Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 20, 2009

Re: Declaring Victory in the Jaws of Defeat

Labeling any military outcome short of utter self-annihilation a resounding victory is reflective of most terrorist networks’ consistent ideologies — and of Hamas’s in particular: they have temporarily made peace with their immediate prospects for defeating Israel militarily, and are content with redefining the scope of success for the time-being.  On one hand, such a degeneration of internal standards is an encouraging sign that these terrorist networks are admitting their own ineptitude. On the other hand, any reason for rejoicing is mitigated by these groups’ ability to exploit the public’s perception of them as pestilent underdogs.

Hamas’s ongoing efforts against the state and citizens of Israel may not inflict the level of concrete damage achieved by Israeli counterattacks, but the persistent nature of these efforts has had the perverse effect of desensitizing international public opinion to the underlying gravity of Hamas’s ultimate intention: to destroy Israel entirely. Even Israelis have accustomed themselves to Hamas’s endless barrage as a simple fact of daily life. But Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist while Israel passively takes Hamas’s for granted. Israel has therefore reduced its strategic options in both range and scope: all they essentially boil down to are ways of keeping the dangers emanating from Hamas at “manageable levels.” Ephraim, a fictional Israeli intelligence officer, summarizes this attitude most succinctly in a line from the movie Munich in reference to Palestinian terrorists:

Why cut my fingernails? They’ll just grow back.

Fingernails get cut routinely, but we should never forget that surgically pulling them out at the root is also an option, bloody and painful as it may be. Israel withdrew from Gaza last weekend when its leadership concluded that the mission had achieved all of its strategic goals. Why the complete eradication of Hamas wasn’t at the top of the list still escapes me. Demagogic politicians in neighboring Arab countries are infamous for exploiting the festering situation in the Palestinian territories as a means of rhetorically scapegoating Israel for their own domestic failures. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were somehow permanently resolved they would lose the straw man that has sustained them for decades.

Likewise, the reluctance of Israeli governments to pursue the irreparable destruction of Hamas may signal an alarming flaw in their leadership capabilities: so inured is the Israeli military to the status-quo of executing routine “proportionate” missions of retribution, and so complacent are Israeli politicians about the elementary moral arguments needed to justify them, that there seems little incentive to push the strategic horizon any further than the habitual tit-for-tat with Hamas. Yet achieving decisive victories against all terrorist elements operating in the Palestinian territories is an absolute prerequisite to any lasting solution to the conflict.

The historical record provides instructive case studies: Demilitarizing Germany, truncating her territories, overburdening her economy with reparations, and humiliating her population in the aftermath of World War I — in other words, cutting those fingernails really close to the flesh — only catalyzed the birth of the Nazi regime. But partitioning post-World-War-II Germany, governing her as an occupied territory, razing her existing political institutions to the ground and rebuilding them from scratch, produced a stable and relatively harmless democracy. Decisive victories lead to fresh starts for both the victor and, more importantly, the loser. Half-measures against an irrational enemy who accepts death as the only form of defeat lead to festering sores with zero prospects for spontaneous amelioration.

Israeli leaders should stop burning through their country’s moral and political capital in short-term retaliatory missions against Hamas, and think of investing in a Hamas-free future. It would represent a brighter prospect for everyone.

Labeling any military outcome short of utter self-annihilation a resounding victory is reflective of most terrorist networks’ consistent ideologies — and of Hamas’s in particular: they have temporarily made peace with their immediate prospects for defeating Israel militarily, and are content with redefining the scope of success for the time-being.  On one hand, such a degeneration of internal standards is an encouraging sign that these terrorist networks are admitting their own ineptitude. On the other hand, any reason for rejoicing is mitigated by these groups’ ability to exploit the public’s perception of them as pestilent underdogs.

Hamas’s ongoing efforts against the state and citizens of Israel may not inflict the level of concrete damage achieved by Israeli counterattacks, but the persistent nature of these efforts has had the perverse effect of desensitizing international public opinion to the underlying gravity of Hamas’s ultimate intention: to destroy Israel entirely. Even Israelis have accustomed themselves to Hamas’s endless barrage as a simple fact of daily life. But Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist while Israel passively takes Hamas’s for granted. Israel has therefore reduced its strategic options in both range and scope: all they essentially boil down to are ways of keeping the dangers emanating from Hamas at “manageable levels.” Ephraim, a fictional Israeli intelligence officer, summarizes this attitude most succinctly in a line from the movie Munich in reference to Palestinian terrorists:

Why cut my fingernails? They’ll just grow back.

Fingernails get cut routinely, but we should never forget that surgically pulling them out at the root is also an option, bloody and painful as it may be. Israel withdrew from Gaza last weekend when its leadership concluded that the mission had achieved all of its strategic goals. Why the complete eradication of Hamas wasn’t at the top of the list still escapes me. Demagogic politicians in neighboring Arab countries are infamous for exploiting the festering situation in the Palestinian territories as a means of rhetorically scapegoating Israel for their own domestic failures. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were somehow permanently resolved they would lose the straw man that has sustained them for decades.

Likewise, the reluctance of Israeli governments to pursue the irreparable destruction of Hamas may signal an alarming flaw in their leadership capabilities: so inured is the Israeli military to the status-quo of executing routine “proportionate” missions of retribution, and so complacent are Israeli politicians about the elementary moral arguments needed to justify them, that there seems little incentive to push the strategic horizon any further than the habitual tit-for-tat with Hamas. Yet achieving decisive victories against all terrorist elements operating in the Palestinian territories is an absolute prerequisite to any lasting solution to the conflict.

The historical record provides instructive case studies: Demilitarizing Germany, truncating her territories, overburdening her economy with reparations, and humiliating her population in the aftermath of World War I — in other words, cutting those fingernails really close to the flesh — only catalyzed the birth of the Nazi regime. But partitioning post-World-War-II Germany, governing her as an occupied territory, razing her existing political institutions to the ground and rebuilding them from scratch, produced a stable and relatively harmless democracy. Decisive victories lead to fresh starts for both the victor and, more importantly, the loser. Half-measures against an irrational enemy who accepts death as the only form of defeat lead to festering sores with zero prospects for spontaneous amelioration.

Israeli leaders should stop burning through their country’s moral and political capital in short-term retaliatory missions against Hamas, and think of investing in a Hamas-free future. It would represent a brighter prospect for everyone.

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Rick Warren

Rick Warren gave a lovely invocation. And after all who could quibble with the beginning?

Let us pray. Almighty God, our Father, everything we see and everything we can’t see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you. It all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory.

History is your story. The Scripture tells us, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One.” And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.

I can’t recall the Sh’ma being uttered before at an Inaguration. The full text is worth a read — very inclusive and eloquent. An excellent choice, it turned out, by the President.

Rick Warren gave a lovely invocation. And after all who could quibble with the beginning?

Let us pray. Almighty God, our Father, everything we see and everything we can’t see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you. It all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory.

History is your story. The Scripture tells us, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One.” And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.

I can’t recall the Sh’ma being uttered before at an Inaguration. The full text is worth a read — very inclusive and eloquent. An excellent choice, it turned out, by the President.

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Commentary of the Day

Ahithophel, on Abe Greenwald:

What concerns me is that this will become the new business model for successful major campaigns–to the detriment of our election system. First, articulate a vision in the most vacuous possible generalities, of “hope” and “change” or growth, renewal, rebirth, or whatever metaphors and ideals the moment apparently requires. Then, when pressed for specifics (which will happen rarely for a Democrat, constantly for a Republican), speak in terms of both-this-and-that, or neither-this-nor-that language. We must defend ourselves at the same time as we honor the values that have made America a beacon of justice and freedom around the world; we should neither alienate Russia nor permit it to act in an irresponsible manner, etc. Then, when those on the other side object that you are not giving genuine specifics, criticize them for engaging in the old politics of partisan sniping, and portray them as old curmudgeons missing out on the wonderful new movement. “What they fail to understand is that this movement is not about me, it’s about you,” and all that blather.

The assumption of many, early in the campaign, seemed to be that Obama would eventually have to offer details. Surely he could not sustain an entire campaign on the fumes of such gaseous rhetoric? Well, Obama had a lot of gas, so to speak, or a lot of fumes to keep him going, and he’s sustained his progress with airy unicorns-in-the-sky rhetoric not only through the primary election, not only through the general election, but even through the transition and now the inauguration.

Is this good for our democracy? Aren’t we better off when politicians speak eloquently not only of lofty ideals but also of concrete action plans? Aren’t we better off when we know the exact stances our candidate would take–whether he will stand with Russia or with Georgia and Poland, for instance, and how exactly he will stand with Poland, whether he will defend the missile shield, and so forth? Obama has remained a fill-in-the-blank space. Call him the Mad-Lib President. His words are so lacking in substance that one can fill in the blanks with whatever promises one suspects Obama is offering. America will be worse off if more American politicians follow Obama’s example.

Honestly, I hear everyone praising his speech-writer, and sometimes Favreau deserves it. But often I feel as though these are the sorts of speeches I might have written as a college student–and then later I would have been embarrassed that I had written such naive fluff.

Ahithophel, on Abe Greenwald:

What concerns me is that this will become the new business model for successful major campaigns–to the detriment of our election system. First, articulate a vision in the most vacuous possible generalities, of “hope” and “change” or growth, renewal, rebirth, or whatever metaphors and ideals the moment apparently requires. Then, when pressed for specifics (which will happen rarely for a Democrat, constantly for a Republican), speak in terms of both-this-and-that, or neither-this-nor-that language. We must defend ourselves at the same time as we honor the values that have made America a beacon of justice and freedom around the world; we should neither alienate Russia nor permit it to act in an irresponsible manner, etc. Then, when those on the other side object that you are not giving genuine specifics, criticize them for engaging in the old politics of partisan sniping, and portray them as old curmudgeons missing out on the wonderful new movement. “What they fail to understand is that this movement is not about me, it’s about you,” and all that blather.

The assumption of many, early in the campaign, seemed to be that Obama would eventually have to offer details. Surely he could not sustain an entire campaign on the fumes of such gaseous rhetoric? Well, Obama had a lot of gas, so to speak, or a lot of fumes to keep him going, and he’s sustained his progress with airy unicorns-in-the-sky rhetoric not only through the primary election, not only through the general election, but even through the transition and now the inauguration.

Is this good for our democracy? Aren’t we better off when politicians speak eloquently not only of lofty ideals but also of concrete action plans? Aren’t we better off when we know the exact stances our candidate would take–whether he will stand with Russia or with Georgia and Poland, for instance, and how exactly he will stand with Poland, whether he will defend the missile shield, and so forth? Obama has remained a fill-in-the-blank space. Call him the Mad-Lib President. His words are so lacking in substance that one can fill in the blanks with whatever promises one suspects Obama is offering. America will be worse off if more American politicians follow Obama’s example.

Honestly, I hear everyone praising his speech-writer, and sometimes Favreau deserves it. But often I feel as though these are the sorts of speeches I might have written as a college student–and then later I would have been embarrassed that I had written such naive fluff.

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Re: Re: Not Much

John, there was a hodgepodge-like quality to it. John Judis, hardly a right-winger, noted it too. Judis observes:

Barack Obama has the makings of a great orator, but his inaugural speech was not a great oration. It was well-delivered, but it consisted of a hodgepodge of themes, injunctions, and applause lines that did not speak directly to the crisis that the country faces.

The speech was unusually abstract. It lacked any reference to people or situations in the present. Obama was most vivid in describing moments long past–such as George Washington crossing the Delaware. Of course, an abstract speech can have its use if it is the service of compelling argument. But the concepts, and the argument on which the speech hung, were neither original nor compelling.

Part of the problem was that much of the argument was implied; and what was implied did not ring true. Premise: America’s success in the past was based on people who “struggled and sacrificed and worked.” Conclusion: What we need now is a “new era of responsibility.” What is missing is a middle term, and what is implied is that the reason we are in trouble now is because the present generation has acted irresponsibly. Is that really at the heart of America’s difficulties at home or in the world? It has the ring of Biblical prophecy, but not of truth.

Read the whole thing as they say. But unlike our friends on the left for whom words are everything, I think conservatives have essentially given up trying to divine what President Obama will do by what he says. The latter is so opaque and so evidently designed to please multiple voices that it is not revealing of his own. That will take concrete decisions. So while we wish the words were more sharply focused and the speech more logically designed, I can’t say that it matters. What matters is what he will do when forced to make the tough choices. Perhaps less talk and more hard thinking about costs and benefits, real threats and imagined dangers, and the real content of catch-word slogans would be time well spent.

John, there was a hodgepodge-like quality to it. John Judis, hardly a right-winger, noted it too. Judis observes:

Barack Obama has the makings of a great orator, but his inaugural speech was not a great oration. It was well-delivered, but it consisted of a hodgepodge of themes, injunctions, and applause lines that did not speak directly to the crisis that the country faces.

The speech was unusually abstract. It lacked any reference to people or situations in the present. Obama was most vivid in describing moments long past–such as George Washington crossing the Delaware. Of course, an abstract speech can have its use if it is the service of compelling argument. But the concepts, and the argument on which the speech hung, were neither original nor compelling.

Part of the problem was that much of the argument was implied; and what was implied did not ring true. Premise: America’s success in the past was based on people who “struggled and sacrificed and worked.” Conclusion: What we need now is a “new era of responsibility.” What is missing is a middle term, and what is implied is that the reason we are in trouble now is because the present generation has acted irresponsibly. Is that really at the heart of America’s difficulties at home or in the world? It has the ring of Biblical prophecy, but not of truth.

Read the whole thing as they say. But unlike our friends on the left for whom words are everything, I think conservatives have essentially given up trying to divine what President Obama will do by what he says. The latter is so opaque and so evidently designed to please multiple voices that it is not revealing of his own. That will take concrete decisions. So while we wish the words were more sharply focused and the speech more logically designed, I can’t say that it matters. What matters is what he will do when forced to make the tough choices. Perhaps less talk and more hard thinking about costs and benefits, real threats and imagined dangers, and the real content of catch-word slogans would be time well spent.

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Perhaps He Will Grow as Commander-in-Chief

This was the heart of the President’s speech on national security:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

On further reflection, I think this passage is unsatisfying and, at some level, dishonest at its core. The first two paragraph are another, albeit more illusive way, of castigating the Bush administration (Have we never lead before?). He is not preparing the country or his followers for the realization that security does not emanate through the justness of a cause. That is why we need to pursue it. Security is achieved, frankly, by the brave women and men in armed service and national security agencies doing their job. It was not “expediency” which led to setting up Guantanamo or enacting FISA — it was the legitimate concerns about that security, which does not fall like rain from the sky. We will see how much his “expediency” resembles his predecessor’s in the weeks and months ahead.

His statement on Iraq was evasive at best. We are to “leave Iraq to its people” — but in what condition and after achieving what? And if we are going to continue to spend millions and, yes, lose some more lives what is the leaving for? He is going to have to do better when he tells the parents of those injured or killed that we are simply in the process of leaving Iraq to its people. Whatever he thought of the reasons for the war, we defeated al Qaeda, are leaving a stable ally behind, and have dispensed with a terrible tyrant who was not only a menace to his people but to the entire region. One wonders: what it is that prevents him from recognizing these truths, and, yes, giving his predecessor some of the credit?

The President’s message was to a large extent about putting petty differences behind and pulling together for the common defense. That’s hard to do if you are not honest with the American people and do not practice what you preach. It was a wasted opportunity.

This was the heart of the President’s speech on national security:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

On further reflection, I think this passage is unsatisfying and, at some level, dishonest at its core. The first two paragraph are another, albeit more illusive way, of castigating the Bush administration (Have we never lead before?). He is not preparing the country or his followers for the realization that security does not emanate through the justness of a cause. That is why we need to pursue it. Security is achieved, frankly, by the brave women and men in armed service and national security agencies doing their job. It was not “expediency” which led to setting up Guantanamo or enacting FISA — it was the legitimate concerns about that security, which does not fall like rain from the sky. We will see how much his “expediency” resembles his predecessor’s in the weeks and months ahead.

His statement on Iraq was evasive at best. We are to “leave Iraq to its people” — but in what condition and after achieving what? And if we are going to continue to spend millions and, yes, lose some more lives what is the leaving for? He is going to have to do better when he tells the parents of those injured or killed that we are simply in the process of leaving Iraq to its people. Whatever he thought of the reasons for the war, we defeated al Qaeda, are leaving a stable ally behind, and have dispensed with a terrible tyrant who was not only a menace to his people but to the entire region. One wonders: what it is that prevents him from recognizing these truths, and, yes, giving his predecessor some of the credit?

The President’s message was to a large extent about putting petty differences behind and pulling together for the common defense. That’s hard to do if you are not honest with the American people and do not practice what you preach. It was a wasted opportunity.

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Cease-Fire Ceases

Who could be surprised by the following Haaretz report?

The Israel Air Force on Tuesday evening bombed a target in the Gaza Strip used earlier in the day [by] Palestinian militants to fire eight mortar shells at Israel.

Militants on Tuesday also opened fire at Israel Defense Forces soldiers in Gaza in two separate incidents, in the first violation of a shaky cease-fire in the coastal strip that ended Israel’s 3-week offensive against Hamas.

Even though the coverage leads with Israel’s bombs, the cease-fire was broken by Palestinian rockets and guns. This doesn’t scream out “sustainable and durable.” Up until this point, the story on the cease-fire was that Hamas leadership in Syria  had rejected it while Palestinian fighters on the ground were on-board. Now, with leadership and ground forces both exposing the foolishness of Israel’s premature retreat, what is to follow? Israel managed to curry an impressive amount of international goodwill throughout the Gaza operation, and perhaps Ehud Olmert determined that an internationally overseen cease-fire could help secure that goodwill – to be capitalized on another day. But when you let global opinion influence operational decisions so directly you end up constrained by the reality that’s been imposed on you from third parties. If Israel continues to simply fight back, they may very well fall from the temporary good graces of the governments that had shown support. In short, Israel may have opened itself up to national security blackmail. That’s not a state of affairs one can easily imagine Israel tolerating very long.

Anti-Iraq War folks, take note: This is what happens when you actually do what Barack Obama has been saying he wants to do and simply “end” a war without worrying about the winning part.

Who could be surprised by the following Haaretz report?

The Israel Air Force on Tuesday evening bombed a target in the Gaza Strip used earlier in the day [by] Palestinian militants to fire eight mortar shells at Israel.

Militants on Tuesday also opened fire at Israel Defense Forces soldiers in Gaza in two separate incidents, in the first violation of a shaky cease-fire in the coastal strip that ended Israel’s 3-week offensive against Hamas.

Even though the coverage leads with Israel’s bombs, the cease-fire was broken by Palestinian rockets and guns. This doesn’t scream out “sustainable and durable.” Up until this point, the story on the cease-fire was that Hamas leadership in Syria  had rejected it while Palestinian fighters on the ground were on-board. Now, with leadership and ground forces both exposing the foolishness of Israel’s premature retreat, what is to follow? Israel managed to curry an impressive amount of international goodwill throughout the Gaza operation, and perhaps Ehud Olmert determined that an internationally overseen cease-fire could help secure that goodwill – to be capitalized on another day. But when you let global opinion influence operational decisions so directly you end up constrained by the reality that’s been imposed on you from third parties. If Israel continues to simply fight back, they may very well fall from the temporary good graces of the governments that had shown support. In short, Israel may have opened itself up to national security blackmail. That’s not a state of affairs one can easily imagine Israel tolerating very long.

Anti-Iraq War folks, take note: This is what happens when you actually do what Barack Obama has been saying he wants to do and simply “end” a war without worrying about the winning part.

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Re: Not Much

Just to let my critics know: my wife liked the speech.

And to correct an earlier post, Obama was not evoking Valley Forge, but Washington crossing the Delaware to fight at Trenton in 1776. Which was also a good thing to evoke.

Just to let my critics know: my wife liked the speech.

And to correct an earlier post, Obama was not evoking Valley Forge, but Washington crossing the Delaware to fight at Trenton in 1776. Which was also a good thing to evoke.

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Non-Members Only

It can’t be denied that Barack Obama’s self-contradictory feel-goodisms are all the rage among America’s leadership set:

Our colleague Jeff Zeleny caught up with Mr. Clinton, and they spoke briefly as the former president walked through the crypt of the Capitol. He said he thought Mr. Obama’s speech was thoughtful, weighty and well-delivered. One of the strongest points of the address, he said, was how Mr. Obama “reached out exclusively to the rest of the world.”

Only to the rest of the world? It’s hard to imagine a  more (unintentionally) perfect summation of the Obama PR message.

It can’t be denied that Barack Obama’s self-contradictory feel-goodisms are all the rage among America’s leadership set:

Our colleague Jeff Zeleny caught up with Mr. Clinton, and they spoke briefly as the former president walked through the crypt of the Capitol. He said he thought Mr. Obama’s speech was thoughtful, weighty and well-delivered. One of the strongest points of the address, he said, was how Mr. Obama “reached out exclusively to the rest of the world.”

Only to the rest of the world? It’s hard to imagine a  more (unintentionally) perfect summation of the Obama PR message.

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Spit It Out, Already

Barack Obama has been relying on the imprecise rhetoric of the professional campaigner for an astoundingly long time. And his inaugural speech showed no evidence that he’s willing to abandon this habit. He has, of course, been allowed to lean on poetic generalities for two years by an adoring press corps. But Americans of every political persuasion are bursting to know what he will actually do on any number of fronts. As importantly, world leaders have just about scratched their heads raw trying to glean the specifics of Obama’s intentions on everything from free trade to Iranian nukes. America’s gays are as baffled about the fate of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as Poland’s President is about a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

President Obama has already told us what will take time and what may or may not be immediately prudent, depending on the recommendations of his advisors. He has told us that several things are top priorities, although it’s impossible not to imagine that the financial crisis will take up most of his attention. But that doesn’t do us much good. As President, Barack Obama has our respect. But if that respect is not soon paid back in kind with details about how he intends to serve our interests, he’ll lose our support.

From this day forward, Americans (all Americans; don’t expect the press corps to do this for you out of their own burning curiosity) need to demand answers.  We can start with something the President said in today’s speech. Who will be the first to get President Obama to explain, at long last, what “we will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people” means?

Barack Obama has been relying on the imprecise rhetoric of the professional campaigner for an astoundingly long time. And his inaugural speech showed no evidence that he’s willing to abandon this habit. He has, of course, been allowed to lean on poetic generalities for two years by an adoring press corps. But Americans of every political persuasion are bursting to know what he will actually do on any number of fronts. As importantly, world leaders have just about scratched their heads raw trying to glean the specifics of Obama’s intentions on everything from free trade to Iranian nukes. America’s gays are as baffled about the fate of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as Poland’s President is about a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

President Obama has already told us what will take time and what may or may not be immediately prudent, depending on the recommendations of his advisors. He has told us that several things are top priorities, although it’s impossible not to imagine that the financial crisis will take up most of his attention. But that doesn’t do us much good. As President, Barack Obama has our respect. But if that respect is not soon paid back in kind with details about how he intends to serve our interests, he’ll lose our support.

From this day forward, Americans (all Americans; don’t expect the press corps to do this for you out of their own burning curiosity) need to demand answers.  We can start with something the President said in today’s speech. Who will be the first to get President Obama to explain, at long last, what “we will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people” means?

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Not Much

They can spin and blather and gurgle all they want, but in the end, it was the weakest major speech he’s ever given, amazingly anodyne. I barely noticed the supposedly harsh rhetoric aimed at the supposed “torture regime” of the past seven years, and as for the notion that he sounded tough notes by saying he would “defeat” terrorists, that’s grading on a curve in a big way.

They can spin and blather and gurgle all they want, but in the end, it was the weakest major speech he’s ever given, amazingly anodyne. I barely noticed the supposedly harsh rhetoric aimed at the supposed “torture regime” of the past seven years, and as for the notion that he sounded tough notes by saying he would “defeat” terrorists, that’s grading on a curve in a big way.

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Sometimes You Can Say Too Much

The high rhetoric of the last few paragraphs was what you expected to hear:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

But along the way there was too much grit, a little too much campaign speak, and not enough of what he actually called for: an embrace of his opponents, or their views, or concerns. It is never a good idea to use “electric grid” in an Inaugural speech. Why? Because he brings you down to a pedestrian level, mixing the mood, and leaves you wondering just where we are going.

In the end, however, the moment was larger than the speech. It is good to have it behind us and let it serve as a reminder that words get you so far. The rest is in doing.

The high rhetoric of the last few paragraphs was what you expected to hear:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

But along the way there was too much grit, a little too much campaign speak, and not enough of what he actually called for: an embrace of his opponents, or their views, or concerns. It is never a good idea to use “electric grid” in an Inaugural speech. Why? Because he brings you down to a pedestrian level, mixing the mood, and leaves you wondering just where we are going.

In the end, however, the moment was larger than the speech. It is good to have it behind us and let it serve as a reminder that words get you so far. The rest is in doing.

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The Inaugural Poem

Forgive me for asking, but did the inaugural poet just suggest that the cleaning crews of nice Washington buildings gave their lives so that we could be free?

Forgive me for asking, but did the inaugural poet just suggest that the cleaning crews of nice Washington buildings gave their lives so that we could be free?

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He Is the Commander-in-Chief

An attempt to show some mettle: “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

An attempt to show some mettle: “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

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Brevity

Remarkable–perhaps the shortest speech he’s ever given.

Remarkable–perhaps the shortest speech he’s ever given.

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Valley Forge

You can’t go wrong with Valley Forge.

You can’t go wrong with Valley Forge.

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The Contradictions

We are not to apologize for our way of life, but we can no longer be indifferent to the suffering beyond our borders. We are going to make hard choices, but make health care cheaper and better and more efficient.

We are not to apologize for our way of life, but we can no longer be indifferent to the suffering beyond our borders. We are going to make hard choices, but make health care cheaper and better and more efficient.

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The Speech

An unduly perfunctory thank you to President George W. Bush was the only glaringly false note. He leaped right to the heart of the matter — outlying the daunting challenges ahead. A splash of cold water, perhaps surprising in its bluntness. His terse statement that the challenges would be met was again more stark than what one might have expected. But he pivoted toward poetry with a call to unity and higher purpose and the summoning of historical precedents. And then a blunt call to “pick ourselves up and dust itself off.” He drifted for a bit into gritty talk of electric grids and roads. And then a call back to more expansive themes, declaring, “We are ready to lead again.”

I think this is a muddle — half a state of the union, half an inaugural address.

An unduly perfunctory thank you to President George W. Bush was the only glaringly false note. He leaped right to the heart of the matter — outlying the daunting challenges ahead. A splash of cold water, perhaps surprising in its bluntness. His terse statement that the challenges would be met was again more stark than what one might have expected. But he pivoted toward poetry with a call to unity and higher purpose and the summoning of historical precedents. And then a blunt call to “pick ourselves up and dust itself off.” He drifted for a bit into gritty talk of electric grids and roads. And then a call back to more expansive themes, declaring, “We are ready to lead again.”

I think this is a muddle — half a state of the union, half an inaugural address.

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“We Can No Longer Afford Indifference to the Suffering Beyond Our Borders”

No longer? You mean like the billions of dollars in charity given by Americans to the sufferers of the tsunami? Or the mammoth African AIDS program?

No longer? You mean like the billions of dollars in charity given by Americans to the sufferers of the tsunami? Or the mammoth African AIDS program?

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“The Lines of Tribe Shall Soon Dissolve”

If this is what Obama thinks, how is it different from Bush saying the mission of the United States is the defeat of tyranny in his second inaugural — words that were derided and attacked for four years without letup?

If this is what Obama thinks, how is it different from Bush saying the mission of the United States is the defeat of tyranny in his second inaugural — words that were derided and attacked for four years without letup?

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“America Is A Friend of Each Nation”

Really? North Korea?

Really? North Korea?

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