Commentary Magazine


Sunday Talkers Not Kind

There was much discussion this Sunday over whether Barack Obama is shifting ground. Over at This Week, Mark Halperin, Ted Koppel and host George Stephanopoulos were not shy about pointing out the divergence between the old and new Obama. Halperin termed an effort to adopt the surge “fundamentally at odds” with his primary stance. Stephanopoulos, sounding like another observer, noted: “He basically wants it both ways. He wants that position without getting accused of changing positions. I think he’s afraid if he gets accused of changing position that will communicate some uneasiness as commander in chief. ”

Mara Liasson, no right-wing critic, had this to say on Fox News Sunday:

LIASSON: Well, that’s the big question. And what I think is so interesting is how few people seem to know which one it is.
I mean, Paul Krugman, who’s a liberal columnist, wrote this week, “Gee, is he a centrist just masquerading as someone who’s a transformational progressive figure or is he really the opposite?” You know, people just don’t know. He’s a blank slate. Because he’s so new, he is a kind of Rorschach test. But I do think that of all these issues that Fred raised, the most important one is Iraq. I mean, yes, he’s moved on the death penalty and on guns and on a whole host of other things. Iraq is the big enchilada here. And I think that’s why he had two press conferences in three hours. And I think, you know, he said, “I would be a poor commander in chief if I didn’t take facts on the ground into account and of course I might change things.” I think that is the operative…

HUME: But is he on the verge of changing on his long-stated promise that says, “The mission is to get out and I’ll have them all out, all the forces out, in 16 months?”

LIASSON: I think the 16 months — he is trying to get himself out of that box. Look, Samantha Power got in a lot of trouble…

HUME: Who’s that?

LIASSON: His former foreign policy aide who gave interviews in Europe where she said, “Well, of course he’s not going to just stick to some campaign promise of 16 months. He’s going to look at the facts on the ground.” Well, that’s what the American people want a commander in chief to do. That might not be what his left-wing base does. The question for Obama now is what kind of Iraq does he want to leave behind. He said in that press conference the American people don’t want to see Iraq collapse. Well, what if the commanders on the ground say, “Hey, if we do it in 16 months, Iraq is going to collapse?” He’s going to have to take that into account.

Nor was Juan Williams any less restrained:

“Well, I mean, I think that he won against Hillary Clinton largely by running to the left and saying that he was firmly opposed to this war. She voted for it. He said he wasn’t in the Senate but he would have, even though he later voted to fund some of the war effort. My sense is, though, along the lines of the Wall Street Journal editorial this week that said who would have guessed that Barack Obama is legitimizing George Bush’s — and the whole notion of George Bush’s position on Iraq, and the whole notion of a third term for Bush, because he’s picked up not just on Iraq, but on things like faith- based initiative, even on the abortion question, which I — it was befuddling to me. He says suddenly, you know, mental distress is not a basis for a woman to have an abortion. I mean, that’s going to outrage people on the left. So what it seems to me is you could say on Iraq it’s a matter of emphasis. All along he has said he would take into consideration the position of the commanders in the field. But the heart and soul — I mean, the heart of his campaign has been to say, “This is an unpopular war. It’s a war that was ill- conceived. We never should have gone in there. We have put too much money in there. We have spent too much of our precious blood there.”And suddenly he’s saying, “No, no, you know what? I’m going to refine my position.”

And that I think is why Obama cannot make a clean break, announce he’s smarter than the average politician, and come right out and say the surge is now the bipartisan strategy of both parties. He simply isn’t willing, at least not yet, to face his base and admit his campaign was premised on the wrong policy.

But I think something else is at work here as well: his own belief that the war is still not winnable. As to the latter, in all the to and fro, we have yet to hear from Obama that he thinks the war can have a successful conclusion. The one constant in all the muddled and contradictory comments is his stated belief that we have to get out of Iraq to go fight elsewhere. Maybe that has changed too and we don’t yet know it. But until he embraces the notion that this is a winnable and worthwhile fight to complete I doubt we will hear a full-throated commitment to the surge. After all, the point of the surge is to avoid a horrid defeat for America, prevent ethnic genocide and regional chaos, and execute a successful transition to a self-sufficient Iraq which can build on the political and military progress resulting from the surge. Does Obama think that is possible? He has yet to say he does.

In the meantime, the “having it both ways strategy” seems like a bad idea and is causing further erosion of his New Politics image. Presumably there are people around him smart enough to figure that out and accelerate the transition to whatever new policy he is going to adopt. Stay tuned.

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