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Posts For: May 29, 2014

What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

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The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

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Phony Scandal? Courts Open Window on the IRS’s Political Litmus Tests

Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

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Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial page noted yesterday:

This ruling will force the IRS to open its books on the procedures it used and decisions it made reviewing Z Street’s tax-exempt application, procedures it has tried to keep shrouded. As the case proceeds, Z Street’s attorneys can seek depositions from many who have been part of the larger attempt to sit on similar applications by other conservative groups.

In other words, this case may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the IRS’s politically prejudicial policies. If an IRS agent can reject or stall a pro-Israel group’s application on the grounds that “these cases are being sent to a special unit in the D.C. office to determine whether the organization’s activities contradict the Administration’s public policies,” then no group, no matter what its political orientation or cause is safe from being subjected to a political litmus test designed by any administration of either political party.

Z Street’s Marcus deserves praise for having the guts to persist in her challenge to the government for years even though the media had little interest in publicizing what appeared to be an outrageous example of how the IRS had become politicized under the Obama presidency. Last year Marcus learned she wasn’t alone when the news about the Tea Party broke. Now, as her legal process unfolds, Americans may get a better idea about how broken the system has become.

Using the IRS to punish political foes is blatantly illegal. If, as we suspect, the Z Street case reveals the sort of internal email traffic that will reveal how widespread this practice has become in the last five years, perhaps even a liberal mainstream press that still thinks the problems at the IRS are a “phony scandal” will start to pay attention.

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In Defense of the Vice Presidency

Earlier today, my colleague Seth Mandel reacted to the speculation about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro being positioned for the 2016 Democratic nomination for vice president by wondering whether we might not be better off abolishing the vice presidency altogether. Seth believes the spectacle of the two major parties lining up potential candidates mainly on the basis of either gender and race is unseemly. The talk of either party’s “veep bench” is equally absurd even if we are pretty sure of who will be at the top of the Democratic ticket in two years.

It’s also true that the office has, from its very beginnings, been of questionable utility. It’s only in the last generation that vice presidents have been given any responsibilities other than their constitutional task of presiding over the Senate. Seth also makes an excellent point when he observes that the Founding Fathers had a very different view of the office than we do today. In the first four presidential elections, the vice president was merely the man who came in second in the Electoral College vote with each elector being given two votes. That process was based in the belief on the part of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that parties would not play a role in electing our presidents. Once that system had to be changed because of Aaron Burr’s betrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, the original conception of the office became obsolete. Thus, Seth reasons we would save a lot of trouble by getting rid of a post that has rarely done the republic much service over the last 225 years.

But while there’s always been a potent critique to be made about the vice presidency—and one that has often been made by the hapless occupiers of the dubious honor—getting rid of it is a terrible idea. Whatever its drawbacks, and however mediocre or worse many of them have been, having a vice president lends legitimacy to the process of succession that is absolutely essential in a constitutional republic.

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Earlier today, my colleague Seth Mandel reacted to the speculation about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro being positioned for the 2016 Democratic nomination for vice president by wondering whether we might not be better off abolishing the vice presidency altogether. Seth believes the spectacle of the two major parties lining up potential candidates mainly on the basis of either gender and race is unseemly. The talk of either party’s “veep bench” is equally absurd even if we are pretty sure of who will be at the top of the Democratic ticket in two years.

It’s also true that the office has, from its very beginnings, been of questionable utility. It’s only in the last generation that vice presidents have been given any responsibilities other than their constitutional task of presiding over the Senate. Seth also makes an excellent point when he observes that the Founding Fathers had a very different view of the office than we do today. In the first four presidential elections, the vice president was merely the man who came in second in the Electoral College vote with each elector being given two votes. That process was based in the belief on the part of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that parties would not play a role in electing our presidents. Once that system had to be changed because of Aaron Burr’s betrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, the original conception of the office became obsolete. Thus, Seth reasons we would save a lot of trouble by getting rid of a post that has rarely done the republic much service over the last 225 years.

But while there’s always been a potent critique to be made about the vice presidency—and one that has often been made by the hapless occupiers of the dubious honor—getting rid of it is a terrible idea. Whatever its drawbacks, and however mediocre or worse many of them have been, having a vice president lends legitimacy to the process of succession that is absolutely essential in a constitutional republic.

The gravest doubts about the survival of the American political experiment in its earliest years often centered on the question of legitimacy and succession. Would a president, especially one like George Washington, who was the idol of the country, ever willingly step down and lay the foundation for the future of democracy rather than have the republic quickly lapse into tyranny or monarchy as most previous such experiments had done? Would an incumbent that was defeated for reelection choose to peacefully hand over the government to his opponents?

Washington and Adams answered those questions in the affirmative to their everlasting honor. But still unanswered was the question as to what would happen if a president died? Would there be chaos? Would the government be at a standstill until a new election could be held? Having a vice president who was already voted into office by the same Electoral College created a stable process that kept the system from running off the rails in the event of a calamity. Indeed, when William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, passed away a month after his inauguration there were doubts about what would happen. But John Tyler slid neatly into Harrison’s place and the republic survived with no apparent trouble. The same has happened every time since then when America found itself with an accidental president.

Any possible alternative to a sitting vice president, including the option Seth mentioned of having the succession pass to the secretary of state, lacks the legitimacy of a national election in which the identity of the standby is determined. Nor is the idea of a snap presidential election when a successor is needed a viable option. Most voters and politicians would agree that one presidential election every four years is bad enough.

The stability of the American republic lies in no small measure on our constitutional traditions and the fact that our democratic system has already passed through most conceivable challenges and emerged intact. The vice presidency is in many ways an anomalous office and the competition for it is more often than not a parody of the presidential process. But, for all its faults, it has served us well since John Adams took the oath of office as our first vice president and wondered what exactly he had gotten himself into. We tinker with the basic structure of our government at our own peril.

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Obama Overstates Stability in Ukraine

In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

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In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

Meanwhile a full-blown civil war appears to be growing in eastern Ukraine where, despite Vladimir Putin’s slightly less belligerent rhetorical approach of late, his minions continue to fight to prevent the re-establishment of central authority. The latest news is that separatists used a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a helicopter carrying 14 Ukrainian soldiers including a general. This comes just a few days after a major battle for control of Donetsk’s airport, which had been seized by rebels, left more than 50 people dead. “Many of those killed in the fighting were Russian citizens fighting on the rebel side,” the New York Times notes, which would not be the case if Putin were truly interested in respecting Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ukraine faces massive challenges to ward off Russian aggression while dealing with corruption and other internal problems. It’s good that the country just held a presidential election, but Obama should know better than to cite a vote as a sign that everything is getting better–that was the mistake George W. Bush repeatedly made in Iraq.

Ukraine still needs lots of aid if it is to remain whole and free, and the U.S. has not been providing it. Neither have our allies. The Obama administration, for example, is still refusing to provide any military supplies beyond MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). As is so often the case, President Obama seems to prefer giving a fancy speech to implementing a substantive policy.

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Abolish the Vice Presidency

The drama surrounding Hillary Clinton’s prospective candidacy has made writing about the 2016 presidential election nearly unavoidable. But the possibility of a Clinton coronation has led to some expanded predictions: we’re now–in mid-2014–talking about running mates. This was primarily driven by the suggestion that Democrats were positioning San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for a spot on the 2016 ticket.

That led to speculation over who the Republicans would nominate for vice president, and since in this scenario they’d be running against two “historic” nominees, the question simply becomes one of race and gender identity politics. Not content with Castro, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein is now fretting over the Democrats’ veep bench for 2016, though Doug Mataconis has an excellent post offering Bernstein some perspective on the matter.

But there’s a way out of this madness, and this is a good opportunity do something that’s made sense for a very long time: abolish the vice presidency.

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The drama surrounding Hillary Clinton’s prospective candidacy has made writing about the 2016 presidential election nearly unavoidable. But the possibility of a Clinton coronation has led to some expanded predictions: we’re now–in mid-2014–talking about running mates. This was primarily driven by the suggestion that Democrats were positioning San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for a spot on the 2016 ticket.

That led to speculation over who the Republicans would nominate for vice president, and since in this scenario they’d be running against two “historic” nominees, the question simply becomes one of race and gender identity politics. Not content with Castro, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein is now fretting over the Democrats’ veep bench for 2016, though Doug Mataconis has an excellent post offering Bernstein some perspective on the matter.

But there’s a way out of this madness, and this is a good opportunity do something that’s made sense for a very long time: abolish the vice presidency.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s worth revisiting now that the parties are apparently choosing the next-in-line by playing the matching game. This certainly isn’t an upgrade over the last method, in which presidential nominees placed questionable geographic bets with their veep selections. That at least had the advantage of choosing a recognized and relatively popular–and thus, usually experienced–legislator or governor.

But we don’t need to agonize over how we choose the vice president. We can free ourselves by getting rid of the vice presidency altogether. First and foremost, the vice presidency has strayed–and actually, it did so almost from the very beginning–from the Founders’ idea of the position, which they weren’t exactly wild about to start with. As Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his 1974 Atlantic essay:

The vice presidency was put into the Constitution for one reason, and one reason alone. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, a member of the committee that originated the idea, conceded at the Convention that “such an office as vice-president was not wanted. It was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time.” This is an essential but neglected point. The theory of presidential elections embodied in the Constitution was that if electors had to vote for two men without designating which was to be President and which Vice President, and if one of these men had, as the Constitution required, to be from another state, then both men who topped the poll would be of the highest quality, and the republic would be safe in the hands of either. …

In 1800 the Republicans gave the same number of electoral votes to Jefferson, their presidential choice, as they gave to Aaron Burr, a man of undoubted talents who, however, was trusted by no one in the long course of American history, except his daughter Theodosia and Gore Vidal. Burr was nearly chosen President, though the voters never intended him for the presidency. The fear of comparable slipups in 1804 led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment requiring the electoral college to vote separately for President and Vice President.

The abolition of the “valuable mode of election” canceled the purpose of the Founding Fathers in having a Vice President at all.

Indeed it did. What’s frustrating about the evolution of the vice presidency is that it was not only predictable but predicted. All throughout American history politicians and commentators offered nothing toward the office but acid and pity. (Schlesinger’s own article begins: “We have a Vice President again, and Mr. Ford deserves all our sympathy.”)

The vice presidency gains a fair amount of legitimacy from the fact that, technically, he or she has been elected by national vote. But my goodness that “technically” should not get the office so far. The American people vote for the top of the ticket. The vice presidential nominee is, in the minds of the voters at least, an add-on. When current Vice President Joe Biden ran for the top job, the reaction of his own party’s voters was consistent, overwhelming rejection. He is something like a sixty-point underdog to win his own party’s nomination to succeed the president he now serves.

The electoral legitimacy of the vice president is not only dubious, therefore, but dangerous. What we have is a next-in-line who basically got there by appointment and is often far less prepared to take over than other members of the president’s Cabinet. There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that.

So who would replace the vice president in the line of automatic succession? Anyone else would possess less electoral legitimacy than the current vice president unless it was a leader of one of the houses of Congress, in which case upon presidential vacancy the high office could switch parties without an election, an outcome that should be avoided.

Perhaps someone–the secretary of state, say–could take over on a provisional basis while a national election could be organized. Ideally they would not be considered “president,” but that has its own drawbacks: could they sign bills or treaties? The following election would have to take place relatively soon, which means a brief nominating and general-election period. But that has advantages. After all, we have the opposite now, and we’re left filling time and space by talking, regrettably, about vice-presidential nominees.

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Obama’s Fantasy World

In his speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama attempted to lay out his vision for America and the world in the years to come. 

The address was notable for several things, beginning with what is by now Mr. Obama’s almost comical use of straw men, with the president creating one imaginary critic and sham argument after another. (Max Boot recounts them here; the Washington Post does so here.) What was also apparent in this speech was another Obama trait: prickliness and pettiness, in this case using a military academy commencement ceremony to mock his critics. “Those who argue … that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president asserted. (More about that claim later.)

The West Point address also revealed an extraordinary category error by America’s commander in chief. Mr. Obama seems to think “winding down” a war is synonymous with success. They can actually be antonyms, as in Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama wants his legacy to be that he ended two wars. It may well be that his legacy is that he lost two wars.

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In his speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama attempted to lay out his vision for America and the world in the years to come. 

The address was notable for several things, beginning with what is by now Mr. Obama’s almost comical use of straw men, with the president creating one imaginary critic and sham argument after another. (Max Boot recounts them here; the Washington Post does so here.) What was also apparent in this speech was another Obama trait: prickliness and pettiness, in this case using a military academy commencement ceremony to mock his critics. “Those who argue … that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president asserted. (More about that claim later.)

The West Point address also revealed an extraordinary category error by America’s commander in chief. Mr. Obama seems to think “winding down” a war is synonymous with success. They can actually be antonyms, as in Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama wants his legacy to be that he ended two wars. It may well be that his legacy is that he lost two wars.

In his speech Mr. Obama could not defend his actual record, which is (perhaps with the exception of Burma) ruinous. So he opted for a “vision” speech. But the problem here is that the president didn’t lay out a vision so much as invoked a myth. He doesn’t seem to realize that false claims, repeated ad nauseam, don’t become more true. And what are the (related) false claims the president kept reciting like an incantation? Let the president speak for himself:

America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…. the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation…  The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead… Here’s my bottom line:  America must always lead on the world stage.

But of course during the Obama Era the United States has not led, and intentionally so. As an Obama adviser told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in 2011, the closest thing to a doctrine animating the Obama foreign policy is “leading from behind.” Here is the relevant paragraph from the Lizza story

Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

So there you have it. The Obama administration, by its own admission, believes the relative power of the U.S. is declining. There’s no word yet on when Mr. Obama will indict himself for either misreading history or engaging in partisan politics. 

America in decline has been the operating premise of the Obama administration from Day One; “leading from behind” is how they have sought to manage that decline. But the president, having been hammered for being both weak and inept, is now personally leading a PR campaign to twist things around. He wants you to believe that leading from behind is really leading from ahead. And if you are Barack Obama, post-modernist, facts are subordinated to “narrative.” Truth is not an objective account of the way things are; it is what proves most helpful in interpreting events. (See “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period.”) Which means the president thinks he can make things up–that he can reinvent reality–as he goes along. What he’s finding out is he can’t. In the end, reality catches up to all of us. Even Barack Obama.

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