The Power of Payback

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

Nemesis Everywhere

I have believed in the power of the goddess Nemesis (“dispenser of dues”) ever since I was introduced to the concept as a teenager studying classics, especially in the texts of Hesiod, Herodotus, and Sophocles.

Some of you know her also as a variant of eastern Karma, or the folk notion of ‘what comes around, goes around’, or the now common “ain’t payback a bitch”? We all agree on the symptoms: overweening success and surfeit (koris) lead to hubris (gratuitous arrogance), which in turn promotes destructive behavior (atê), that at last calls you to the attention of divine Nemesis — who ensures your ruin. At Rhamnous on the Attic coast there is a beautiful temple to the goddess, proof of her ubiquity and power.

Obama as All-Knowing Oedipus

As sure as sun rises, you readers knew that, as early as 2007, Obama’s fiery rhetoric about the disaster in Iraq and the good war in Afghanistan was not only disingenuous, but would come lurking back to haunt him — especially given the efforts of the talented David Petraeus, and the myriad challenges of the age-old tribalism in Afghanistan.

And so it has. He now owns the “good” and “necessary” war that, according to Obama, we supposedly wrongly “took our eye off of.” Now at last Obama isfree [1] as he wished to go into Pakistan in hot pursuit of terrorists (and as he once boasted in the debates amid the trashing of the then big-target Bush administration.)*

Snap My Fingers — Guantanamo Closed!

Remember Guantanamo? He could have said in January: “Tough call. Eric Holder once thought it was fine. Where else do you put non-uniformed murderers, who are sort of foreign soldiers in a global war unlike domestic criminals, but yet not soldiers either as we have traditionally defined them at Geneva?  We will have a long look at the facility, get bipartisan input from the Bush administration and the Congress, and then choose the bad rather than the worst choice.”

Nope. Instead, we got the hope and change soaring cadences about shutting it down within “a year” and “reset button” inanity—ad nauseam. That will prove to be impossible. Already he is throwing his Guantanamo czar under the bus, even as Mr. Craig blames (you guessed it) the Bush administration for his inability to depose of the detainees. (Did he really think that divine-sounding Germans and British leftists who shouted that we were running a Stalig would really want their own terrorists back home rather than in Cuba under lock and key?)

Snap Twice—Europeans Hypnotized

In fact, most contemporary meltdowns involve Nemesis. Did Obama imagine that he could wow cynical Europeans with diversity stories about Chicago, as if they were props at a campaign rally or guilt-ridden college deans? Yes, it worked in 2008, but already then his fatuousness was gaining the goddess’s attention. (I am careful when doing European interviews; even sympathetic Euros have at best an ironic streak, at worse a sort of delight in embarrassing you, given their world weariness and suspicion of anything that sounds of idealism or naïveté (cf. the old trope of ‘innocents abroad’).) Obama should have learned all that from his Brandenburg Gate/Victory Column stunt two summers ago. (When he stands next to the smaller, but more significant Sarkozy, Obama now seems almost pre-teenish.)

And Then There is Always Letterman to the Rescue

Ditto David Letterman. It was not just that he indulged in the same sort of behavior as the butts of his jokes serially enjoyed, but that such jibes naturally turned attention to his own supposedly exempt lifestyle. If a Clinton or Edwards got caught up in the vanity of power, and needed the ego-boosting or enjoyment that younger flesh might impart, why did Letterman, given his similar character, think he was any different? Did he think the goddess was snoozing when he libeled the 14-year daughter of Sarah Palin as a dugout tart?

Be Careful….

The Greeks remind us that when success and bounty arrive, then, especially, it is time to be self-effacing, modest, generous, and forgiving. If not, retribution follows — whether because human nature dictates that the crowd wishes misfortune upon the haughty, or, as I confess that I believe, there is a sort of divine force that seeks to remind us of our own folly and can only do that in appropriately dramatic and timely fashion.

If it were true that the financial meltdown of last September and the tough time in Iraq were reminders to the Bush administration that once around 2003, coming off Wall Street surges and easy victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, they should have calmed down, and treaded softly (rather than ‘mission accomplished’ and ‘bring ‘em on’), so too Obama should have feared the goddess last winter.

Nemesis Was Watching, Watching…

Nemesis has caught up with him in oh so many ways. From what we can tell, he was not a serious student, but rather a glib and politically astute observer, who rode affirmative action, identity politics, and campus trends (I am now gleaning this from his own autobiography) right through Occidental and Columbia to Harvard Law — without much scholarship. He was given much more attention at Chicago Law School for what he represented than what he accomplished. He arrogantly thought he could glide into the racist cauldron of Trinity Church, and glide out as an authentic African-American organizer of the Jesse Jackson sort.

His Senate career was similar — long on soaring rhetoric, in perpetual campaign mode, predicated on white liberal guilt and ease with a charismatic “other” — and short on actual accomplishment.


If Richard Nixon had a bad habit of being vindictive and bending the rules for political purposes, so too Obama had believed that glibness, casual acquaintance with facts, and flashy rhetoric were substitutes for accomplishment. Just as Nemesis struck Nixon in 1973 at his apogee for long accrued but previously unpaid sins, so too Obama is now caught and tumbling to or below 50% approval. (Despite the media blitz, the worn racist charge, the glamour, the youth and interviews, the novelty of his presidency, despite all that, one of two Americans, within a few months of his inauguration, simply does not support him or his agenda.)

So Easy Then, So Easy Now?

Daily, his lack of study and prior scholarship come calling to embarrass him. Apparently one can get through Harvard Law and think Austrian is a language or Auschwitz was liberated by Americans — or that there is no difference between a democratic Columbia and Israel and a dictatorial Venezuela and Syria. After the dazzling campaign, the 75% approval ratings at the inauguration, and the nonstop media attention, Obama was at the crossroads. Could he have pondered the choices, “Now is the time for serious study and statesmanship — or wow, that was easy, now more of the cheap path of duping crowds with hope and change banality, and ‘I am the one we’ve been waiting for’ monotony”? He took the latter path, and so summoned Nemesis.

What If?

A sober man would have concluded the following: Republicans tanked because of Congressional corruption, deficit spending, natural weariness after eight years with Bush, the Iraq war — and especially the September 2008 meltdown. That latter panic, combined with American good will toward the idea of electing the first African-American as President, and eagerness to have a young Camelot couple in the White House, provided the narrow margin of victory. The win was not because we like debt, more government, the U.N., or Van Jones.

Instead Obama, as was his wont, thought “I am so charismatic and the public so easily mesmerized, that I will talk on through the greatest upside-down change in the nation’s history, partly through mellifluousness, partly through my accustomed demagoguery.” It worked — but scarcely for six months.

The Albatross Has Landed

So here we are: a center-right country — looking back with more perspective at what caused the panic, assessing Iraq over time, always uncomfortable with the collective burden of debt, not eager for the DMV people and the post office running healthcare — is balking. Yet look at the agenda to come soon: socialized healthcare, cap-and-trade (a trillion in new surcharges?), immigration reform (open borders and amnesty?), more stimuli (redistributive, not job-creating, influxes?), iconic appointments to czardom who are race/class/gender polarizing figures — and always the class warfare rhetoric of Michelle’s bar-raising “they,” coupled with confessions of American sins abroad.

Sorry, that agenda would take a demi-god to push through. Obama thought he was divine, but he has feet of clay, and now his once hypnotized supporters in the Congress are stuck with a Jimmy Carter/LBJ like albatross around their collective neck. The reason Dick Morris is one of the most astute critics of Obama is precisely because he saw the same tendencies in the less charismatic Clinton, and found the right elixirs to purge him of such suicidal political instincts — just in time to save his presidency.

Time to Repent?

Whereas Clinton tried to coax the opposition, and out-fox them legislatively, Obama, always the even greater narcissist and more sincere ideologue, is choosing the us/them crusade. But defaming critics, assuming that moderates are apostates, redealing the dog-eared race card, gnashing his teeth at legitimate skepticism — all in pursuit of making America Luxembourg or Belgium, all that will boomerang. Just watch — but avoid Nemesis in our “We told you so” moments.

* I hope this is not a “I told you so” moment, since the idea of such an essay was not just mine: I offered a few thoughts on the Democrats as Afghan zealots, over a year ago, in World Affairs, at the invitation of my friend, the gifted editor Peter Collier, who easily saw through the “Let Me Go Get ‘Em” tough Obama talk on Afghanistan. Collier was worried that the rhetoric of the future President would get him — and us — in trouble. The more I reviewed the texts of Obama’s whistle-stop braggadacio, energized by toss-offs from the Kerrys and Reids of Congress, the more I agreed and wondered whether Obama knew what he was calling down upon himself. In many of the comments posted here during the past three years, many of you readers voiced your own skepticism about this sudden muscularity on Afghanistan — not that you wished it were not true, but rather that you wished it were, but suspected it was not, and that it was a campaign pose. The tragedy is, of course, that the best among us are out there fighting the 7th-Century, and sorely need our support for their magnificent vigilance and the terrible risks they incur. As long as they are in harm’s way, we should hold the President to his boasting about his rock-solid determination to give them the tools they need:

Vowing to do what it takes in the good war by leaving Iraq — infusing more troops into Afghanistan, and occasionally invading Pakistan — was for candidate Obama always a rhetorical stance that proved both his anti-Iraq War bona fides and his larger credibility on matters of national security. But President Obama and his mercurial supporters in Congress will soon face a rather embarrassing dilemma. Without the responsibilities of a commander-in-chief, he once demanded we should leave Iraq when leaving would have lost that war. But now, as commander- in-chief he will soon learn that a few thousand more troops will not guarantee lasting victory over the Taliban. And changing strategy from stealthy attacks by aerial drones in Pakistan to open ground incursions across the border risks widening rather than solving the conflict.

“Taking our eye off the ball” was always a dubious campaign talking point. Afghanistan was not the only “ball” in the global war against terror; we never took our eye off it; and we were always binocular. What we may well see instead is that those who wished more of an American commitment to Afghanistan as cover for their opposition to Iraq will now desert President Obama, as anti-war critics take their eye off a receding Iraq and focus it instead on an increasingly violent Afghanistan — especially given the sensational terrorist acts associated with the near-rogue state of Pakistan. In that case, President Obama may well have to revert to his earlier manifestation of candidate Obama, who campaigned on the notion that a surge of military forces into an apparent quagmire was little more than an unsophisticated act of desperation — in a complex landscape that required American forces to exit and to allow indigenous tribal folks to sort out their own affairs.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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