages his attempt to act like one. Also remember that the best warning about Obama always comes from Obama: when he sermonizes to us about cheap photo-ops, endless campaigning and fund-raising, spiking the football, going after enemies, etc., then we expect that he is shortly to do all that and more.
The Whole World Is Watching
Abroad it was more ironic still. Bashar Assad, we were reassured, was a “reformer” whom Bush had unfortunately alienated. Bush’s neocons had emboldened Israel to be obstructive, and thereby sabotaged peace in the Middle East. Leading from behind, dialogue, reset, soft power, the Nobel Peace Prize — all that and more would make the world love us.
Those abroad wanted in on the giddy American experience that Obama had ushered in. Balance of power, deterrence, alliances, notions of good and bad, and military readiness belonged to the ossified world of the past, the Risk board games that our fancy-pants elites played so distant from the hearts and minds of foreigners on the ground. It was as if the very little our Phaethon president knew about foreign affairs, so the more he boasted about his soon-to-be successes.
Then Iran ignored five deadlines. Syria thought our red lines were pinkish. Russia dubbed reset a cruel joke, as Putin played with Obama as a spider does a fly. China was bewildered about whether their good fortune in having Obama as president had to be some sort of American preplanned trick.
Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, North Korea? The more we reached out, the more these corrupt nations thought us weak and guilty rather than formidable and proud. Turkey was no more a new nexus of American interests in the Muslim world than had been Pakistan. The best way to create a nuclear tinderbox in the Pacific was to assure Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines that we already had too many deployable nukes. The more Obama talked about the new American morality, the more our allies were puzzled that such abdication of responsibility seemed to them immoral.
So Nemesis proved even busier, as Obama’s polls dived abroad, as he expanded or embraced the very protocols he had once derided, as he saw his own reset reset by others.
Nemesis Is Also Busy Elsewhere
John Kerry in 2004 railed about the need for high taxes to prevent the rich and greedy from having too large a slice of the pie. Nemesis struck a bit then, too. We learned that the multi-billionaire, redistributionist Kerry was not much of a redistributionist himself — not when he docked his multimillion-dollar new yacht off Rhode Island to avoid paying the high sales and excise taxes on yachts that his beloved high-tax Massachusetts levied.
Now when the Arab world from Syria to Egypt is going up in flames, Kerry either is irrelevantly hectoring Israel or back on his infamous yacht, as a coup takes out the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo. The secretary of State serially jets to Israel, the one stable oasis that is not the problem of unrest, while at home his sailing reinforces the image of privilege, tax avoidance, and escapism.
If a right-wing critic lambasted Kerry as a hypocritical naïf about the Middle East, more interested in yachting than the dirty work of dealing with an explosive crisis in Egypt, he could level no better cheap shot than what Kerry has leveled at himself. Nemesis so often allows the hubristic to craft a divine punishment all their own. Ask liberal and green Al Gore. The former vice president somehow, in vain hopes of avoiding new higher capital gains taxes that he supports, managed to rush the sale of his failed left-wing cable channel to an anti-Semitic news agency, which is funded by a zillionaire authoritarian sheikdom that was enriched by trafficking in planet-heating fossil fuels (which he opposes). Only Nemesis could pull off those myriad hypocrisies.
That Was Then, But This Is Now
When a newly inaugurated president stays fixated on his predecessor, trashing him for endangering civil liberties, for waging a hyped-up war on terror, for bogging us down in a no-win bad war in Iraq while neglecting the good war in Afghanistan, he should beware of Nemesis. Again, if in 2009 a reactionary critic had written that Obama was an abject hypocrite who would keep Guantanamo open, expand renditions and tribunals, protect preventative detention, keep the Patriot Act intact, up the drone assassinations by a factor of ten, and lose the inherited peace in Iraq while suffering more casualties in Afghanistan in four years than Bush had in seven, he would have been considered a cheap partisan hack. All that, however, Obama did to himself, as he became the anti-Obama no opponent could.
Do we remember when Obama soared about an end to lobbyists in government, the cessation of the revolving door, or the new transparency?
Imagine if a skeptic in 2009 had rejoined: “No, your IRS will ruin its reputation by crude efforts to punish enemies and ensure you reelection. No, your State Department will lie about four American deaths to ensure that a silly fiction about a video preserves the re-election myth of al-Qaeda on the run and Libya on the mend. No, your NSA will be exposed as a vast spying octopus, as the most delicate national security secrets are revealed abroad, and by a two-bit, high-school dropout hacker who earned six figures as he outsmarted the NSA’s best and brightest. No, your own Justice Department will monitor the private communications of the Associated Press, as your attorney general lies about such surveillance in the manner that your director of national intelligence lies while under oath about the activities of the NSA.” Barack Obama, not Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, engineered all that.
Leopards and Spots
If five years ago some pundit or some politico had predicted that Chicago conmen do not change when they come to Washington, that ends-justifying-the-means radicals never become across-the-aisle moderates, surely we would have dubbed him unhinged, delusional, a racist, and a hater. Yet Obama’s own hubris accomplished all that and more — in a way that his most vehement critics could never have imagined.
So there is a Nemesis, after all.
Omnipotent and omniscient, she watches all of us to ensure that we do not fancy ourselves gods rather than mere humans who are no better and no worse than those around us.
Keep humble and avoid Nemesis.
Our annual PJ public Sierra hike is this Saturday, July 13, starting at 8:00 AM, from the Badger Flat Trailhead on the Kaiser Pass Road. We are hiking again to Twin Lakes, about 4 hours round trip of moderate hiking. All are welcome. (In the past, about 30 have participated.) More details are at my Private Papers personal Website.
Also, try having a look at Strategika, a new online military history/foreign affairs magazine that I am editing along with Bruce Thornton and David Berkey under Hoover Institution auspices. It takes a current issue of war and peace, and offers two diametrically opposed positions on it, as well as an historical background essay, commentary, and a reader poll. We are now in issue #3, in which we discuss women in the military.
Finally, I want to thank readers for comments on and support for The Savior Generals, which has now been out 8 weeks. When a historian also offers political commentary, then the latter sometimes means the former is looked upon differently. So thanks again for showing support. In the book I argue, inter alia, that Belisarius was both a military genius and a rare moralist, that William T. Sherman knew how to save Lincoln the election of 1864 and did just that, and that Matthew Ridgway is one of America’s great unsung heroes. (Click here for my recent audio interview on The Savior Generals with PJM’s Ed Driscoll.)
I am working on a new book of military history, The End of All Things. When Wars Become Armageddon, about the rare occasions in history when defeat leads to utter annihilation and the end of a civilization — and why and how these rarer tragedies come to pass.