Commentary Magazine


Topic: George H.W. Bush

Presidential Longevity and Social Security

Today is George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday. That is certainly an event worth celebrating, and may he enjoy many more. But it is also illustrative of a remarkable increase in longevity enjoyed by recent presidents (and the rest of us).

Before there were presidents there were English sovereigns. Not one of them lived to see his or her 70th birthday until George II, who died in 1760, aged 76. To be sure a few of them, such as Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, were assisted early into that good night for political reasons.

Of the first six presidents, four of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams), remarkably, lived to be over 80 and John Adams lived to be 90 and 8 months, a presidential longevity record that would last into the 21st century, until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001. But from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover, more than a century later, no president made it to 80. Hoover lived to be 90 and two months. Harry Truman, who died at the age of 88, was the only other president to live to 80 until Richard Nixon.

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Today is George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday. That is certainly an event worth celebrating, and may he enjoy many more. But it is also illustrative of a remarkable increase in longevity enjoyed by recent presidents (and the rest of us).

Before there were presidents there were English sovereigns. Not one of them lived to see his or her 70th birthday until George II, who died in 1760, aged 76. To be sure a few of them, such as Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, were assisted early into that good night for political reasons.

Of the first six presidents, four of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams), remarkably, lived to be over 80 and John Adams lived to be 90 and 8 months, a presidential longevity record that would last into the 21st century, until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001. But from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover, more than a century later, no president made it to 80. Hoover lived to be 90 and two months. Harry Truman, who died at the age of 88, was the only other president to live to 80 until Richard Nixon.

But starting with Nixon, every president has either lived to the age of 80 or is still alive. Reagan and Ford each lived to be 93, and Ford holds the longevity record at the moment, dying at the age of 93 and five months. On October 1 this year, Jimmy Carter will also turn 90.

Living to 100 used to be exceedingly rare, but not anymore. Among the famous who have reached 100 in recent decades are Irving Berlin, the Queen Mother, Rose Kennedy, Brooke Astor, Bob Hope, and George Burns. I have a friend who is in robust good health at the age of 84. Her mother, in equally robust health except for being a bit deaf, is 109.

All this, while unreservedly good news for all of us, has profound policy implications regarding entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The latter program was instituted in 1935 and set the age for receiving benefits at 65. The reason 65 was chosen is that that was the life expectancy in the 1930s. Today, in the United States, it is 79.8 for women and 77.4 for men and rising quickly. That is no small part of the reason both programs are headed inexorably toward insolvency unless Congress acknowledges mathematical and medical reality.

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Ronald Asmus’s Extraordinary Legacy

Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

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Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

Part of the reason NATO was an option at all in the early days was that the existing European structures were simply not up to the task of integrating and protecting the post-Soviet states. Initial hopes were that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could take stewardship of such an integration. But it was heavy on the cooperation and light on the security. Then there was the European Union, but France was opposed to opening its doors to full membership. “That left NATO,” Asmus writes.

There were a few turning points in NATO’s favor, some more famous than others. For Asmus, it was the Foreign Affairs article he authored along with two other colleagues at RAND in 1993 making the case for NATO enlargement. Another was a speech given around that time by Volker Ruehe, an up-and-coming German politician who had taken the defense portfolio in the German governing coalition. Ruehe, apparently without even telling the country’s foreign minister, gave a speech calling for NATO and the EU to put Central and Eastern European countries on the path to full membership. Asmus writes:

On the plane during the flight back to Cologne, one of Ruehe’s top military advisors remarked that it had been a mistake to give the speech and it would take Germany years to recover from the damage caused by the Minister’s comments. He was mistaken. Within several years every one of Ruehe’s core ideas would be embraced by the U.S. and would become official Alliance policy.

It was one of many examples that showed support for the alliance was always higher than it appeared, but also that the West (especially Europe) needed a good shove in the right direction every so often. The rest is, as they say, history.

Bill Clinton, too, deserves a fair amount of credit. Not only was he receptive to the ideas that led to NATO expansion, but he was a compelling spokesman for the cause. As the events in Ukraine this year and Georgia a few years ago showed, the countries most likely to be attacked by Russia are those without security guarantees from the West. Clinton made this point repeatedly. In 1997, Asmus notes, Clinton gave a speech to West Point graduates and declared that he wanted to expand NATO “to make it less likely that you will ever be called to fight in another war across the Atlantic.” Later that year Clinton met privately with a group of senators to gauge their support. “Extending a security guarantee is important,” Clinton told them. “No NATO member has ever been attacked.”

Joe Biden, too, made a powerful argument, telling skeptics like Jack Matlock and Michael Mandelbaum that not to enlarge NATO simply because there was no immediate threat from Russia was “a prescription for paralysis.” As we’ve seen in recent years, such complacency does indeed set in and grind progress to a halt.

And that is key to truly grasping the significance of what Asmus accomplished. Letting opportunities slip by, when it comes to European integration, often means there will be no second chance. Asmus saw an opportunity, made his case, and accomplished something historic before it was buried in bureaucratic inertia.

After the Senate overwhelmingly approved the expansion, Jan Nowak, the famed courier between the Polish underground resistance and Allied governments who was 84 years old at the time of the vote, approached Asmus from the Senate’s visitor’s galley. “I never thought,” he said with broad smile, “that I would live to see the day when Poland is not only free—but safe.” That was Asmus’s monumental achievement, and thanks to his determination it is America’s legacy.

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Jeb Bush? The Dynasty Problem Is Real

I don’t entirely disagree with our Pete Wehner who wrote earlier today to second George Will’s suggestion in the Washington Post that Jeb Bush “deserves a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate” in 2016. As Will notes, Bush brings many sterling qualities to the table for the GOP in terms of a potential president. He had a great record as reform-minded governor of Florida, can appeal to Hispanic voters and has serious positions on issues like education and immigration that deserve support. The only flaw in Bush’s makeup the veteran columnist can see is that he has become too closely associated with the “Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers” who “have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft” the son and brother of two of our past presidents, in no small measure because of the perceived collapse of the Chris Christie boomlet after Bridgegate.

Pete wants all the big names thinking about the presidency to run. That would create a GOP nominating process that will not only foster a clarifying and healthy debate on all the issues but also help sort out the candidates in a way that will test and weed out those who haven’t got what it takes to successfully challenge Hillary Clinton or whomever it is the Democrats nominate in 2016. That should make sense to everybody, whether or not they are Republicans, since the person who takes the oath of office in January 2017 needs to be up to the daunting task of leading our nation.

But the greatest obstacle to Jeb Bush becoming our 45th president isn’t a backlash from the Tea Party against the Republican establishment. It’s his last name, a factor that Pete omits from an otherwise convincing summary of the discussion on this topic. Though Jeb’s manifest talents ought to earn him consideration in his own right, the dismaying prospect of the next presidential election featuring representatives of the same families that faced off in 1992 is something that must be taken into consideration.

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I don’t entirely disagree with our Pete Wehner who wrote earlier today to second George Will’s suggestion in the Washington Post that Jeb Bush “deserves a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate” in 2016. As Will notes, Bush brings many sterling qualities to the table for the GOP in terms of a potential president. He had a great record as reform-minded governor of Florida, can appeal to Hispanic voters and has serious positions on issues like education and immigration that deserve support. The only flaw in Bush’s makeup the veteran columnist can see is that he has become too closely associated with the “Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers” who “have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft” the son and brother of two of our past presidents, in no small measure because of the perceived collapse of the Chris Christie boomlet after Bridgegate.

Pete wants all the big names thinking about the presidency to run. That would create a GOP nominating process that will not only foster a clarifying and healthy debate on all the issues but also help sort out the candidates in a way that will test and weed out those who haven’t got what it takes to successfully challenge Hillary Clinton or whomever it is the Democrats nominate in 2016. That should make sense to everybody, whether or not they are Republicans, since the person who takes the oath of office in January 2017 needs to be up to the daunting task of leading our nation.

But the greatest obstacle to Jeb Bush becoming our 45th president isn’t a backlash from the Tea Party against the Republican establishment. It’s his last name, a factor that Pete omits from an otherwise convincing summary of the discussion on this topic. Though Jeb’s manifest talents ought to earn him consideration in his own right, the dismaying prospect of the next presidential election featuring representatives of the same families that faced off in 1992 is something that must be taken into consideration.

A few years ago, any talk about Jeb Bush running might have been dismissed because of the beating his brother took in the last years of his presidency as a hurricane, two wars and finally a financial collapse seemed to brand him as a failure in the eyes of most of the press if not all of the public. But the reputation of both of the Bushes has rightly gone up in the last year or two, partly as a result of a healthy reevaluation of both presidencies and the realization that Bush 43’s successor didn’t quite turn out to be the messiah of hope and change that his supporters and press cheerleaders thought he was.

But that doesn’t mean that the Republicans need to throw away a key advantage heading into the 2016 race that Democrats are handing them by nominating Hillary Clinton. Assuming that she runs, her main rationale will be the prospect of electing our first female president. But her campaign will also mean bringing the Clintons, and their baggage (as well as the obvious strengths of the 42nd president, her husband Bill) back into the center ring of our political circus. With so many fresh, able faces on their very deep bench, nominating another Bush presents the dispiriting prospect of two parties that are stuck recycling members of the same families as if America were a Central American banana republic. It also means the GOP will be just as handicapped by this as the Democrats.

Last year, I chimed in to support Jeb’s mother when she aptly pointed out that we’ve “had enough Bushes.” An even more thoughtful take on the same question came this week from political scientist Larry Sabato who, while acknowledging that political dynasties are not anything new in American politics, still pointed out in Politico their shortcomings:

What kind of signal does it send to the world when the United States, which recommends its democratic system to other nations, looks increasingly like an oligarchy, where a handful of presumptive, dominant families pass power back and forth like a baton in a relay race? The growing concentration of wealth and celebrity in a tiny slice of the population may make dynasty even more of a fixture in our future politics than our past.

If Republicans wind up nominating Jeb, they will, as both George Will and Pete Wehner argue, get a man ready to be president. But, like Sabato, I’m still wondering how it is that “with approximately 152 million American citizens over 35 and eligible to serve as president, why do we keep coming down to the same old names?” I suspect we’re not the only ones who are asking that question.

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Breaking Faith Is No “Profile In Courage”

John F. Kennedy may well be, as syndicated columnist Drew Pearson famously asserted back in 1957, the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten book. But the memory of his (or Ted Sorenson’s, assuming you don’t believe that faithful JFK courtier’s steadfast denials of authorship) Profiles in Courage is kept alive every year by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which hands out an award to a politician they deem to be in the tradition of the book’s celebration of U.S. senators that bucked the tide of public opinion to do what they thought was right. Their latest choice—former President George H.W. Bush—is one that ought to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. Bush 41 is probably the closest thing we have these days to a consensus beloved elder statesman. Unlike every other living president, the elder Bush stopped being a lightening rod soon after leaving office. Given the hyper-partisanship of our times and the way that every president that followed him has spawned a derangement syndrome named in their honor, he may well be the last such figure to be viewed this way for the foreseeable future.

But the Foundation’s award has nevertheless spawned a rather spirited argument. The notion that Bush deserves to be honored for violating his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is one that ought to be fiercely disputed. At stake here is not so much the 41st president’s honor, but the sanctity of political promises as well as the principle of fiscal prudence that was at the heart of his shameless and ultimately self-destructive decision to repudiate that famous promise. To claim, as does the Foundation, that Bush was right to abandon conservative principles isn’t merely a liberal cheer to a GOP leader’s choice to frustrate the voters who put him in office. It is a celebration of a longstanding tradition in which those who hold office are supposed to disregard the views of the mob in favor of the public interest.

That’s the sort of view with which many of our Founders might have sympathized (not to mention British parliamentarian and conservative icon Edmund Burke), but as often as not it is also the refuge of scoundrels. The point about Bush’s “courage” in raising taxes as well as the decisions taken by many, if not most of the examples cited in Profiles, is that they were dead wrong.

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John F. Kennedy may well be, as syndicated columnist Drew Pearson famously asserted back in 1957, the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten book. But the memory of his (or Ted Sorenson’s, assuming you don’t believe that faithful JFK courtier’s steadfast denials of authorship) Profiles in Courage is kept alive every year by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which hands out an award to a politician they deem to be in the tradition of the book’s celebration of U.S. senators that bucked the tide of public opinion to do what they thought was right. Their latest choice—former President George H.W. Bush—is one that ought to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. Bush 41 is probably the closest thing we have these days to a consensus beloved elder statesman. Unlike every other living president, the elder Bush stopped being a lightening rod soon after leaving office. Given the hyper-partisanship of our times and the way that every president that followed him has spawned a derangement syndrome named in their honor, he may well be the last such figure to be viewed this way for the foreseeable future.

But the Foundation’s award has nevertheless spawned a rather spirited argument. The notion that Bush deserves to be honored for violating his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is one that ought to be fiercely disputed. At stake here is not so much the 41st president’s honor, but the sanctity of political promises as well as the principle of fiscal prudence that was at the heart of his shameless and ultimately self-destructive decision to repudiate that famous promise. To claim, as does the Foundation, that Bush was right to abandon conservative principles isn’t merely a liberal cheer to a GOP leader’s choice to frustrate the voters who put him in office. It is a celebration of a longstanding tradition in which those who hold office are supposed to disregard the views of the mob in favor of the public interest.

That’s the sort of view with which many of our Founders might have sympathized (not to mention British parliamentarian and conservative icon Edmund Burke), but as often as not it is also the refuge of scoundrels. The point about Bush’s “courage” in raising taxes as well as the decisions taken by many, if not most of the examples cited in Profiles, is that they were dead wrong.

The choice of Bush was cheered in particular by New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, whose piece about it not only sought to perpetuate the myth that raising taxes ensured the country’s subsequent prosperity but also engaged in snark at the expense of the younger President Bush and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. But in this case Norquist had the better argument. Having been elected on a pledge to fight back against the tax and spend inertia of the federal leviathan, Bush 41’s spineless surrender to the conventional wisdom imposed on him by the liberal media establishment and a Democratic-controlled Congress dedicated to opposing any reform was more than just your everyday political betrayal. It was an act of contempt for not only his party’s core political constituency but also for the whole point of the Reagan Revolution on which he had hitched a ride in 1980. By raising taxes Bush didn’t ensure the nation’s well being, but he did postpone the day of reckoning for the political establishment that was unable to see that the system had to be changed. The betrayal of the pledge he made when accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency was a low point in his career.

But it bears pointing out that in that sense he is no different from many of the senators lauded by JKF/Sorenson in the book. While a few of their examples are inarguably praiseworthy—Thomas Hart Benton for opposing the extension of slavery, Sam Houston for opposing secession, and Lucius Lamar for promoting post Civil War reconciliation—most of its subjects actually merited the abuse they received for their “courageous” decisions.

In it they laud Daniel Webster for embracing the Compromise of 1850 which sacrificed the right of free states to shelter runaway slaves. In essence Webster traded his honor and his principles for a measure that didn’t so much postpone the Civil War as to ensure it would tear the country apart. They also praise John Quincy Adams for leaving the Federalists in what was an act of intelligent if not particularly principled opportunism; George Norris for undermining U.S. preparedness before World War One and for later supporting a corrupt Democrat for president; and Robert A. Taft for opposing the Nuremberg Trials as ex post facto law rather than an effort to create international standards for human rights.

I might add Kansas Senator Edmund Ross—the Republican who cast the deciding vote not to convict Andrew Johnson after his impeachment—to the list of bad choices. I think Lincoln’s successor richly deserved eviction from office for his obstruction of reconstruction policies that might have granted some justice to freed slaves and avoided much of the harm that restoring the south to white rule did in the century that followed. But I also understand that there was some value to not creating a precedent that would have led to the impeachment of every president who displeased two-thirds of the Senate.

But the point here is that while there is something to be said for a politician that puts his principles above his political future, most of the subjects in Profiles did nothing of the sort. Most, like Webster and Ross, discarded their principles and took what they considered to be the pragmatic move and were rightly reviled for it. That’s what Bush did too, only perhaps in embracing an unnecessary tax increase he demonstrated that he never really had any principles on the issue of the size of government and taxation in the first place. Like the senators in the famous book, Bush paid for it with his political career. But there was nothing particularly courageous about his actions. To the contrary, standing for your principles against the force of conventional wisdom rather than caving in to it is the hardest thing you can do in Washington. Sometimes doing so is right and sometimes it is a mistake (see Cruz, Ted; government shutdown) but betraying your principles is almost always an act of craven cowardice. That the New York Times applauded such behavior should surprise no one.

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Is the U.S. Too Engaged in Peace Talks?

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

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Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

A large majority of Americans believe the U.S. should have minimal involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to the results of a new survey released by the Anti-Defamation League.

Some 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to solve their own problems. Any lasting peace agreement between them must be reached with minimal involvement from the U.S.,” while only 29% agreed with the statement, “Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will never take place without the leadership and involvement of the U.S. government.”

A few caveats: we don’t know what “minimal involvement” means exactly, so there is only so much we can take away from such results. Additionally, the ADL’s report on the poll seems to present only two options, so how the choices are phrased could make a real difference. And finally, it’s impossible to know just how much of the response to this question is intended as a referendum not on the broad contours of the peace process but on the hapless and often clueless chief American diplomat leading the charge, John Kerry.

With that said, the peace process fatigue is a good instinct. The series of events that led to Oslo and the famous handshake at the White House between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were part of a conscious peace process, admittedly, but one without the attention of later years. It’s no coincidence that this period was also the most productive diplomatic push of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even after the formal process got underway, the two sides were doing two things that were crucial to progress: keeping expectations modest and talking directly. And this was at a time long before the Likud Party officially adopted the model of “two states for two peoples” as its guiding force for the talks–even Rabin was famously uncomfortable with the idea of an independent Palestinian state–so there was plenty of reason on the Palestinian side to doubt Israel’s ability to carry out any comprehensive deal.

The problem is that when the sole superpower becomes closely involved (and at the time of the Madrid conference the Soviet Union was well on its way to dissolving, leaving the U.S. alone on the world stage), everyone’s incentives change. For the Americans, there is the lure of legacy. President George H.W. Bush was less susceptible to this than his successors because he already presided over America’s official emergence as the world’s great power. But politicians are only human, and the longer the conflict drags on, the more impressive “peace in the Middle East” appears.

The incentive structure got no better for the U.S. as time dragged on because of the natural evolution of the process. At first, vague notions of “peace” were seen as the objective. But after Bill Clinton left office and George W. Bush took over, the creation of a Palestinian state became the benchmark by which the conflict would be deemed “resolved.” The race to create a Palestinian state has run up against a by-now familiar obstacle: the sense of urgency among world opinion for a Palestinian state progressed while the actual task of state-building in the West Bank and Gaza stagnated.

The expectations game has been managed terribly by all involved, and the high profile of the peace process has become an obstacle. With their domestic populations–and the world–following along, Israeli and Palestinian leaders behave as though their every step is being watched closely, because it is. All the American attention has resulted, finally, in needing to lure the Palestinians to the table.

This is insanity. If the Palestinians have to be bribed to even enter negotiations, then they don’t have a desire to end the conflict. And Israeli leaders are not going to take major diplomatic risks if they’ve already spent their political capital on freeing Palestinian terrorists from jail or halting construction in Jewish communities for a process that keeps going nowhere. The United States has a constructive role to play in the peace process, but it’s not the one Kerry envisions. And the ADL polls suggests Americans are starting to agree.

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Will Tiananmen Teach Us About Syria?

Today marks the 24th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown and massacre. Chinese actions outraged the world. The Chinese government’s actions were met with widespread disgust in both the United States and Europe, and Bush slapped some sanctions on Beijing—suspending weapons sales for example—the next day.

It was not long before self-described realists in George H.W. Bush’s administration decided to reach out once again to China. Less than a month after the massacres—with martial law still in force—Bush dispatched National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Beijing. Their trip was secret and did not bear fruit. Nevertheless, within just two and a half years, the Bush administration was undoing the last vestiges of its post-Tiananmen posture toward China. Secretary of State James Baker visited quite openly in 1991. Historians can debate whether the elder Bush’s policy was wise, or shortsighted; whether Bush and Baker’s approach was the Beijing Duck to their Chicken Kiev. No doubt China is an important country, and so it cannot simply be ignored.

But what about Syria? As Syrian government forces regain momentum, it is entirely possible that they can defeat—or at least contain—the rebels. In such a situation, should the United States and Europe reach out once again to President Assad’s regime? Should we re-establish normal relations between Washington and Damascus?

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Today marks the 24th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown and massacre. Chinese actions outraged the world. The Chinese government’s actions were met with widespread disgust in both the United States and Europe, and Bush slapped some sanctions on Beijing—suspending weapons sales for example—the next day.

It was not long before self-described realists in George H.W. Bush’s administration decided to reach out once again to China. Less than a month after the massacres—with martial law still in force—Bush dispatched National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Beijing. Their trip was secret and did not bear fruit. Nevertheless, within just two and a half years, the Bush administration was undoing the last vestiges of its post-Tiananmen posture toward China. Secretary of State James Baker visited quite openly in 1991. Historians can debate whether the elder Bush’s policy was wise, or shortsighted; whether Bush and Baker’s approach was the Beijing Duck to their Chicken Kiev. No doubt China is an important country, and so it cannot simply be ignored.

But what about Syria? As Syrian government forces regain momentum, it is entirely possible that they can defeat—or at least contain—the rebels. In such a situation, should the United States and Europe reach out once again to President Assad’s regime? Should we re-establish normal relations between Washington and Damascus?

The answer to these questions, of course, should be no. Full stop.

The Syrian leader is directly complicit in the worst abuses and gratuitous violence. If the United States is unwilling to undertake regime change—and certainly I oppose putting boots on the ground inside Syria, not that regime change requires such tactics—then it must be willing to uphold complete and unforgiving isolation of rogue governments. Even a secret trip—such as that made by Scowcroft and Eagleburger—takes the heat off the worst offenders. So long as dictators recognize that they can get away with murder—and at worst be pariahs for a limited duration—then they have no incentive to act responsibly. Diplomats may say that it is sophisticated to engage or that it never hurts to talk, but for tens of thousands of freedom-seeking citizens around the world, it can indeed.

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Schwarzkopf’s Legacy

The death of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf will call up, for many Americans, a certain nostalgia for a supposedly better time when we actually “won” wars. The Gulf War of 1991 was, after all, the last truly feel-good war that America has had—the last one that ended in a victory parade back home. But of course on slightly closer examination the definitive nature of the Gulf War—once so obvious—becomes decidedly fuzzy.

The war was a clear-cut victory only in the sense that Kuwait was liberated. But the good feelings deriving from this outcome were dissipated in large measure when Saddam Hussein remained in power and used his remaining military forces to crush Shiite and Kurd rebellions that had been encouraged by the United States. The U.S., in turn, was to spend the next decade enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq—and then in 2003 George W. Bush launched another war to finish what his father had started. That war, in turn, would drag on for nearly another decade and end inconclusively with a unilateral American withdrawal.

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The death of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf will call up, for many Americans, a certain nostalgia for a supposedly better time when we actually “won” wars. The Gulf War of 1991 was, after all, the last truly feel-good war that America has had—the last one that ended in a victory parade back home. But of course on slightly closer examination the definitive nature of the Gulf War—once so obvious—becomes decidedly fuzzy.

The war was a clear-cut victory only in the sense that Kuwait was liberated. But the good feelings deriving from this outcome were dissipated in large measure when Saddam Hussein remained in power and used his remaining military forces to crush Shiite and Kurd rebellions that had been encouraged by the United States. The U.S., in turn, was to spend the next decade enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq—and then in 2003 George W. Bush launched another war to finish what his father had started. That war, in turn, would drag on for nearly another decade and end inconclusively with a unilateral American withdrawal.

There is nothing remarkable about this—even World War II, supposedly the “good war,” ended in a muddle whose legacy included the Cold War and the hot wars in Korea and Vietnam. The very existence of North Korea, which continues to bedevil us with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is an offshoot of the ceasefire that ended World War II. But it runs counter to the myth that somehow wars have ever been easier to end than they are today.

What was Schwarzkopf’s role in the mixed outcome of the Gulf War? Certainly he played less of a part than more senior figures such as President George H.W. Bush, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell. It was they, and ultimately the commander-in-chief alone, who gave the military its marching orders, set narrow war goals (perhaps justifiably, in light of how difficult it subsequently proved to pacify Iraq), and insisted on ending the ground war after 100 hours even though Saddam’s elite Republican Guard had not yet been destroyed. Even if the George H.W. Bush administration’s decision to stop short of occupying Iraq looks better in hindsight, its willingness to encourage revolts against Saddam and then leave the people of Iraq to his tender mercies tarnished what was otherwise a proud moment in our military history.

Schwarzkopf’s responsibility for the outcome was secondary, but he did not do enough to warn the politicos about the consequences of their actions and he did convey somewhat misleading information about how far advanced his plans for the destruction of the Republican Guard actually were. Even worse, in the cease-fire negotiations which he handled personally, he naively allowed the Iraqi regime to continue flying rotary-wing aircraft, little realizing that they would be used for the suppression of popular revolts.

“Stormin’ Norman” apparently did not view it as his duty to deal with such matters. He was a superb soldier who inspired the troops and kept confidence in the war effort back home (and around the world) with his bravado briefings. But he exemplified the narrowly tactical outlook adopted by most U.S. military commanders—one that makes it harder to translate tactical success into lasting strategic success.

None of this should take away from his genuine heroism, exemplified by an incident during the Vietnam War when, as a battalion commander, he ventured into a minefield to pull some of his soldiers to safety. Nor does it deprecate his considerable dedication to the Army and the country, and the great skill he showed in implementing (if not designing) the famous “left hook” which routed Saddam Hussein’s army.

But it does suggest that there were certain limits to his generalship which, as Tom Ricks argues in his new book The Generals, continue to confound the U.S. to this day—witness the uninspired performance in Iraq of Ricardo Sanchez, George Casey, and other generals who were perfectly competent tacticians but did not always grasp the big picture. One of the few exceptions was David Petraeus, but now he is disgraced because of a scandal unrelated to his military capabilities.

There are a few potential successors to Petraeus waiting in the wings, but they must face long odds to rise to the top in an Army bureaucracy that favors hard-charging tacticians such as Norman Schwarzkopf or Tommy Franks over geo-strategic big thinkers. Trying to revise those personnel policies should be a major to-do item on the agenda of the next secretary of defense, whoever that may be.

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Internationalist Foreign Policy Still Dominant in GOP

In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.

Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.

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In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.

Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.

Mitt Romney presented himself as being squarely in the middle of this foreign policy tradition with his commitment to maintain our current level of defense spending, to stop Iran, get more actively involved in helping rebels in Syria, get tougher on Russia and China, and to defend Israel–the latter a particular bugbear of isolationists and realpolitikers. Few of his primary challengers, save the marginalized Ron Paul, disagreed; if anything, Rick Santorum and other candidates had an even more expansive foreign policy vision. Those among the early frontrunners for the 2016 nomination who have spoken out on foreign policy–in particular Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan–fall squarely into the same tradition.

There is certainly room for disagreement in the Republican party about particular policies or interventions; even those who have the same philosophical grounding will disagree about how to implement it in on occasion. (One recalls that Charles Krauthammer was against intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s–an intervention that other “neocons” strongly supported.) But the same is true in the Democratic Party, which is split between those who wanted to intervene in Libya (and now Syria) and those who didn’t. Overall, however, the conservative international foreign policy championed most successfully by Ronald Reagan remains alive, well, and dominant within the GOP.

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The George W. Bush Alibi Doesn’t Cut It

The 43rd president is the man who didn’t come to dinner at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other than a brief video tribute of President George W. Bush with his father President George H.W. Bush, the immediate past Republican president has been conspicuous not only by his absence from the convention but by the way he is never mentioned. There are good reasons for this. When Bush 43 left office he was deeply unpopular due to the Iraq war and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Tea partiers and conservatives also rightly deprecate his profligate spending.

But for all of his faults, George W. Bush doesn’t deserve the egregious abuse to which he has been subjected. And his brother Jeb went off script tonight at the convention to speak bluntly about the way his brother has been treated not only by the public but also by his successor. In paying tribute to his family Bush said, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe.” Then he spoke directly to the president and said, “Mr. President it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. You were dealt a tough hand but your policies have not worked.”

He’s right and though George W. Bush is the last person on earth that most Republicans want to talk about this week or during the campaign this fall, they should be taking direct aim at the idea that he can serve as an all-purpose alibi for every failure of the current administration. It’s been almost four years since Barack Obama was sworn into office and he still refuses to take responsibility for the state of the country. The weakness and cowardice of this stand is appalling. Jeb Bush was right to call him out on this. So should the rest of an ungrateful party that doesn’t appear to remember the job W did on 9/11 and its aftermath.

The 43rd president is the man who didn’t come to dinner at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Other than a brief video tribute of President George W. Bush with his father President George H.W. Bush, the immediate past Republican president has been conspicuous not only by his absence from the convention but by the way he is never mentioned. There are good reasons for this. When Bush 43 left office he was deeply unpopular due to the Iraq war and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Tea partiers and conservatives also rightly deprecate his profligate spending.

But for all of his faults, George W. Bush doesn’t deserve the egregious abuse to which he has been subjected. And his brother Jeb went off script tonight at the convention to speak bluntly about the way his brother has been treated not only by the public but also by his successor. In paying tribute to his family Bush said, “I love my brother. He is a man of integrity, courage and honor and during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe.” Then he spoke directly to the president and said, “Mr. President it is time to stop blaming your predecessor for your failed economic policies. You were dealt a tough hand but your policies have not worked.”

He’s right and though George W. Bush is the last person on earth that most Republicans want to talk about this week or during the campaign this fall, they should be taking direct aim at the idea that he can serve as an all-purpose alibi for every failure of the current administration. It’s been almost four years since Barack Obama was sworn into office and he still refuses to take responsibility for the state of the country. The weakness and cowardice of this stand is appalling. Jeb Bush was right to call him out on this. So should the rest of an ungrateful party that doesn’t appear to remember the job W did on 9/11 and its aftermath.

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A Ryan Pick Could Shape GOP Future

While most of us are focusing on the obvious impact Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick might have on the 2012 election, a feature in Politico today highlights the fact that his choice may influence future elections as well. Choosing someone like Paul Ryan, who is not only young, but the intellectual leader of his party, could well set the Wisconsin congressman up as the putative frontrunner in subsequent presidential elections whether or not the 2012 ticket is successful.

The debate about the vice presidential pick is, as Politico notes, something of a stand in for the broader argument about the future of the Republican Party. Should Romney go with Ryan it could mean that the reformist wing of the party will not only get a boost but have its leader put in a position from which he may well dominate the party. On the other hand, picking a more conventional figure like Sen. Rob Portman would serve as a brake on the conservative thinkers who want to help change Washington. The elevation of Ryan could, as Rep. Tom Cole tells Politico, be akin to Ronald Reagan choosing Jack Kemp as his running mate in 1980 rather than establishment favorite George H.W. Bush. Had Reagan tapped Kemp, it is probable that neither the elder nor the younger Bush would have ever been president. It is impossible to say in such a counter-factual scenario how else history would have been changed, but it is a reminder that there’s a lot more at stake in this decision than the impact on this November or even who will be presiding over the Senate next year.

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While most of us are focusing on the obvious impact Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick might have on the 2012 election, a feature in Politico today highlights the fact that his choice may influence future elections as well. Choosing someone like Paul Ryan, who is not only young, but the intellectual leader of his party, could well set the Wisconsin congressman up as the putative frontrunner in subsequent presidential elections whether or not the 2012 ticket is successful.

The debate about the vice presidential pick is, as Politico notes, something of a stand in for the broader argument about the future of the Republican Party. Should Romney go with Ryan it could mean that the reformist wing of the party will not only get a boost but have its leader put in a position from which he may well dominate the party. On the other hand, picking a more conventional figure like Sen. Rob Portman would serve as a brake on the conservative thinkers who want to help change Washington. The elevation of Ryan could, as Rep. Tom Cole tells Politico, be akin to Ronald Reagan choosing Jack Kemp as his running mate in 1980 rather than establishment favorite George H.W. Bush. Had Reagan tapped Kemp, it is probable that neither the elder nor the younger Bush would have ever been president. It is impossible to say in such a counter-factual scenario how else history would have been changed, but it is a reminder that there’s a lot more at stake in this decision than the impact on this November or even who will be presiding over the Senate next year.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which this picture of a rosy Ryan future is derailed. Ryan could prove a flop on the national stage, though given his experience in the Washington maelstrom as the center of debates on the budget and entitlement reform that seems unlikely. A greater danger is that as a vice presidential candidate Ryan would be the focus of an intense Democratic campaign whose intent would be to demonize him and brand both Romney and the Republican party as villains intent on pushing grandma off the cliff. The toll such Mediscare tactics may exact on the GOP should not be underestimated, and that may explain the reluctance on the part of many Republicans to endorse Ryan as a possible veep.

But though Democrats may be as excited about a Ryan pick as some Republicans, he should not be underestimated. Ryan will be a formidable asset for Romney, and even Republicans who are leery about him may change their minds once they take a closer look and see how his serious approach can connect with voters. Indeed, here the comparison with Kemp may be instructive. Kemp was the favorite of supply side conservatives and an admirable man whom many believed was destined for the White House. But, as even he admitted, he had already had his dream job — as an NFL quarterback — and he may have lacked the fire to get to the top in politics. Bob Dole would pick Kemp as his veep choice in 1996, but there was nothing the former QB could do to inject life into that hopeless attempt to defeat Bill Clinton. Ryan is as knowledgeable as Kemp was about tax and budget issues but appears to be more focused on what it takes to succeed in Washington.

Ryan is, according to Chuck Todd of NBC News, one of the three finalists in the GOP veep race along with Portman and Tim Pawlenty. We don’t really know how any of them will play this fall, but there’s little doubt that Ryan is the choice that brings with it the most risk as well as the most reward for Romney. But if Ryan is the choice, it will not only place him at the head of the line as a presidential nominee in 2016 or 2020 (depending on whether Romney wins) but will give the ideas he stands for a bigger audience. For those who believe the nation’s future rests on our willingness to listen to voices of reason like Ryan who understand that entitlements must be reformed, there is more resting on Romney’s decision than the pundits may think.

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Obama Channels Bush 41’s Problems

Barack Obama’s foreign policy has often been compared to that of the first President Bush as the “realist” tendencies of both the president and his advisers have often been noted particularly with regard to his hostility to Israel and interest in appeasing Russia. But on the day that George H.W. Bush celebrates his 88th birthday, the real comparison between the Republican mandarin and the hero of the liberal “hope and change” crowd is just becoming apparent. As he seeks re-election, President Obama is fighting not so much to convince Americans of his worth but to control the narrative about a failing economy. That’s the very same struggle the 41st president fought and lost 20 years ago.

A generation after his political Waterloo at the hands of Bill Clinton’s political war room that immortalized the slogan “It’s the economy stupid,” the elder Bush is a popular figure, especially when compared to his son. Unlike his namesake, Bush 41’s re-election efforts were sabotaged by Ross Perot’s third party candidacy and the bad timing that caused his post-Gulf War popularity to peak a year before he faced the voters again. But most of all it was the perception that he had led the economy onto the rocks and was so out of touch with ordinary Americans that he didn’t even know it. After the last two weeks in which a devastating jobs report was followed by President Obama’s claim the private sector was “doing just fine,” you don’t have to strain to hear the echoes of the elder Bush’s troubles.

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Barack Obama’s foreign policy has often been compared to that of the first President Bush as the “realist” tendencies of both the president and his advisers have often been noted particularly with regard to his hostility to Israel and interest in appeasing Russia. But on the day that George H.W. Bush celebrates his 88th birthday, the real comparison between the Republican mandarin and the hero of the liberal “hope and change” crowd is just becoming apparent. As he seeks re-election, President Obama is fighting not so much to convince Americans of his worth but to control the narrative about a failing economy. That’s the very same struggle the 41st president fought and lost 20 years ago.

A generation after his political Waterloo at the hands of Bill Clinton’s political war room that immortalized the slogan “It’s the economy stupid,” the elder Bush is a popular figure, especially when compared to his son. Unlike his namesake, Bush 41’s re-election efforts were sabotaged by Ross Perot’s third party candidacy and the bad timing that caused his post-Gulf War popularity to peak a year before he faced the voters again. But most of all it was the perception that he had led the economy onto the rocks and was so out of touch with ordinary Americans that he didn’t even know it. After the last two weeks in which a devastating jobs report was followed by President Obama’s claim the private sector was “doing just fine,” you don’t have to strain to hear the echoes of the elder Bush’s troubles.

Bush 41’s biggest problem in 1992 was an economy that was slow to rebound from a recession. The nation’s economic malaise was the foundation for Clinton’s critique of Bush. But even though the situation wasn’t nearly as bad as the Democrats painted it (and was well on the way to recovery in the final months of his presidency), there was no denying the White House seemed helpless throughout the campaign to combat the impression the country was going under on Bush’s watch.

The notion of Bush 41 as being clueless about the struggle of ordinary Americans was captured in one cringe-inducing moment when he expressed amazement at a supermarket price scanner, a device that had been in use in most stores for years. While it wasn’t really fair to criticize a man who had spent the previous 12 years as president and vice president for his unfamiliarity with the routines of grocery shopping, it reinforced the notion of him being a patrician who was clueless about ordinary life. Obama’s gaffe was actually much worse than that. It shows his refusal to accept the reality of the failure of some of his policies, but the real damage is that it has strengthened the prevailing narrative about the economy.

The analogy between the two presidents is far from exact. Obama has advantages Bush 41 could only dream of. Bush was just another in a long line of wealthy white guys to live in the White House, while Obama has the historic status that comes from being the first African-American president. Bush had a restive GOP base that bitterly resented the breaking of his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes, while Obama can still count on a united party even if the messianic hopes his presidency engendered have deflated some of their enthusiasm. Obama also can count on a mostly sympathetic liberal mainstream press. Most of all, there is no Ross Perot-like third party challenger in 2012 to muddy the waters and disrupt partisan voting trends that might have saved Bush.

But for all his advantages, unless President Obama can convince the country that events are not slipping beyond his control, he is on a fast track to being the first one-term president since Bush 41.

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On Assad, Obama is Repeating Bush 41’s Saddam Mistake

On February 15, 1991, at a campaign stop in Ohio, President George H.W. Bush called for “the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” Saddam was a dangerous tyrant and would have to go. But, Bush’s re-election campaign was hot and heavy at the time and focused on the economy, not foreign policy. Bush’s national security advisers—some of whom now praise President Obama and castigate Mitt Romney’s team—did not want to entangle the United States in a prolonged conflict, and so the United States stood aside as Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards—many just days after their release from U.S. custody—mowed down Iraqi Shi’ites.

Fast forward a decade. The Syrian people rise up. At first, Secretary of State Clinton maintains the fiction that Bashar al-Assad is a reformer. If that’s what career diplomats were telling her, it should put an end to the nonsense that having an embassy in the country improves intelligence about it. But then again, diplomats said the same thing about Saddam Hussein. As a young Iraq desk officer, for example, Frank Ricciardone—today serving as U.S. ambassador to Turkey—pushed relentlessly for U.S. rapprochement with Saddam Hussein.

Clinton, however, changed tack as Assad’s massacres accelerated. “We think Assad must go,” she told ABC News two months ago in the wake of the Istanbul “Friends of the Syrian People Conference.” Just over a week ago, she said, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end.”  There is nothing more dangerous than promoting Assad’s ouster and then standing by when the Syrian people rise up and get massacred.

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On February 15, 1991, at a campaign stop in Ohio, President George H.W. Bush called for “the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” Saddam was a dangerous tyrant and would have to go. But, Bush’s re-election campaign was hot and heavy at the time and focused on the economy, not foreign policy. Bush’s national security advisers—some of whom now praise President Obama and castigate Mitt Romney’s team—did not want to entangle the United States in a prolonged conflict, and so the United States stood aside as Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards—many just days after their release from U.S. custody—mowed down Iraqi Shi’ites.

Fast forward a decade. The Syrian people rise up. At first, Secretary of State Clinton maintains the fiction that Bashar al-Assad is a reformer. If that’s what career diplomats were telling her, it should put an end to the nonsense that having an embassy in the country improves intelligence about it. But then again, diplomats said the same thing about Saddam Hussein. As a young Iraq desk officer, for example, Frank Ricciardone—today serving as U.S. ambassador to Turkey—pushed relentlessly for U.S. rapprochement with Saddam Hussein.

Clinton, however, changed tack as Assad’s massacres accelerated. “We think Assad must go,” she told ABC News two months ago in the wake of the Istanbul “Friends of the Syrian People Conference.” Just over a week ago, she said, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end.”  There is nothing more dangerous than promoting Assad’s ouster and then standing by when the Syrian people rise up and get massacred.

We still pay for the legacy of the elder Bush’s error. The Iraqi Shi’ites, who celebrated their liberation from Saddam and who just three years earlier had been fighting Iran, had little choice but to seek Iran’s protective embrace. Saddam put down the revolt and, during the subsequent 12 years, organized some Shi’ites into the Badr Corps and other radically anti-American militias.

By encouraging—however belatedly—a revolt in Syria and then stepping aside, the Obama administration is following the elder Bush’s playbook to the letter. While many in the Iraqi opposition fell under Iran’s sway, the longer the Obama administration waits in Syria, the more entrenched al-Qaeda ideologues become. And, if history repeats itself, then by allowing such a huge gap to develop between his administration’s rhetoric and the reality of its policy, President Obama is encouraging the most cynical anti-American conspiracy theories to become public perception, and risking Syria becoming a source of instability for years to come.

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Obama Still Not Fooling Anyone on Israel

When foreign policy “realists,” pseudo-realists, and leftists claim that the pro-Israel establishment is preventing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, their argument fails to account for one aspect of recent Mideast history: During the administrations of American presidents seen as favoring Israel, the Jewish state’s leaders made serious offers for a final-status agreement.

So the argument that more “daylight” is needed between the U.S. and Israel is generally met with proper skepticism. So is the declaration that President Obama is just as pro-Israel as his predecessors, he’s just showing his friends a bit of tough love–heavy on the tough, light on the love. Aaron David Miller, part of Bill Clinton’s Mideast negotiating team, doesn’t think there’s any reason to fool yourself about that last point. He has written an article for Foreign Policy’s website detailing the six most damaging myths of the U.S.-Israel relationship. No. 6 is: “Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.” Miller writes:

There’s no question that Obama understands and appreciates the special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Obama isn’t Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel — not even close. These guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too, but they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the idea of Israel’s story, and as a consequence they could make allowances at times for Israel’s behavior even when it clashed with their own policy goals. Obama is more like George H.W. Bush when it comes to Israel, but without the strategy…

If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that’s the point: He probably won’t have the chance.

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When foreign policy “realists,” pseudo-realists, and leftists claim that the pro-Israel establishment is preventing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, their argument fails to account for one aspect of recent Mideast history: During the administrations of American presidents seen as favoring Israel, the Jewish state’s leaders made serious offers for a final-status agreement.

So the argument that more “daylight” is needed between the U.S. and Israel is generally met with proper skepticism. So is the declaration that President Obama is just as pro-Israel as his predecessors, he’s just showing his friends a bit of tough love–heavy on the tough, light on the love. Aaron David Miller, part of Bill Clinton’s Mideast negotiating team, doesn’t think there’s any reason to fool yourself about that last point. He has written an article for Foreign Policy’s website detailing the six most damaging myths of the U.S.-Israel relationship. No. 6 is: “Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.” Miller writes:

There’s no question that Obama understands and appreciates the special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Obama isn’t Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel — not even close. These guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too, but they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the idea of Israel’s story, and as a consequence they could make allowances at times for Israel’s behavior even when it clashed with their own policy goals. Obama is more like George H.W. Bush when it comes to Israel, but without the strategy…

If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that’s the point: He probably won’t have the chance.

Miller has made this point before. And when he says “He probably won’t have the chance,” that’s because the American public and their representatives in the Congress don’t want to downgrade the U.S.-Israeli relationship, so they will work to prevent Obama from doing so. The problem for the president is that he cannot argue that his way is more effective—he thus far has moved the parties in the conflict further away from where they’ve been in the past—or that he is the victim. After all, even Clinton—who never hid his disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu–got Netanyahu to sign a deal, and with Yasser Arafat no less.

Under the previous two administrations—one Democratic, one Republican–the Israeli right, left, and center have all signed agreements, made final-status offers, or led Israel to make unprecedented sacrifices for the peace process. As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote recently: “Israelis still recall with disbelief how Obama refused to honor Bush’s written commitment to Ariel Sharon—that the U.S. would support settlement blocs being incorporated into Israel proper. And never has an American president treated an Israeli prime minister with such shabbiness as Obama has treated Netanyahu. Indeed one gets the impression that of all the world’s leaders, Obama most detests the prime minister of Israel.”

Read that last sentence again and understand why it matters that Obama thinks less of Israel than his predecessors did, and why he has failed both the Israelis and the Palestinians because of it.

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Elder Bush Makes Elite’s Choice Official

I’ve always been of the opinion that the idea there is such a thing as a Republican “establishment” is something of a myth. The GOP hasn’t really had anything approximating a ruling elite since conservatives nominated Barry Goldwater and booed Nelson Rockefeller off the stage at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. The idea that Wall Street honchos or intellectuals running national magazines have any power over Republican voters and the party apparatus is based on a misunderstanding of how contemporary American politics works. The only thing that approximates an establishment is the family who produced two U.S. presidents during the course of a 20-year period encompassing the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one: the Bushes.

So the announcement yesterday that the elder George Bush is endorsing Mitt Romney comes as close as anything can to verifying one of the media’s favorite clichés about the Republican establishment’s role in the 2012 race. Given this mythical establishment’s lack of actual power and the resentment that the mere idea of its existence can conjure up among the party’s grass roots, it is doubtful the 41st president’s seal of approval will help Romney all that much. But what the Bush statement does do is make it clear exactly whom the GOP’s royal family doesn’t like: Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.

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I’ve always been of the opinion that the idea there is such a thing as a Republican “establishment” is something of a myth. The GOP hasn’t really had anything approximating a ruling elite since conservatives nominated Barry Goldwater and booed Nelson Rockefeller off the stage at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. The idea that Wall Street honchos or intellectuals running national magazines have any power over Republican voters and the party apparatus is based on a misunderstanding of how contemporary American politics works. The only thing that approximates an establishment is the family who produced two U.S. presidents during the course of a 20-year period encompassing the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one: the Bushes.

So the announcement yesterday that the elder George Bush is endorsing Mitt Romney comes as close as anything can to verifying one of the media’s favorite clichés about the Republican establishment’s role in the 2012 race. Given this mythical establishment’s lack of actual power and the resentment that the mere idea of its existence can conjure up among the party’s grass roots, it is doubtful the 41st president’s seal of approval will help Romney all that much. But what the Bush statement does do is make it clear exactly whom the GOP’s royal family doesn’t like: Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.

When President Bush praised Romney as someone who wasn’t a “bomb thrower,” it’s not exactly a secret that he was thinking about Newt Gingrich. Bush and other GOP moderates disdained Gingrich as a radical troublemaker during the Reagan administration and considered his scorched earth tactics as House Minority Leader during the first Bush presidency to be contemptible.

Though Bush also said that he “liked” Rick Perry, the blood feud between the Texas governor and his son’s political camp is also no secret. Had there been any affinity between Perry and the Bushes, the latter might have avoided any endorsements.

It is doubtful any endorsement these days carries all that much weight. Bush 41 had a similar profile to Romney during his political career. Like Romney, Bush came from wealth, flip-flopped on abortion and was unreliable on the key economic issue of his day (substitute his “read my lips” switch on raising taxes for Romneycare). So it’s not likely that Tea Partiers and social conservatives, most of whom never had much use for George W. Bush’s father in the first place, will be swayed by his support for Romney.

But in the context of a crowded GOP field with a gaggle of unsatisfactory candidates vying for the affections of a limited universe of social conservative voters, Romney can survive the unflattering comparison. Yet if Bush 41’s seal of approval does help convince some wavering middle-of-the-road Republicans and moderate conservatives to forget about Gingrich or Perry and go with the more electable Romney, it won’t hurt him.

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Obama’s Moment to Redefine the Modern Middle East

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution. Read More

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution.

Unfortunately, instead of someone like Bush, who had served as an ambassador, CIA director, and vice president, we have in the Oval Office a president with no foreign-policy credentials. This president seems to think that the entire region revolves around the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Already Obama missed a crucial opportunity in the summer of 2009 to encourage the Green Revolution in Iran. Let us hope that will be a learning experience. This time around, we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

For all his lack of experience, Obama is no newcomer to the job. He is a fast learner, and he has a gift for rhetoric the likes of which always eluded George H.W. Bush. This may very well be his moment: the moment for redefining the modern Middle East. He should seize it — if he’s not too distracted with the domestic priorities that as usual dominated the State of the Union.

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Rep. Allan West Talking Sense on PLO Flag

In a press release this morning, Rep. Allan West asked why the PLO is allowed to fly its flag above its Washington office but Taiwan is not.

“By allowing this flag to be flown, the United States is extending a diplomatic right that we refrain from offering to even our own allies, like Taiwan,” said West. “This action is a diplomatic slap in the face of our greatest of allies, Israel.”

The Taiwan-PLO comparison is an excellent point. As far as officially recognized states go, Taiwan is clearly further along that path than Palestine is. The U.S. has also recognized Taiwan as a country in the past.

Here are some more comparisons between Taiwan and Palestine:

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan has been an autonomous, self-governing entity for decades.

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan doesn’t claim that the only way it can ever be free is if it destroys the state next to it (in this case, China).

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan has been a reliable ally of the U.S. for years.

• Unlike Palestine, the U.S. has trusted Taiwan enough to sell it extensive arms, including F-16s under President George H.W. Bush.

West is right that this is a slap in the face to Israel — but it’s also a slap in the face to Taiwan, which has no hope of being recognized any time soon. According to West’s press release, he has joined House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in speaking out against the PLO flag being flown. Both members of Congress are asking President Obama and the State Department to rescind the authorization given to the PLO to raise the flag.

In a press release this morning, Rep. Allan West asked why the PLO is allowed to fly its flag above its Washington office but Taiwan is not.

“By allowing this flag to be flown, the United States is extending a diplomatic right that we refrain from offering to even our own allies, like Taiwan,” said West. “This action is a diplomatic slap in the face of our greatest of allies, Israel.”

The Taiwan-PLO comparison is an excellent point. As far as officially recognized states go, Taiwan is clearly further along that path than Palestine is. The U.S. has also recognized Taiwan as a country in the past.

Here are some more comparisons between Taiwan and Palestine:

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan has been an autonomous, self-governing entity for decades.

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan doesn’t claim that the only way it can ever be free is if it destroys the state next to it (in this case, China).

• Unlike Palestine, Taiwan has been a reliable ally of the U.S. for years.

• Unlike Palestine, the U.S. has trusted Taiwan enough to sell it extensive arms, including F-16s under President George H.W. Bush.

West is right that this is a slap in the face to Israel — but it’s also a slap in the face to Taiwan, which has no hope of being recognized any time soon. According to West’s press release, he has joined House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in speaking out against the PLO flag being flown. Both members of Congress are asking President Obama and the State Department to rescind the authorization given to the PLO to raise the flag.

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MSNBC’s Selective History

Courtesy of Newsbusters, MSNBC is airing a promo for President Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union. It features video from previous State of the Union speeches. The presidents you see and hear from are, in order, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Following the clips, you read these words: “America Always Believes in a Better Future.”

So who might be missing from this pantheon? Try Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, just for starters. Perhaps at MSNBC, those Republicans are viewed as an obstacle to a better future.

The slogan “Lean Forward” might be better understood as “Lean Left.” And in MSNBC’s case, Very Left.

Courtesy of Newsbusters, MSNBC is airing a promo for President Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union. It features video from previous State of the Union speeches. The presidents you see and hear from are, in order, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Following the clips, you read these words: “America Always Believes in a Better Future.”

So who might be missing from this pantheon? Try Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, just for starters. Perhaps at MSNBC, those Republicans are viewed as an obstacle to a better future.

The slogan “Lean Forward” might be better understood as “Lean Left.” And in MSNBC’s case, Very Left.

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Obama Rebounds in December After Devastating November

President Obama has had a heckuva December, especially considering how dismal his November was. Just a month after suffering a midterm-election drubbing, he has bounced back with a renewal of the Bush tax cuts, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and now ratification of New START. Oh, and he also issued his AfPak review, which endorsed the counterinsurgency plan being implemented by General Petraeus.

It is hard to imagine a more skillful triangulation, offering something to both the right (tax cuts, toughness on the war effort) and the left (letting gays serve openly, passing an arms-control treaty). Actually, I’m not sure how left-wing even his liberal achievements are, since a number of conservatives (myself included) endorsed DADT repeal and New START passage. Considering that he is probably the most liberal occupant of the Oval Office, he has done a surprisingly good job of moving to the center, as witnessed by the Republican votes he has managed to garner on DADT and New START — votes that were notably absent when he rammed his health-care bill through Congress.

The biggest challenge for the president in the 684 days remaining until the 2012 election is to address the two biggest threats to our long-term well-being: the ballooning national debt and the anemic pace of economic growth. He needs to work with the GOP Congress to cut spending, which will alienate his Democratic base; the economy will, I assume, rebound more or less on its own barring any more onerous regulatory or tax bills from Washington.

As for foreign policy, his biggest challenges are to make sure that the military campaign in Afghanistan progresses and that Iraq does not regress. He has caught an extraordinarily lucky break thanks to the Stuxnet virus, probably engineered by the Israelis, which seems to have set the Iranian program back another year or two. That means it’s very unlikely that Iran will go nuclear before the 2012 election — a calamity for which Obama would shoulder the blame. The biggest threat he faces is an unexpected crisis: e.g., war on the Korean peninsula or between India and Pakistan or a devastating terrorist strike on the American homeland as a result of a security breakdown. Barring such a calamity, and notwithstanding his weak poll numbers, I’d say he is looking like a prohibitively strong candidate for re-election — especially because there is not an obvious candidate of stature in the Republican ranks.

But of course, it’s still early. It is salutary to recall that in December 1990, George H.W. Bush had considerably higher poll numbers than Obama has today — 61 percent for Bush vs. 46 percent for Obama.

President Obama has had a heckuva December, especially considering how dismal his November was. Just a month after suffering a midterm-election drubbing, he has bounced back with a renewal of the Bush tax cuts, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and now ratification of New START. Oh, and he also issued his AfPak review, which endorsed the counterinsurgency plan being implemented by General Petraeus.

It is hard to imagine a more skillful triangulation, offering something to both the right (tax cuts, toughness on the war effort) and the left (letting gays serve openly, passing an arms-control treaty). Actually, I’m not sure how left-wing even his liberal achievements are, since a number of conservatives (myself included) endorsed DADT repeal and New START passage. Considering that he is probably the most liberal occupant of the Oval Office, he has done a surprisingly good job of moving to the center, as witnessed by the Republican votes he has managed to garner on DADT and New START — votes that were notably absent when he rammed his health-care bill through Congress.

The biggest challenge for the president in the 684 days remaining until the 2012 election is to address the two biggest threats to our long-term well-being: the ballooning national debt and the anemic pace of economic growth. He needs to work with the GOP Congress to cut spending, which will alienate his Democratic base; the economy will, I assume, rebound more or less on its own barring any more onerous regulatory or tax bills from Washington.

As for foreign policy, his biggest challenges are to make sure that the military campaign in Afghanistan progresses and that Iraq does not regress. He has caught an extraordinarily lucky break thanks to the Stuxnet virus, probably engineered by the Israelis, which seems to have set the Iranian program back another year or two. That means it’s very unlikely that Iran will go nuclear before the 2012 election — a calamity for which Obama would shoulder the blame. The biggest threat he faces is an unexpected crisis: e.g., war on the Korean peninsula or between India and Pakistan or a devastating terrorist strike on the American homeland as a result of a security breakdown. Barring such a calamity, and notwithstanding his weak poll numbers, I’d say he is looking like a prohibitively strong candidate for re-election — especially because there is not an obvious candidate of stature in the Republican ranks.

But of course, it’s still early. It is salutary to recall that in December 1990, George H.W. Bush had considerably higher poll numbers than Obama has today — 61 percent for Bush vs. 46 percent for Obama.

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Obama’s Not-So-Very-Good Week

David Brooks is not only an outstanding columnist; he’s also a friend. And so I want to register a friendly dissent with his column today.

As Rick noted, David argues that Barack Obama ran for president as a “network liberal” — defined as  one who believes progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions. (Brooks contrasts this with “cluster liberals/cluster conservatives,” meaning those who believe that victory is achieved through “maximum unity” and that “partisan might” should be “bluntly applied.”) But in office, Brooks writes, “Obama, like George W. Bush before him, narrowed his networks.”

That is, I think, an unfair reading of the Bush presidency.

One of the first significant legislative undertakings of President Bush, for example, was No Child Left Behind, which was the result of substantial bipartisan cooperation. President Obama has, until now, shown no such inclination to work with Republicans. In the first term, Bush also worked with Democrats on Medicare prescription drugs. Both the Afghanistan and Iraq war resolutions had substantial to overwhelming bipartisan support; so did the Patriot Act. Even on the 2001 tax cuts, Bush worked with Democrats and took into account their input. (Then House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt said a corporate tax cut was a non-starter with his caucus; he suggested instead sending out rebate checks to low- and moderate-income households. In response Bush, against his better judgment, instructed the White House staff to replace the corporate rate cut with Gephardt’s rebates. For more, see Karl Rove’s Courage and Consequence, chapter 19.)

At comparable points in their presidency, then, George W. Bush was much more of a “network conservative” than Obama has been a “network liberal.” Read More

David Brooks is not only an outstanding columnist; he’s also a friend. And so I want to register a friendly dissent with his column today.

As Rick noted, David argues that Barack Obama ran for president as a “network liberal” — defined as  one who believes progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions. (Brooks contrasts this with “cluster liberals/cluster conservatives,” meaning those who believe that victory is achieved through “maximum unity” and that “partisan might” should be “bluntly applied.”) But in office, Brooks writes, “Obama, like George W. Bush before him, narrowed his networks.”

That is, I think, an unfair reading of the Bush presidency.

One of the first significant legislative undertakings of President Bush, for example, was No Child Left Behind, which was the result of substantial bipartisan cooperation. President Obama has, until now, shown no such inclination to work with Republicans. In the first term, Bush also worked with Democrats on Medicare prescription drugs. Both the Afghanistan and Iraq war resolutions had substantial to overwhelming bipartisan support; so did the Patriot Act. Even on the 2001 tax cuts, Bush worked with Democrats and took into account their input. (Then House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt said a corporate tax cut was a non-starter with his caucus; he suggested instead sending out rebate checks to low- and moderate-income households. In response Bush, against his better judgment, instructed the White House staff to replace the corporate rate cut with Gephardt’s rebates. For more, see Karl Rove’s Courage and Consequence, chapter 19.)

At comparable points in their presidency, then, George W. Bush was much more of a “network conservative” than Obama has been a “network liberal.”

Second, David — in contrasting Obama favorably this week with “cluster liberals” — writes:

Cluster liberals in the House and the commentariat are angry. They have no strategy for how Obama could have better played his weak hand — with a coming Republican majority, an expiring tax law and several Democratic senators from red states insisting on extending all the cuts. They just sense the waning of their moment and are howling in protest.

They believe nonliberals are blackmailers or hostage-takers or the concentrated repositories of human evil, so, of course, they see coalition-building as collaboration. They are also convinced that Democrats should never start a negotiation because they will always end up losing in the end. (Perhaps psychologists can explain the interesting combination: intellectual self-confidence alongside a political inferiority complex.)

Some of this analysis I agree with. I would point out, however, that (a) during his press conference, Obama was as visibly angry as many people can recall seeing him, and (b) the term “hostage takers” was used by Obama against Republicans.

Finally, I disagree with David’s verdict that Obama had “a very good week.” Brooks’s argument is that Obama has put himself in a position to govern again, and I understand and have some sympathy with the point he’s making: Obama is distancing himself from his liberal base and, in so doing, embracing a policy that is both fairly popular and wise.

What’s going to damage Obama, though, is the manner in which the distancing was done. The president’s base is enraged at him; what we’re seeing looks very much like a political revolt within his own ranks. It’s stating the obvious to say that having members of your own congressional caucus cursing at you is not a very good thing. And as President George H.W. Bush found out with his violation of his “no new taxes” pledge, creating fury within your base in order to tack to the center can hurt one rather than help one.

Nor is it clear yet that Nancy Pelosi will even bring the legislation Obama has blessed to the floor for a vote without changes. I assume she will — but if the speaker decides not to, and if as a result Obama fails to get this deal signed into law, it will be a terrifically damaging blow to his prestige and his presidency. And even if Obama does succeed, he has created enormous unhappiness and mistrust among his base. This won’t be forgotten any time soon. Presidents, while needing to distance themselves from their base at times, don’t usually succeed when they are at war with it.

Democratic tempers will cool over time; new political battles will reconnect Obama to his party. And the key variable remains the economy. If in 2012 unemployment is going down, if the economy is growing at a brisk pace, and if people are confident about the trajectory the country is on, Obama will be in good shape with both his base and with independents. For now, though, the president is in a precarious position, having (for the moment at least) lost his base without having won over the rest of the country. It may be that the former is necessary to achieve the latter — but the way these things are done matters quite a lot. And this has been ugly all the way around.

If David Brooks is right and this week signaled the beginning of a fundamental change in Obama’s governing philosophy, then the president has helped himself. If, on the other hand, what Obama did this week was simply an anomaly, a tactical shift without a fundamental rethinking, then he has complicated his life and damaged his presidency.

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Morning Commentary

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has hit the ground running as the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. First items on the agenda: cutting the State Department budget, forcing significant changes at the UN, and increasing pressure on “rogue states.”

Ron Paul is the only member of Congress to vote against a resolution honoring Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Paul has been an outspoken critic of the National Endowment of Democracy, which he claims helps stir up international conflict with taxpayer money. Much of Xiaobo’s fine work has been funded through grants from the NED.

George H.W. Bush has thrown his support behind New START, becoming the most prominent Republican figure yet to publicly back the controversial legislation.

James Fallows cautions not to put too much stock into those exceptional Shanghai test scores, noting that the students tested may not have been representative of the average Chinese student. “No doubt these results reflect something real,” wrote Fallows. “But as with just about everything concerning modern China, the results should also be viewed with some distance and possible skepticism.”

Former Army analyst Bradley Manning is facing half a century in prison for leaking secret military documents to WikiLeaks, but it seems he’s become something of a folk hero among left-wingers. The city council of Berkeley is considering a resolution honoring his “patriotism.” The Washington Examiner’s Mark Hemingway suggests: “Once they take care of this vital matter, perhaps they can get around to finally doing something about all the deranged panhandlers on Telegraph Avenue.”

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg may protest allegations that he’s running for president, but his speech yesterday sure sounded like it. And as NBC’s Mark Murray noted, the words also sounded vaguely familiar.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has hit the ground running as the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. First items on the agenda: cutting the State Department budget, forcing significant changes at the UN, and increasing pressure on “rogue states.”

Ron Paul is the only member of Congress to vote against a resolution honoring Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Paul has been an outspoken critic of the National Endowment of Democracy, which he claims helps stir up international conflict with taxpayer money. Much of Xiaobo’s fine work has been funded through grants from the NED.

George H.W. Bush has thrown his support behind New START, becoming the most prominent Republican figure yet to publicly back the controversial legislation.

James Fallows cautions not to put too much stock into those exceptional Shanghai test scores, noting that the students tested may not have been representative of the average Chinese student. “No doubt these results reflect something real,” wrote Fallows. “But as with just about everything concerning modern China, the results should also be viewed with some distance and possible skepticism.”

Former Army analyst Bradley Manning is facing half a century in prison for leaking secret military documents to WikiLeaks, but it seems he’s become something of a folk hero among left-wingers. The city council of Berkeley is considering a resolution honoring his “patriotism.” The Washington Examiner’s Mark Hemingway suggests: “Once they take care of this vital matter, perhaps they can get around to finally doing something about all the deranged panhandlers on Telegraph Avenue.”

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg may protest allegations that he’s running for president, but his speech yesterday sure sounded like it. And as NBC’s Mark Murray noted, the words also sounded vaguely familiar.

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