Commentary Magazine


Overpraising the President

Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post is one of the great editorial-page editors in America (and not only because he occasionally runs my op-eds). He has assembled an interesting and thoughtful group of columnists for his op-ed page and turned his editorial columns into a courageous and morally farsighted champion of an internationalist foreign policy that promotes America’s ideals as well as its interests. In the process, he has not been afraid to take stands that are interpreted as conservative (e.g., backing the Iraq war and not backing down when the going got tough) while also holding President Bush accountable for his deviations from the high-minded ideals he espoused. He has continued that tradition of skepticism with President Obama. Unlike the rest of the MSM, he has not swooned over the president of hope and change, but I nevertheless think he is being a tad too kind in this column, which offers a largely positive assessment of Obama’s first year in office.

To be sure, Hiatt is right to give Obama credit for halting and reversing a financial/economic meltdown. That was the most important issue of his first year in office, and the president deserves enormous credit for getting the economy back onto a sounder footing — notwithstanding carping from both Left and Right. He also deserves a great degree of credit for largely coming out in the right place in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am less impressed than Hiatt is, however, with Obama’s handling of issues of “security and liberty.” Obama gets credit for not undoing most of Bush’s initiatives (e.g., the Patriot Act and Predator strikes in Pakistan), and I don’t even mind his plan to close Guantanamo. But by forcing all interrogations of terrorist suspects to be conducted without stress techniques and by rushing to push terrorist suspects, even Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, into the criminal-justice system, I think Obama is tilting the balance against effectiveness in the war on terror. So too with decisions that Hiatt doesn’t mention — Attorney General Eric Holder’s moves to release memos describing CIA interrogation techniques and to investigate supposed CIA abuses in the past. Both have undoubtedly had a chilling effect on our counterterrorist operatives, few of whom are willing to treat high-level directives as cavalierly as Jack Bauer routinely does.

I also think that Hiatt, who is more liberal in domestic than in foreign policy, is being too kind in his treatment of Obama’s reckless attempts to take over the health-care sector and ineffectual attempts to deal with climate change. What is truly mystifying, however, is that Hiatt pens this tribute to Obama’s foreign policy: ”And from Cairo to Oslo, and now to Haiti, he has sought to chart a path for America between arrogance and isolationism, neither denying nor boasting about the burdens of global leadership.”

I too applaud Obama’s efforts to help Haiti, just as I applauded his Nobel acceptance speech, but the fact remains that outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has no foreign-policy achievements to boast of. The first year was wasted with ineffectual attempts at outreach to Iran and North Korea and Russia, not to mention his ham-handed attempts to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. All these efforts have failed — something that was completely predictable. In the meantime, Obama lost a valuable chance to stand with Iranian democrats and to put real pressure on the Iranian mullahs, something the Washington Post editorial page has been eloquent in condemning. Will Obama’s first-year efforts somehow bear fruit in his second year in office? Of that there is so far no evidence. If he doesn’t change course substantially in foreign affairs (when is he going to get tough on the Iranian nuclear program as promised?), the record of his first (and only?) term is likely to be even more dismal than his first-year record.