Commentary Magazine


Topic: Harry Truman

The Buck Stops Here, But It’s All Their Fault

Charles Blow of the New York Times wins today’s disingenuousness award for his column in defense of President Obama. The subject: does President Obama deserve his reputation for blaming either the previous administration or congressional Republicans for the nation’s problems?

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Charles Blow of the New York Times wins today’s disingenuousness award for his column in defense of President Obama. The subject: does President Obama deserve his reputation for blaming either the previous administration or congressional Republicans for the nation’s problems?

Blow huffily responds that this president is, in fact, a latter day Truman, a “habitual blame taker.” For example, President Obama said in a 2013 interview that “ultimately, the buck stops with me.”

But, as Blow neglects to mention, the president immediately added: “And, you know, I’ve said before—and I continue to say—you know, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get Congress—and Republicans in Congress in particular—to think less about politics and party and think more about what’s good for the country.” That is, when it comes to preventing selfish and unpatriotic Republicans from destroying the country, President Obama takes full responsibility.

To be sure, Blow finds other places in which Obama invokes Truman. For example, in 2012, Obama shared what Blow calls “his philosophy of presidential responsibility”: “as president of the United States, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m responsible for folks who are working in the federal government and, you know, the buck stops with you.”

However, as Blow chooses not to say, Obama was there in the midst not of taking responsibility for anything but of demanding that Mitt Romney take the blame for what Bain Capital did when Romney was not actively managing it.

In two of the other six quotations Blow hand-selects to prove that President Obama is positively eager to take responsibility for what happens on his watch, the president is at best holding himself accountable for (some day) cleaning up the mess that somebody else made. Concerning the bonuses A.I.G. executives, the president did say, again, “the buck stops with me,” but only after saying “We’ve got a big mess that we’re having to clean up. Nobody here drafted these contracts. Nobody here was responsible for supervising A.I.G.”

Concerning the slowness of the recovery, here it is again: “the buck stops with me.” President Obama said that in response to Wolf Blitzer, who had just reminded him of a statement he made when he took office: “if I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” Obama’s responded, “when I came into office, I knew I was going to have a big mess to clean up and frankly, I think the mess has been bigger than I think a lot of people anticipated.” In other words, he took responsibility for pulling America out of the mess the previous administration had made, a responsibility he would perhaps have already fulfilled, he added, were it not for Congress (i.e. the Republicans): “we’re going to need folks to move off some of these rigid positions they’ve been taking in order to solve these problems.”

So in the week Charles Blow presumably spent googling up quotations that would demonstrate “how outrageously untrue” it is that the president rarely takes responsibility for failures, he was able to find exactly two cases in the past six years—one concerning the health-care website—in which President Obama held his administration accountable without blaming a Republican in the next breath.

Of course, President Obama was not to blame for all the problems he inherited. But that we are still discussing the “Bush hangover” in the middle of his second term is a testament less to the scope of the difficulties the country faced when the president took office than to the refusal of this administration to concede that its policies and leadership have anything to do with the foreign and domestic difficulties the country still faces.

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Toward An Achesonian Foreign Policy

One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

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One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

Obama would do well to read Dean Acheson’s memoir, Present at the Creation. In it, Acheson writes of the bad-faith actions and stubbornness of the Soviet Union’s diplomats. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, signals his determination to further engage the Soviets in a twenty-year plan to have the UN lead the world to peace. “It was to start off with something that, despite Mr. Lie’s protestations, sounded very much like appeasement to me, luring the Soviet Union back to the United Nations, from which Malik and his cohorts had withdrawn, by the majority’s reversing itself and seating the Communists as the representatives of China,” Acheson writes. “To me all this made little sense.”

He continues:

I said that on Chinese representation we held to our expressed views but would “accept the decision of any organ of the United Nations made by the necessary majority, and we [would] not walk out.” So far as negotiations were concerned we would consider anything put forward in the United Nations, but, meanwhile, “we can’t afford to wait and merely hope that [Soviet] policies will change. We must carry forward in our own determination to create situations of strength in the free world, because this is the only basis on which lasting agreement with the Soviet Government is possible.”

That phrase “situations of strength” became an essential component of Acheson’s prosecution of American foreign policy in the postwar world. The Truman administration, which Acheson served, was dealing with an obstacle that would ring familiar to President Obama. The country was surely war weary–after a second world war, it would have been strange not to be. Additionally, our European allies were suddenly not in shape to prop up the free world with minimal American involvement, and our Russian partners were keen to take advantage of European weakness and American optimism toward the end of conflict.

The “situations of strength” were not intended to replace negotiations but to strengthen America’s hand. And they required American power projection in ways that would deter aggression. We had to be ready to fight, in other words, so that we wouldn’t have to. Here is Henry Kissinger in 2006 reflecting on Acheson’s strategy:

He interpreted it to mean that the task of foreign policy was to create situations of strength around the Soviet periphery to deter any temptation for aggression. Negotiation with the Soviet Union was to be deferred until these situations of strength had come into being; any attempt to begin diplomacy prematurely would undermine the primary task.

Acheson’s overriding priority, in the years immediately following World War II, was to restore Western Europe and create an Atlantic community to resist what then appeared as the Soviet colossus. He built the structure that sustained democracy during the cold war, with the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the return of Germany and Japan to the community of nations.

Yet it is precisely these methods Obama has ignored. The door to NATO was slammed on nations in Russia’s line of fire; budget outlays for democracy promotion and programs to help build civil society in troubled parts of the world were cut; residual forces who were needed mostly to train others and to act as arbiters of internal discord were recalled; and wishful thinking and self-delusion about the intentions of others dominated an obsession with diplomacy at all costs.

There are ways, after a decade of war, to safeguard the gains and strengthen allies while avoiding new wars and working within the confines of public opinion. It’s been done before. But it still requires a level of American leadership with which Obama just doesn’t appear to be comfortable.

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Obama’s Test

There are many tests of a president, but one of the most important is: Can he (or in the future she) abandon cherished programs when they simply do not work in the real world and adopt a policy that does?

Many great presidents have passed this test. Truman abandoned the defense drawdown after the North Korean invasion of South Korea and launched a massive defense buildup. Eisenhower abandoned his campaign policy of “rollback” in favor of continuing Truman’s policy of containment. Carter abandoned his general dovishness after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and launched a defense buildup. Reagan abandoned his outreach to Iran after it became public and his peacekeeping deployment in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks. George H.W. Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge to get a budget agreement that helped to eliminate the deficit. Bill Clinton abandoned his health-care plan to adopt a more centrist approach to governing. And George W. Bush abandoned his “small footprint” approach in Iraq to order the surge, which saved the country from collapse.

Now President Obama is facing this test in his foreign policy. Can he pivot away from failure?

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There are many tests of a president, but one of the most important is: Can he (or in the future she) abandon cherished programs when they simply do not work in the real world and adopt a policy that does?

Many great presidents have passed this test. Truman abandoned the defense drawdown after the North Korean invasion of South Korea and launched a massive defense buildup. Eisenhower abandoned his campaign policy of “rollback” in favor of continuing Truman’s policy of containment. Carter abandoned his general dovishness after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and launched a defense buildup. Reagan abandoned his outreach to Iran after it became public and his peacekeeping deployment in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks. George H.W. Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge to get a budget agreement that helped to eliminate the deficit. Bill Clinton abandoned his health-care plan to adopt a more centrist approach to governing. And George W. Bush abandoned his “small footprint” approach in Iraq to order the surge, which saved the country from collapse.

Now President Obama is facing this test in his foreign policy. Can he pivot away from failure?

As Fred Hiatt argues in the Washington Post, the collapse of Iraq invalidates the arguments of administration foreign-policy Minimalists led by Joe Biden who triumphed in internal councils over Engagers such as Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, and David Petraeus who favored a more activist approach, especially in the Middle East. In recent years Obama has consistently taken the advice of the Minimalists in Syria, Iraq, and Libya and arguably Afghanistan too. In Syria the U.S. has avoided involvement in the civil war; in Iraq the U.S. pulled out its troops; in Libya the U.S. did little to aid a new government after Gaddafi’s overthrow; and in Afghanistan the White House announced timetables for American withdrawal.

As Hiatt notes: “Unfortunately, disengagement turns out not to work. A drones-first policy has stoked anti-American fervor from Pakistan to Yemen. Libya is on the brink of civil war. Syria has become ‘the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation,’ as Mr. Obama’s U.N ambassador said. Now Iraq is disintegrating.”

The question is: Will Obama rethink his approach now that it has backfired? He has offered some hints about doing more to help the Syrian opposition and possibly even launching air strikes in Iraq, but there is no sign of a fundamental recalibration so far. Indeed, when he addressed Iraq last week, pretty much the first words out of the president’s mouth were that we are not going to send ground troops–indicating that he is still more fixated on staying out of conflicts than on defending American interests in a vital region.

Obama is one of our smartest presidents so he must know how badly things are going. But he is also one of our most arrogant presidents so it will be especially hard for him to admit that what he’s done before simply isn’t working. How will this conflict resolve itself? Impossible to say but the answer to that question will determine whether U.S. foreign policy becomes more successful–or at any rate less unsuccessful–in the remaining two and a half years of the Obama presidency.

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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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Explaining Politics to the Political Scientists

Julia Azari, an assistant political science professor at Marquette, has a column in Politico Magazine that begins with a rather simple premise: President Obama’s conservative critics sometimes call him too weak and sometimes call him too strong. Isn’t this, Professor Azari asks, contradictory? Specifically, the question is centered on the fact that conservatives think Obama’s foreign policy is too timid, but his domestic policy is heavyhanded, overly bureaucratized and centralized, and sometimes unconstitutional and antidemocratic.

Azari wonders why that is. She’ll be cheered to know there is a very easy answer to this, and it’s one nearly anyone could answer: this is precisely how our system of government was designed. That is, the president is the commander in chief, and has far more latitude to conduct foreign policy than domestic policy. Therefore, when he tries to institute liberal experiments on domestic policy, he runs into the United States Congress, a coequal branch of the government. When he doesn’t get his way, he can be tempted to go around Congress.

Azari suspects this is the answer–that the Constitution has something to do with it, and several paragraphs in answers her own question:

Being seen as simultaneously too strong and too weak is a structural condition for presidents. The framers of the Constitution debated about how to design an executive strong enough to protect the country, but still constrained by the rule of law. Writing from the vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, the political scientist Richard Neustadt argued that when presidents resort to unilateral “command,” it means their efforts to persuade others have failed. In this sense, it would certainly be possible for the president to both lack the necessary strength to govern and to have the capacity to use the powers of the office in excessive and even constitutionally questionable ways– in both foreign and domestic policy.

But with regard to Obama, Azari quickly rejects the obviously correct answer because it would make Obama’s opponents sound so reasonable. So Azari must venture bravely forth, beyond the safe compound of political science and into the fire swamp of irrational, malicious gibberish:

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Julia Azari, an assistant political science professor at Marquette, has a column in Politico Magazine that begins with a rather simple premise: President Obama’s conservative critics sometimes call him too weak and sometimes call him too strong. Isn’t this, Professor Azari asks, contradictory? Specifically, the question is centered on the fact that conservatives think Obama’s foreign policy is too timid, but his domestic policy is heavyhanded, overly bureaucratized and centralized, and sometimes unconstitutional and antidemocratic.

Azari wonders why that is. She’ll be cheered to know there is a very easy answer to this, and it’s one nearly anyone could answer: this is precisely how our system of government was designed. That is, the president is the commander in chief, and has far more latitude to conduct foreign policy than domestic policy. Therefore, when he tries to institute liberal experiments on domestic policy, he runs into the United States Congress, a coequal branch of the government. When he doesn’t get his way, he can be tempted to go around Congress.

Azari suspects this is the answer–that the Constitution has something to do with it, and several paragraphs in answers her own question:

Being seen as simultaneously too strong and too weak is a structural condition for presidents. The framers of the Constitution debated about how to design an executive strong enough to protect the country, but still constrained by the rule of law. Writing from the vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, the political scientist Richard Neustadt argued that when presidents resort to unilateral “command,” it means their efforts to persuade others have failed. In this sense, it would certainly be possible for the president to both lack the necessary strength to govern and to have the capacity to use the powers of the office in excessive and even constitutionally questionable ways– in both foreign and domestic policy.

But with regard to Obama, Azari quickly rejects the obviously correct answer because it would make Obama’s opponents sound so reasonable. So Azari must venture bravely forth, beyond the safe compound of political science and into the fire swamp of irrational, malicious gibberish:

Instead, there’s a case to be made that this dual narrative is specific to the Obama presidency. Subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages about Obama’s nationality and masculinity are rife in these critiques. Comparing Putin and Obama, Sarah Palin famously commented that Obama wears “mom jeans.” On matters abroad, the implication—as with the Bergdahl case—is often that Obama demonstrates excessive sympathy for foreigners at the expense of American interests. Dictatorship narratives often include either Soviet or Nazi imagery. The factor tying the two narratives together is the idea that Obama’s very loyalties are suspect. In other words, dictatorship and weakness are both logical extensions of the claim, prevalent in some conservative circles, that Obama is not quite one of us and not an appropriate symbol of American identity.

Now, you might be tempted to steer Azari back to the land of the lucid. Republicans have accused other Democratic presidents in the past of being weak on national security, and Barack Obama himself ran–twice–on a platform that consisted, essentially, of accusing his Republican opponent of being too chicken to invade nuclear-armed Islamist countries in Central Asia. So, no, I don’t think it’s the “mom jeans” thing.

Nor is this new. Was Truman–a Democrat, by the way–accusing Eisenhower of being a feminine foreigner when he mocked Ike’s attitude toward the Soviet Union as all talk? One thinks not. (Ike was president at the time, too; Truman had already left office.) The supposed contradiction of weak on foreign affairs and statist at home is not only not mutually exclusive, as Azari seems to realize, but not unique to Obama either. Just as Azari names conservative pundits who make both accusations of Obama, she can easily dig up liberal pundits accusing George W. Bush of–in the same monologue–being a fascist and being stupid and un-American and guided by the political doctrines of our enemies.

There’s been something of a cottage industry for liberal institutions to believe–against all evidence and history–that there’s something unprecedented (as the president might say) about the partisan rancor aimed at Barack Obama. What is actually unique is the aggressiveness of the defensive posture the media and academy have taken when it comes to criticism of this president.

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What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Truman’s Earned More Than a Train Station

Is there anything Congress does better than identifying a problem that is within its power to solve and then to push a solution that will only exacerbate it? It’s a strange feeling indeed to hear your government pledge to address something you think should be remedied and be filled with dread instead of relief. And so it was with a story I missed last week but noticed when the historian Michael Beschloss mentioned it this morning: the proposed renaming of Union Station in D.C. after Harry Truman.

As the Washington Post reported, Missouri’s two senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, would like to honor the man from Independence:

McCaskill said she wanted to give Truman the honor because no site in Washington carried the Truman name. “I hear Republicans all the time comparing themselves to Harry Truman. So I figured, with so many people wanting to grab Harry Truman’s mantle, this could turn into a great bipartisan effort,” she said.

She may have forgotten that the main building housing the State Department in Washington is named for Truman.

Actually, though the Post is right here, having the State Department building named for Truman doesn’t solve the issue. I’ve never quite been able to decide if it’s insultingly tone deaf or hilariously mischievous to name a major State Department building after a president who practically faced a silent coup from his own State Department but who ultimately got the last laugh. Either way, Truman’s immediate predecessor and his immediate successor either have or will have major national monuments on the Mall. Truman deserves the same honor.

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Is there anything Congress does better than identifying a problem that is within its power to solve and then to push a solution that will only exacerbate it? It’s a strange feeling indeed to hear your government pledge to address something you think should be remedied and be filled with dread instead of relief. And so it was with a story I missed last week but noticed when the historian Michael Beschloss mentioned it this morning: the proposed renaming of Union Station in D.C. after Harry Truman.

As the Washington Post reported, Missouri’s two senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, would like to honor the man from Independence:

McCaskill said she wanted to give Truman the honor because no site in Washington carried the Truman name. “I hear Republicans all the time comparing themselves to Harry Truman. So I figured, with so many people wanting to grab Harry Truman’s mantle, this could turn into a great bipartisan effort,” she said.

She may have forgotten that the main building housing the State Department in Washington is named for Truman.

Actually, though the Post is right here, having the State Department building named for Truman doesn’t solve the issue. I’ve never quite been able to decide if it’s insultingly tone deaf or hilariously mischievous to name a major State Department building after a president who practically faced a silent coup from his own State Department but who ultimately got the last laugh. Either way, Truman’s immediate predecessor and his immediate successor either have or will have major national monuments on the Mall. Truman deserves the same honor.

It wasn’t just what Truman did, but what he built that sets him apart. In Leslie Gelb’s book on power and strategy, he claims there were three occasions when American presidents concocted “brilliant” strategies to help win the Cold War. Truman’s foreign policy was one of those three, but is reserved for special commendation from Gelb: “The Truman team’s strategy marked the golden age of U.S. foreign policy, as glorious in our history as the founding fathers’ creation of the Constitution.”

That may sound like hyperbole–or worse, to the ears of an anti-interventionist–but the fact remains it’s not easy to talk about American foreign policy without bumping into Truman in the hallway. I wrote earlier today about the National Security Agency, for example: a creation of the Truman administration. So is NATO, a constant topic of discussion these days with the unrest in Ukraine. We are marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, but Truman arguably started the ball rolling at the federal level with the integration of the Armed Forces.

Any time we talk of economic intervention we reference the Marshall Plan, but many forget just what postwar Europe looked like when Truman came into office. A couple of recent books, including Ian Buruma’s haunting Year Zero and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent, review the extent of the damage, the violence, the sickness, the hunger, the hate, and the rubble from which today’s peaceful European Union rose.

We don’t need to recount all of Truman’s successes and trailblazing–but that’s the point. We could throw in the Truman Doctrine, the success of South Korea, victory in the Pacific, etc. The list is long indeed. So McCaskill is right on the money: Truman deserves more. But a train station?

There is some logic to it, as the Post mentions: “Union Station once housed U.S. Car No. 1, or the presidential rail car, which Truman used for campaigning and other out-of-town trips.” Great. The building “once housed” a car Truman used.

There is also the matter of the name. D.C.’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said she’s fine with adding Truman’s name to the building, “so long as ‘Union Station’ remained a part of it,” according to the Post. Welcome to Harry S. Truman Union Station. Not only does that not exactly roll right off the tongue, but in all likelihood everyone will still call it Union Station. (Unlike Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which everyone calls “Reagan” or “Reagan National.”)

Of course, Truman himself was too humble to want such things anyway. On MSNBC this morning, Chuck Todd confronted McCaskill with a letter Truman wrote in which he said he had “no desire to have roads, bridges, or buildings named after me.” (Hey, he didn’t say “monuments.”) McCaskill said the thought might make Truman a bit “cranky,” but she’d press on.

After Truman was sworn in, he famously told reporters, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” It’s easy to imagine that’s how he felt: he tried to decline the vice presidency, finally guilted into it by a president who then ignored him. The responsibility he inherited with no previous guidance, armed only with common sense and Midwestern American values, was that of the world hanging in the balance. A look at the world today makes it pretty clear a train station doesn’t quite do him justice.

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Is the Culture of the Senate to Blame?

The Obama administration is foundering, with its principals stumbling from gaffe to gaffe. Long after then-Senator John Kerry was famously for it before he was against it, Secretary of State Kerry’s rhetoric repeatedly serves to nurture extremism rather than achieve peace, as he convinces rejectionists that time is on their side and rejectionism works. Now Kerry, apparently speaking from the cuff, bashes religiosity. Vice President Joe Biden, of course, makes Kerry appear taciturn. After a disastrous confirmation hearing and ill-chosen words suggesting bigotry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has apparently learned that silence is golden because whenever he does open his mouth, he tends to get in trouble. Obama himself has mouthed off in ways that undercut both diplomacy and America’s strategic position. Indeed, USA Today asked whether Obama had actually made foreign policy by gaffe.

Senators are a funny bunch. They take several hundred votes per year, most on ordinary business—for example, confirmations and cloture votes—but some for more substantive bills. Whether they vote for or against, each is but one of 100 voices. Success is easy to claim, and responsibility easy to shirk. They must be masters of everything, and so are often skin deep on any particular issue. Rhetoric comes easy: Anyone who has ever testified at a hearing understands that he or she is merely a prop as senators make speeches geared more for their local papers before leaving the room. Over time, posturing becomes both second-nature and the key to success.

Being a leader, however, is different. The buck stops at the executive’s desk, whether for good or for bad. There’s a whole literature out there about why governors make better presidents, although some suggest the reality behind such conventional wisdom is uncertain. George Washington, John Adams, John Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry S. Truman were all great presidents, but none served as governor. Washington and Eisenhower, however, were generals and so did rise from a position of leadership. Adams was a lifelong politician and diplomat, and Kennedy and Truman both served time in the Congress.

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The Obama administration is foundering, with its principals stumbling from gaffe to gaffe. Long after then-Senator John Kerry was famously for it before he was against it, Secretary of State Kerry’s rhetoric repeatedly serves to nurture extremism rather than achieve peace, as he convinces rejectionists that time is on their side and rejectionism works. Now Kerry, apparently speaking from the cuff, bashes religiosity. Vice President Joe Biden, of course, makes Kerry appear taciturn. After a disastrous confirmation hearing and ill-chosen words suggesting bigotry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has apparently learned that silence is golden because whenever he does open his mouth, he tends to get in trouble. Obama himself has mouthed off in ways that undercut both diplomacy and America’s strategic position. Indeed, USA Today asked whether Obama had actually made foreign policy by gaffe.

Senators are a funny bunch. They take several hundred votes per year, most on ordinary business—for example, confirmations and cloture votes—but some for more substantive bills. Whether they vote for or against, each is but one of 100 voices. Success is easy to claim, and responsibility easy to shirk. They must be masters of everything, and so are often skin deep on any particular issue. Rhetoric comes easy: Anyone who has ever testified at a hearing understands that he or she is merely a prop as senators make speeches geared more for their local papers before leaving the room. Over time, posturing becomes both second-nature and the key to success.

Being a leader, however, is different. The buck stops at the executive’s desk, whether for good or for bad. There’s a whole literature out there about why governors make better presidents, although some suggest the reality behind such conventional wisdom is uncertain. George Washington, John Adams, John Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry S. Truman were all great presidents, but none served as governor. Washington and Eisenhower, however, were generals and so did rise from a position of leadership. Adams was a lifelong politician and diplomat, and Kennedy and Truman both served time in the Congress.

The problem, however, might simply be treating the president in isolation. Even if a president has emerged from the Congress, often he surrounds himself with a diverse cabinet whose experience does not mirror his own. Kennedy might have appointed a career politician to be his vice president, but he chose former military officer and lifelong diplomat Dean Rusk to be his secretary of state, and Robert McNamara, his secretary of defense, had been president of the Ford Motor Company. Johnson, for his part, kept Rusk and McNamara in State and Defense, until he replaced McNamara with lawyer Clark Clifford toward the end. Gerald Ford nominated businessman Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president and kept Kissinger in place, even if he appointed politicians and bureaucrats to the defense portfolio. Truman might have chosen fellow politician Alben Barkley as his vice president, but surrounded himself with a host of secretaries of state, war, and later defense whose backgrounds were more varied.

Barack Obama seems to be the first president who has, at least in his second term, awarded all of his key foreign-policy posts to former senators, amplifying the unique personality of that position onto his administration. Poor policy and ill-thought out strategy are one-thing, but the number of own-goals Obama’s team has so far inflicted on American national security, as well as a superficial understanding of world affairs, seems to have at least some roots in Obama choosing to fish from a very narrow pool of like-minded politicians, all of whom tend to duplicate rather than correct the president’s own flaws.

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The Legend of George Kennan

Has there ever been a celebrated American official whose contribution to a successful policy has been more overrated than George Kennan? I can’t think of one. Kennan is, and it seems he will forever be, credited with crafting Harry Truman’s “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union. What actually happened–which Kennan tried to explain–was that Kennan provided the outline of an approach to foreign policy that Truman and various other advisors refashioned into a successful policy that Kennan deplored and never truly understood.

Whether it’s condescension toward Truman, a plain-speaking Midwesterner with no college degree, or fascination with the intellectualization of elite opinion whose supposed erudition frees it from the responsibility to be sound or successful, Kennan has been given this legacy against his will. I think it’s a combination of the two, but the latter–the intellectualization to the point of fetishization–is hard to ignore these days, ubiquitous as it is in the age of Obama. This is a president whose policies are disastrous but who was president of the Harvard Law Review and uses the phrase “permission structure” (“The phrase puzzled reporters,” explained a puzzled reporter) when dismissing the democratic process, so the assumption has always been that there’s a method to the madness.

Perhaps there is a method. But presidents make foreign policy, as Kennan learned the hard way. So while there might be a “doctrine” behind the policy, there isn’t likely to be a muse, even when there appears to be one. And that’s probably what Kennan would say to the suggestion, made in an otherwise shrewd assessment of Obama’s attitude toward the Middle East, that “the Kennan of Obama’s Middle East policy is Stephen Walt.” The column is from Lee Smith, the consistently incisive authority on the Middle East. Smith notes that Walt, whose “Israel lobby” blathering is sold as “realism,” has special concern about the way special relationships (like the U.S. has with Israel) can impede traditional balance-of-power strategy:

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Has there ever been a celebrated American official whose contribution to a successful policy has been more overrated than George Kennan? I can’t think of one. Kennan is, and it seems he will forever be, credited with crafting Harry Truman’s “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union. What actually happened–which Kennan tried to explain–was that Kennan provided the outline of an approach to foreign policy that Truman and various other advisors refashioned into a successful policy that Kennan deplored and never truly understood.

Whether it’s condescension toward Truman, a plain-speaking Midwesterner with no college degree, or fascination with the intellectualization of elite opinion whose supposed erudition frees it from the responsibility to be sound or successful, Kennan has been given this legacy against his will. I think it’s a combination of the two, but the latter–the intellectualization to the point of fetishization–is hard to ignore these days, ubiquitous as it is in the age of Obama. This is a president whose policies are disastrous but who was president of the Harvard Law Review and uses the phrase “permission structure” (“The phrase puzzled reporters,” explained a puzzled reporter) when dismissing the democratic process, so the assumption has always been that there’s a method to the madness.

Perhaps there is a method. But presidents make foreign policy, as Kennan learned the hard way. So while there might be a “doctrine” behind the policy, there isn’t likely to be a muse, even when there appears to be one. And that’s probably what Kennan would say to the suggestion, made in an otherwise shrewd assessment of Obama’s attitude toward the Middle East, that “the Kennan of Obama’s Middle East policy is Stephen Walt.” The column is from Lee Smith, the consistently incisive authority on the Middle East. Smith notes that Walt, whose “Israel lobby” blathering is sold as “realism,” has special concern about the way special relationships (like the U.S. has with Israel) can impede traditional balance-of-power strategy:

It is the focus on the impediment posed by these “special relationships” to realist balance-of-power policymaking that distinguishes Walt from virtually every other American in the realist school. Sure, former policymakers like Jim Baker have lamented the influence of Jewish Americans on American policymaking—but compared to Walt, Baker was a squish. It was Walt whose 2006 London Review of Books article “The Israel Lobby,” co-authored with University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, later expanded into a controversial book with the same title, first targeted the problem directly: The pro-Israel community needs to be cut down to size.

Unlike Kennan, a career diplomat, or Baker, a former secretary of state, Walt doesn’t have a formal role in government, or even any privileged access to this White House. But his ideas have nevertheless emerged at the core of a major shift in U.S. Middle East policy, which may come as a surprise to those who dismissed him as a fringe academic. The idea certainly isn’t pleasant for this columnist, who’s documented Walt’s dog-whistling blog posts meant to draw anti-Semites and anti-anti-Semites to his FP.com column, but it’s hard to dismiss his influence now. So, I tip my hat to the new George Kennan, for whether you love him or hate him, Stephen Walt has won the X sweepstakes.

Smith’s column is spot-on when describing the way the president relishes an opportunity to mute the pro-Israel voices in Washington and, when necessary, throw the occasional brushback pitch up and in. But the more encouraging aspect to the column is the memory of the Kennan-Truman collaboration it evokes–not the one of legend, but the real story.

Why did Kennan come to so dislike a policy with which he was credited? When Truman announced what became known as the Truman Doctrine, an appeal to Congress for funding to aid Greece and Turkey, the president said: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

As Truman biographer Robert J. Donovan notes, “This was the epitome of containment, although not the beginning of it.” But in fact Kennan objected to the sentence on the grounds that it was universalist, not the unprincipled realism he so preferred. It was also ideological, at odds with Kennan’s perspective as well. Kennan was not the only advisor spooked by the commitment Truman was seeking to make on behalf of the United States, so why did that line, and that commitment, stay in the speech?

Because Truman understood that his audience–the people and especially their congressional representatives–were more comfortable with a policy that reflected their values. Americans didn’t care about the fate of the postwar Greek government nearly as much as they cared about democracy and liberty–ideas and ideals worth fighting for. Kennan’s realism rarely made room for ideology, and never made room for values. It was no coincidence that he also wasn’t particularly fond of popular democracy. He thought he knew better than the masses. He was wrong.

The same is true with Walt, Obama, and other such cynical realists. Walt’s conspiracist mindset may also animate the White House’s destructive approach to the Middle East, but it fails time and again to move Congress and the public away from our allies like Israel not because of some all-powerful congressional lobby, but because the people and their representatives believe that yes, actually, Western values and democratic politics are important. Contra Walt, Israel is most certainly a strategic ally. But why stop there? Israel and America share a moral bond too. Kennan would likely disapprove of such sentimentality. And he’d be every bit as wrong now as he was then.

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“Outsiders” and Political Rebellion

If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)

Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.

Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”

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If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)

Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.

Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”

As a candidate, Obama truly was an outsider: though a senator, he had only just arrived in that august body, using his community-organizer credibility to promise a government of the people, a tree directed by its roots. As president, however, Obama has been exactly the opposite of an outsider. He has become one with the bureaucracy, not only not a leader but barely even a manager.

Looking back at the some of the moments when Western democracy truly asserted itself and proved its unmatched value to the politics of the world, it’s impossible not to repeatedly bump into the outsider presidents, people who rebelled against the bureaucracy that expected to capture them–a government of insiders who shuddered at the thought their new leader.

As David McCullough chronicles in his biography of Harry Truman, when FDR died and Truman took over, “People were fearful about the future of the country.” The head of the TVA said “The country and the world don’t deserve to be left this way.” Top generals disapproved too. Truman was such an outsider that FDR kept him out of the loop–unconscionably, considering his health. The president of the United States took the helm during World War II and had to be briefed on virtually everything that was going on in the White House.

And yet that very distance was liberating to Truman, even if he wanted to govern as he thought FDR would have–in part because, thanks to being kept in the dark, he didn’t actually know how FDR was governing most of the time. From challenging the labor unions to pushing back against Soviet encroachment, Truman successfully (if imperfectly) navigated the obstacles of the emerging postwar world. Eisenhower is often celebrated for his “realism,” but that’s because he largely maintained the American position of strength he inherited from Truman.

The Cold War that began in earnest on Truman’s watch ended in earnest on the watch of another political rebel, Ronald Reagan. He worried diplomatists in Washington by exhorting Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” He had worried hardliners earlier with his off-script diplomacy at the Reykjavik summit; Nixon said “no summit since Yalta has threatened Western interests so much as the two days at Reykjavik.”

He worried hawks with his drive to eliminate nuclear weapons. He worried doves with his drive for missile defense. Over and over again, he was right. But he had to navigate the established centers of authority on both right and left to get there, and he did so expertly. He remained enough of an outsider to do so.

And across the pond, Reagan’s ally was arguably more of a rebel against the establishment. Think of all the layers of resistance Margaret Thatcher had to break through to get to the prime minister’s office, and all the internal barriers she had to overcome once there–though of course the British premiership is structured differently than the American presidency, so the parallels are limited. (In some cases, though, that disparity makes Thatcher’s accomplishments even more impressive.)

Chris Christie’s time in office has given the impression that he would remain an outsider in Washington. Getting a Democratic state legislature in a heavily Democratic state to vote against the interests of the most powerful Democratic constituency was an example of an outsider undeterred by the entrenched power structure. When members of such an administration appear to use the authority of the state to take petty revenge on political opponents at the expense of the public, the impression is that the power structure has finally co-opted its would-be conqueror. To regain his footing, Christie will likely attempt to convince the public that he can still be trusted to tame the bureaucracy, and not be captured by it.

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Just Don’t Tell the President

When Harry Truman was getting settled in the White House and catching up on all the information FDR kept from his vice president, his aide Harry Vaughan brought him a sampling of the FBI wiretaps in which Roosevelt indulged. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had opened something of a Pandora’s box with the wiretapping capability, which FDR utilized to spy on everyone he could–including the wife of a White House advisor, as Vaughan showed Truman.

“Tell them I don’t authorize any such thing,” David McCullough quotes Truman as responding. Truman was offended by the casual eavesdropping and the blackmail that resulted from the activity. In his diary, he compared the FBI to the Gestapo, and he determined to significantly scale back Hoover’s activities. Here’s what Truman didn’t do: he didn’t wait until the snooping was discovered and made public and then pretend he had no idea what was going on. Barack Obama would do well to read up on his Truman. Obama, as the Wall Street Journal reports, is responding to the latest NSA revelations, which allege that the U.S. listened in on the phone calls of world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, the same way he responds to every scandal: he claims to have no idea what is taking place within his administration. From the Journal:

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When Harry Truman was getting settled in the White House and catching up on all the information FDR kept from his vice president, his aide Harry Vaughan brought him a sampling of the FBI wiretaps in which Roosevelt indulged. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had opened something of a Pandora’s box with the wiretapping capability, which FDR utilized to spy on everyone he could–including the wife of a White House advisor, as Vaughan showed Truman.

“Tell them I don’t authorize any such thing,” David McCullough quotes Truman as responding. Truman was offended by the casual eavesdropping and the blackmail that resulted from the activity. In his diary, he compared the FBI to the Gestapo, and he determined to significantly scale back Hoover’s activities. Here’s what Truman didn’t do: he didn’t wait until the snooping was discovered and made public and then pretend he had no idea what was going on. Barack Obama would do well to read up on his Truman. Obama, as the Wall Street Journal reports, is responding to the latest NSA revelations, which allege that the U.S. listened in on the phone calls of world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, the same way he responds to every scandal: he claims to have no idea what is taking place within his administration. From the Journal:

Officials said the internal review turned up NSA monitoring of some 35 world leaders, in the U.S. government’s first public acknowledgment that it tapped the phones of world leaders. European leaders have joined international outrage over revelations of U.S. surveillance of Ms. Merkel’s phone and of NSA’s monitoring of telephone call data in France.

The White House cut off some monitoring programs after learning of them, including the one tracking Ms. Merkel and some other world leaders, a senior U.S. official said. Other programs have been slated for termination but haven’t been phased out completely yet, officials said.

The account suggests President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief him on all of them.

If the administration thinks this is “plausible deniability,” the Obama team has lost touch with reality. Was the president briefed on national security for five years without knowing that these intelligence briefings were the result of, you know, intelligence collected by his intelligence agencies? Is the argument that the most sensitive and potentially embarrassing intelligence procedures do not require his approval? At what point does Obama think it becomes necessary for him to admit that, yes, he’s the president?

The more troubling question, however, is: Why does the president think this is an appropriate response to every controversy? The president took some criticism last week for the administration’s claim that Obama didn’t know the degree to which his signature achievement, which bears his name, was at great risk of melting down immediately upon launch.

Yet as the Journal also reported last night, the president actually does have plausible deniability on ObamaCare because no one knew who was in charge:

As it becomes clear that no single leader oversaw implementation of the health law’s signature online marketplace—a complex software project that would have been difficult under the best circumstances—the accounts of more than a dozen current and former officials show how a disjointed bureaucracy led to the site’s disastrous Oct. 1 launch.

It would be easy to blame bureaucracy again and leave it at that. But the problem is more endemic to modern liberalism’s governing philosophy. Another way of saying “plausible deniability,” after all, is “lack of accountability.” Bureaucracies are so often incompatible with healthy democracy precisely because they provide plausible deniability, which in turn incentivizes government ineptitude.

The pursuit of deniability makes bureaucracy an inviting refuge for an aspiring government official determined to shift the blame for anything that happens on his watch. It’s especially attractive to someone, like Barack Obama, who always wants to appear to be an outsider taking on the establishment. Yet that same “deep state” structure he claims to be appalled by is where he takes shelter every time there’s a controversy to disown.

Sometimes the deniability the president claims is believable, sometimes it isn’t. But it’s a poor excuse because it reveals his desperate avoidance of accountability. That the president is out of the loop is one thing; that he’s there by choice is quite another.

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Morsi’s Egypt and the Lessons of History

As the Cold War began taking shape early in the Truman administration, famed containment advisor George Kennan argued for a middle way between the strident anti-Communism forming on the right and the strategy of appeasement advocated for by the American left. Kennan believed power and psychology, not ideology, were what motivated Soviet behavior, and this required patience from the U.S. “Since world hegemony was impossible in Kennan’s interpretation of history, so, too, was Communist hegemony after World War II,” explains Elizabeth Edwards Spalding.

Kennan had made two very significant mistakes here–mistakes that proved less costly thanks to Harry Truman’s better judgment. First, as we now know, ideology indeed played a major role in Stalin’s policymaking decisions. Second, and more seriously from a policy standpoint, allowing Communism to expand until it reached its own limits and discredited itself would have meant consigning millions of people worldwide to suffer under the experiment. We didn’t have to test Stalinism further to know whether it had to be opposed.

Although there are obviously major differences between the centralized Communist movement radiating out from an empire that covered one-sixth of the world’s land mass and today’s rising tide of Islamism, there are still relevant lessons in Kennan’s mistakes. Western leaders shouldn’t fool themselves about the political ideology of Islamism, and they shouldn’t preach patience to those living under tyranny. And the case of Egypt would be a good place to start learning and applying those lessons.

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As the Cold War began taking shape early in the Truman administration, famed containment advisor George Kennan argued for a middle way between the strident anti-Communism forming on the right and the strategy of appeasement advocated for by the American left. Kennan believed power and psychology, not ideology, were what motivated Soviet behavior, and this required patience from the U.S. “Since world hegemony was impossible in Kennan’s interpretation of history, so, too, was Communist hegemony after World War II,” explains Elizabeth Edwards Spalding.

Kennan had made two very significant mistakes here–mistakes that proved less costly thanks to Harry Truman’s better judgment. First, as we now know, ideology indeed played a major role in Stalin’s policymaking decisions. Second, and more seriously from a policy standpoint, allowing Communism to expand until it reached its own limits and discredited itself would have meant consigning millions of people worldwide to suffer under the experiment. We didn’t have to test Stalinism further to know whether it had to be opposed.

Although there are obviously major differences between the centralized Communist movement radiating out from an empire that covered one-sixth of the world’s land mass and today’s rising tide of Islamism, there are still relevant lessons in Kennan’s mistakes. Western leaders shouldn’t fool themselves about the political ideology of Islamism, and they shouldn’t preach patience to those living under tyranny. And the case of Egypt would be a good place to start learning and applying those lessons.

There have been calls from both right and left to simply let tyrannical Islamist governments fail on their own, and thus naturally ebb away from the scene. The problem with this advice is that, as Iran and Hamas have shown, it’s actually quite difficult for those living under the thumb of Islamist tyranny to get rid of such governments once they have consolidated power whether they successfully govern their country or not. The case of Hamas is instructive since they are an offshoot of the same movement that now governs their Egyptian neighbors, and not only did Hamas end elections in Gaza after taking power but their strength has also been at the root of Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to hold elections in the West Bank. Tyranny can be contagious, even after its harmfulness is exposed.

We certainly have limited influence on such events, but there’s no reason not to use what influence we have here, especially with regard to foreign aid. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, already clear about his anti-Semitism and consolidation of power, is now jailing his critics. That’s why, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers and Nathan Brown write today in the Washington Post, the U.S. policy of “respecting” Egypt’s new Islamist rulers has outlived any justification. It’s also, they note acidly, not actually respectful of Islamists:

Putting this message into practice will require much sharper, clearer public responses by the White House and State Department to violations of basic democratic and rule-of-law norms. It will mean an end to justifying the Brotherhood’s negative political steps. And the United States should indicate that the possibility of new aid is not isolated from domestic Egyptian political realities.

This tougher line should not be coupled with an embrace of the opposition. U.S. policy should be based on firm support of core democratic principles, not on playing favorites.

Recalibrating the current policy line will require careful nuance. It has to be clear that the United States is not turning against the Brotherhood but is siding more decisively with democracy. The Obama administration must also make it well known to all that it adamantly opposes any military intervention in Egypt’s politics. The United States is understandably sensitive about being accused of an anti-Islamist stance in an Arab world roiling with Islamist activism. Yet showing that Washington is serious about democratic standards with new Islamist actors in power is ultimately a greater sign of respect for them than excusing their shortcomings and lowering our expectations.

This is an argument that has been made repeatedly in the context of the left’s refusal to hold Palestinians accountable for building state institutions and renouncing terrorism, and it applies here as well. Treating the Abbas or Morsi governments as if they are incapable of upholding basic moral standards is supremely condescending, what is often referred to as the soft bigotry of low expectations.  

And even tacit approval of such behavior won’t exist in a vacuum. It will signal to aspiring dictators–whether Islamist or not–that it doesn’t matter how they seize power or wield it once in office. If the American government is too consumed by a fear of insulting the oppressors to stick up for the oppressed, the world will get more of both.

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The Paul Doctrine in Practice

The New York Times jumps into the lingering Rand Paul vs. the Establishment storyline today, purporting to examine what Paul’s popularity portends for the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. But in truth, such stories have been able to paint this as a significant rift within the party only by utilizing the same selective vagueness that Paul himself employs when discussing political ideology. Some of this is, of course, natural and understandable–at least on Paul’s part–because a worldview must have overarching principles.

But what Paul’s foreign policy would mean in practice is incredibly unclear in the Times piece. It devotes more than a thousand words to the subject and still manages to paint an extremely and frustratingly incomplete picture. This is to Paul’s benefit. Only a selective reading of history–by both Paul and the New York Times–gives the appearance of a philosophical divide in which the two sides are more evenly balanced than they really are. For example, the Times writes:

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The New York Times jumps into the lingering Rand Paul vs. the Establishment storyline today, purporting to examine what Paul’s popularity portends for the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. But in truth, such stories have been able to paint this as a significant rift within the party only by utilizing the same selective vagueness that Paul himself employs when discussing political ideology. Some of this is, of course, natural and understandable–at least on Paul’s part–because a worldview must have overarching principles.

But what Paul’s foreign policy would mean in practice is incredibly unclear in the Times piece. It devotes more than a thousand words to the subject and still manages to paint an extremely and frustratingly incomplete picture. This is to Paul’s benefit. Only a selective reading of history–by both Paul and the New York Times–gives the appearance of a philosophical divide in which the two sides are more evenly balanced than they really are. For example, the Times writes:

Some Republicans are less worried. They view Mr. Paul’s crusade as nothing more than the usual attempt by members of the opposition party to undermine the assertive foreign policy of an incumbent president.

In the 1980s, Democrats harshly criticized President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to arm Nicaraguan rebels. During the 1990s, Republicans derisively called President Bill Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo “Clinton’s war.” In Mr. Obama’s first term, critics assailed his expansion of the war against terrorism, including the expanded use of drones.

There are two omissions in that second paragraph of ostensible examples of partisan game-playing masquerading as honest policy criticism. The first omission is of the administration of George W. Bush and his domestic political critics. Excluding Bush from this list exempts Democratic criticism of the war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the ranks of cynical point scoring and elevates it to something more substantial. But in fact Democrats’ behavior on Iraq was nauseating. Democratic Party leaders stomped their feet demanding action to curb Saddam Hussein’s behavior for years during the Clinton administration, at a time when it became official American policy to support regime change in Iraq. They ramped up that rhetoric when Bush became president and could be painted as vacillating at a time of choosing. And they voted overwhelmingly for the war. Then they bolted.

The second omission is in referring to Obama’s “critics” of the drone program without party affiliation. The truth is that Republicans and conservatives support the drone program. Though many on the right appreciated Paul’s filibuster and his ability to easily win a round of publicity against the president, a great deal of those supporters actually disagreed with Paul on policy. Charles Krauthammer is the latest to express this clearly, writing in his Washington Post column today that the outlandishness of Paul’s one specific example of droning Jane Fonda meant that “Paul’s performance was both theatrically brilliant and substantively irrelevant.”

In fairness to Paul, he isn’t quite as vague about how to translate his principles into action as his defenders usually are, which indicates they know the limits of the Paul doctrine, such as it is. In his major foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation, Paul spoke at length about the need to incorporate a policy of containment into America’s broader foreign policy grand strategy, and he put that recommendation in the context of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. (He deserves credit, at least, for being honest about staking out a position to the left of the one currently claimed by President Obama.) He quoted George Kennan to this effect throughout his speech.

But he also quoted Kennan approvingly in Kennan’s critique of Harry Truman’s version of containment. This is an implicit acknowledgement that, pace Paul, it was not Kennan’s vision of containment that won the Cold War–and in fact Kennan’s version of containment was immediately and frankly rejected by Truman and his advisors who helped craft the Truman Doctrine. It is also not Paul’s version of containment, then, that was successful and it is highly misleading for Paul to try to pass his own policy off as the successful Cold War strategy utilized by presidents from Truman to Reagan (and the first Bush).

Paul will have much support on the right to try and move the GOP away from Iraq-style invasion and occupation; the public is noticeably war-weary. But the public also supports military action against Iran if the alternative is letting them get the bomb. Paul also complements Reagan’s foreign policy and tries to claim its mantle. But given Paul’s support for cutting the defense budget, does anyone honestly believe that Paul would have supported the crucial Strategic Defense Initiative? More likely, he would have argued against it as a waste of money and a tactic that made war more likely.

As I’ve written before, Paul is no crank or conspiracy theorist. But there is much room between that and mainstream conservative foreign policy. So far, Paul seems to get the easy questions–and only the easy questions–right. That’s better than nothing, but not by much.

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Selective Memory on Democrats and Foreign Affairs

Political myths often persist not only in the face of revisionist history but also despite relying on a logically unsustainable contradiction to begin with. This is certainly the case with regard to the modern left’s exhortations for President Obama to run against the “do-nothing Republican Congress” in the model of Harry Truman, while also castigating Republicans for abandoning the halcyon era of bipartisanship and allowing politics to stop at the water’s edge, personified by Arthur Vandenberg. It is never quite explained how the Vandenberg-led congressional Republicans could give Truman massive assistance in essentially constructing the post-war American state—an accomplishment on which Truman heavily based his reelection campaign—while also being “do-nothing” and uncooperative to a fault.

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt is the latest to build his judgment of the current era on this shaky foundation. He laments in his latest column the fall of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by the Democrat Bob Menendez. Menendez is embroiled in a political scandal in which he is accused of corruption, and the allegations alone, Hunt says, will hurt the committee’s credibility and influence on the administration and the broader public. The Foreign Relations Committee, Hunt writes, has a storied history of shaping bipartisan American foreign policy and also providing oversight to keep the president in check. Hunt writes:

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Political myths often persist not only in the face of revisionist history but also despite relying on a logically unsustainable contradiction to begin with. This is certainly the case with regard to the modern left’s exhortations for President Obama to run against the “do-nothing Republican Congress” in the model of Harry Truman, while also castigating Republicans for abandoning the halcyon era of bipartisanship and allowing politics to stop at the water’s edge, personified by Arthur Vandenberg. It is never quite explained how the Vandenberg-led congressional Republicans could give Truman massive assistance in essentially constructing the post-war American state—an accomplishment on which Truman heavily based his reelection campaign—while also being “do-nothing” and uncooperative to a fault.

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt is the latest to build his judgment of the current era on this shaky foundation. He laments in his latest column the fall of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by the Democrat Bob Menendez. Menendez is embroiled in a political scandal in which he is accused of corruption, and the allegations alone, Hunt says, will hurt the committee’s credibility and influence on the administration and the broader public. The Foreign Relations Committee, Hunt writes, has a storied history of shaping bipartisan American foreign policy and also providing oversight to keep the president in check. Hunt writes:

At times, the Foreign Relations Committee has played a pivotal role in U.S. policy. Negatively, it was a Republican chairman, Henry Cabot Lodge, who scuttled President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations after World War I. After World War II, another Republican chairman, Arthur Vandenberg, fashioned a bipartisan foreign policy with the Harry Truman administration.

Almost a half century ago, Chairman J. William Fulbright, in a remarkable series of hearings, questioned the underlying rationale and wisdom of the war in Vietnam, which he had initially supported. The Fulbright sessions opened the door to a national dialogue and debate that ultimately led to the U.S. withdrawal.

This is, of course, the classic pattern of the media’s conventional wisdom: Democrats who challenge the administration are speaking truth to power; Republicans who do so are political saboteurs. Hunt doesn’t remind readers that Vandenberg’s cooperation—which was wise, since Truman’s policy objectives were also wise—was rewarded by the White House with a brutally mendacious campaign that put at risk their own policy simply to beat Republicans. Princeton’s Julian Zelizer recalls the poisonous partisanship:

Dean Acheson told the president that he should be ashamed of his rhetoric since, in foreign policy, the 80th Congress was the best the nation had ever seen. Acheson would later admit that bipartisanship was a “magnificent fraud” and that the way to build support for executive-branch policies had been to run around saying that “politics stops at the seaboard, and anybody who denies that postulate is ‘a son of a bitch and a crook and not a true patriot.’ Now, if people will swallow that, then you’re off to the races.” Acheson recalled Vandenberg asking him whether the administration would really support him in a tough re-election race and tell voters about all of the work he had done in foreign policy. No, said Vandenberg, answering his own question, because realistically the president would support a Democratic isolationist rather than a Republican internationalist if the Democrat stood a chance of winning.

Hunt also makes it clear he isn’t looking for too much oversight of President Obama’s administration: “Although no administration believes it, it’s healthy when Congress keeps its feet to the fire, not with cheap shots — as with the Benghazi imbroglio — but in a serious fashion, by broadening the discussion about major geopolitical concerns, certainly war and peace.” The suggestion that the Benghazi attack–which happened in the wake of a war in which we took part and because of a series of decisions made by the administration and then subject to the administration’s clumsy attempts to mislead the public about it–is neither a serious geopolitical concern nor a matter of war and peace is laughable on its face.

Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee include John McCain, who is known for his bipartisanship; Marco Rubio, known for his studiousness; and Rand Paul, known for his ability to highlight foreign policy issues and force the administration to explain itself–sometimes called “oversight.” It isn’t the committee itself that is weak and inconsequential, merely that the Democrats on the committee have abandoned its traditions and refused to be anything but a quiet tool in the White House’s policymaking box. That’s not a surprise: the ranks of Democratic seniority on the committee have been recently depleted with the departures of the three men who are now president, vice president, and secretary of state (if you can say that any committee no longer burdened by Joe Biden or John Kerry is “depleted”).

Hunt is right to want the Foreign Relations Committee to do its job. The Republican side of the committee already is—though perhaps that is what’s truly bothering him.

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The Folly of Sequestration and the Legacy of Andrew Jackson Higgins

On May 25, 1942, the waters off Norfolk, Virginia played host to a dramatic competition between military landing boats designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins and those used by the Navy. Army Major Howard Quinn, after observing the contest, wrote to his commanding officer that “there was no comparison”–the Higgins boat was the better craft. Quinn was on hand to watch the competition along with a member of the Truman Committee, led by then-Senator Harry S. Truman to investigate waste in the U.S. military’s war production. The contest had come at the behest of Truman, whom Higgins had convinced of the superiority of his boat.

The switch was made; the boats were mass-produced, and were integral to the success of the landing at Normandy. Had the military not had the Higgins boats, Dwight Eisenhower later said, “The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” And it wasn’t just the boats. As William Lee Miller writes in his book about the intersection of the lives of Truman and Eisenhower, Truman claimed to have saved $15 billion with his committee’s recommendations, by tackling “the prodigious waste in constructing camps, the shortage of essential commodities like rubber, magnesium, and aluminum; the protection of the consumer economy and the expansion of the labor pool. The committee also exposed corruption in war production.”

The reason the committee was considered such a success is because it enabled the military to cut wasteful spending while improving military readiness, equipment, and combat capability. Six decades later, then-Senator Hillary Clinton sought to take advantage of the negative reporting and unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by invoking Truman’s name in a Wall Street Journal column full of righteous anger at perceived corruption and incompetence in war management during the Bush administration. The following year she was serving as the public face of the foreign policy of an Obama White House proposing to make cuts to the military decried by his own secretary of defense and whose devastating effect on military readiness has already begun to encroach on the line separating theory from reality.

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On May 25, 1942, the waters off Norfolk, Virginia played host to a dramatic competition between military landing boats designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins and those used by the Navy. Army Major Howard Quinn, after observing the contest, wrote to his commanding officer that “there was no comparison”–the Higgins boat was the better craft. Quinn was on hand to watch the competition along with a member of the Truman Committee, led by then-Senator Harry S. Truman to investigate waste in the U.S. military’s war production. The contest had come at the behest of Truman, whom Higgins had convinced of the superiority of his boat.

The switch was made; the boats were mass-produced, and were integral to the success of the landing at Normandy. Had the military not had the Higgins boats, Dwight Eisenhower later said, “The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” And it wasn’t just the boats. As William Lee Miller writes in his book about the intersection of the lives of Truman and Eisenhower, Truman claimed to have saved $15 billion with his committee’s recommendations, by tackling “the prodigious waste in constructing camps, the shortage of essential commodities like rubber, magnesium, and aluminum; the protection of the consumer economy and the expansion of the labor pool. The committee also exposed corruption in war production.”

The reason the committee was considered such a success is because it enabled the military to cut wasteful spending while improving military readiness, equipment, and combat capability. Six decades later, then-Senator Hillary Clinton sought to take advantage of the negative reporting and unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by invoking Truman’s name in a Wall Street Journal column full of righteous anger at perceived corruption and incompetence in war management during the Bush administration. The following year she was serving as the public face of the foreign policy of an Obama White House proposing to make cuts to the military decried by his own secretary of defense and whose devastating effect on military readiness has already begun to encroach on the line separating theory from reality.

“Of course, we need far more than a Truman Committee,” Clinton declared back in 2008. “We need the Truman spirit in the White House, where the buck finally stops.” Clinton is strangely silent on her former boss’s proposal to slash the military unless he gets more tax increases (the president’s supporters in the media and blogosphere like to refer to this tactic as “hostage taking”–when Republicans do it). But perhaps she should speak up, unless back in 2008 she was merely playing partisan politics with the armed forces and grandstanding from her Senate perch instead of expressing genuine concern about the American military.

These cuts to the military are part of sequestration, intended to make a dent in deficit spending. Will risking “hollowing out” the military at least get our budget issues under control? No, it won’t. As Philip Klein writes over at the Washington Examiner, the Congressional Budget Office’s newest 10-year spending forecast expects federal annual tax receipts to increase by 65 percent, revenue as a share of the overall economy to increase, spending on social security to go up by 67 percent, spending on federal health programs to balloon by 94 percent, and defense spending to increase 20 percent over that time period, bringing overall defense spending as a share of the federal budget below the historical average. Klein concludes:

These numbers, taken together, make it abundantly clear that the only reason for additional tax hikes at this point would be to chase skyrocketing spending on entitlements. Paying for this spending wouldn’t be a matter of asking the very rich to pay a little more — it would necessitate large tax hikes on the middle class that far exceed historical levels.

Sequestration is not about cutting “waste, fraud and abuse” or improving the efficiency of the U.S. military. It is about raiding a piggy bank to pay (unsuccessfully) for an ever-expanding welfare state, to which the president’s health-care reform legislation will only add as costs continue to rise, premiums increase, Medicaid rolls are expanded, and insurance consumers are shoved off of employer health plans and into government-subsidized exchanges. The result will be a nation even more deeply in debt but now also, thanks to the president’s bright idea, far less able to defend itself from threats and less able to do its part on behalf of global stability and security.

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Truman’s Lesson for Presidents: Imagine the Farewell Address

Today President Obama’s second term begins in earnest, with a public swearing-in ceremony and a traditional inaugural address. There is and will be much written about what Obama said and what he should have said. No doubt the president has his plans for a second term, and his inaugural address was shaped in large part by his intentions. But another way to prepare such an address is for the president to imagine what he would want to be able to say in his farewell address, or his last remarks as president.

As it happens, this past week marked the 60th anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s farewell address to the American people, as he prepared them for the transition of power from the Democratic Party’s Truman to the Republican Party’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. As is often the case, Truman offers lessons of his own for modern presidents, but because of certain historical conditions he probably has even more to say for someone like Barack Obama. Both Truman and Obama had taken over from presidents who began their term in peacetime and would go on to prosecute America’s participation in a war that necessitated major changes in the country’s approach to national security, leaving that legacy to senators who rose suddenly and unexpectedly to the White House.

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Today President Obama’s second term begins in earnest, with a public swearing-in ceremony and a traditional inaugural address. There is and will be much written about what Obama said and what he should have said. No doubt the president has his plans for a second term, and his inaugural address was shaped in large part by his intentions. But another way to prepare such an address is for the president to imagine what he would want to be able to say in his farewell address, or his last remarks as president.

As it happens, this past week marked the 60th anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s farewell address to the American people, as he prepared them for the transition of power from the Democratic Party’s Truman to the Republican Party’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. As is often the case, Truman offers lessons of his own for modern presidents, but because of certain historical conditions he probably has even more to say for someone like Barack Obama. Both Truman and Obama had taken over from presidents who began their term in peacetime and would go on to prosecute America’s participation in a war that necessitated major changes in the country’s approach to national security, leaving that legacy to senators who rose suddenly and unexpectedly to the White House.

Of course, while Truman may have even more in common with Obama’s predecessor, it is the nature of Truman’s experience in office that makes him the natural model for a certain kind of president: one who battles low approval numbers while in office, reshapes American policy in some fundamental way, especially with regard to national security, and sees himself as somewhat ahead of his time and destined to be vindicated by the history books and appreciated in hindsight. But most of all, Truman’s farewell address can serve as a guide for a course correction from Obama’s disappointing, highly partisan first term.

Truman began by explaining the responsibilities of the office, and famously reminded the public that the president “can’t pass the buck to anybody.” There is much Truman could have blamed on his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt, who made key strategic and political mistakes that Truman had to fix, and for which Truman gets far less credit than he deserves. Obama, unfortunately, has taken exactly the opposite approach, blaming his predecessor for the failure of his own economic initiatives; blaming a GOP-controlled House even though the Democrats control the Senate and the White House; passing the buck on Benghazi, and others. (Keith Koffler has a handy list of 13 problems Obama has blamed on others, especially the GOP and George W. Bush, here.)

President Obama’s excessive partisanship and relentless demonization of his opponents and their motives stand in sharp contrast to not only the behavior of most of his predecessors and the expected dignity of the office, but to Truman’s plea for unity and support for his successor, who bested Truman’s own party a few months prior:

I want all of you to realize how big a job, how hard a job, it is–not for my sake, because I am stepping out of it–but for the sake of my successor….

Regardless of your politics, whether you are Republican or Democrat, your fate is tied up with what is done here in this room. The President is President of the whole country. We must give him our support as citizens of the United States. He will have mine, and I want you to give him yours.

In matters of war and peace, Truman put special emphasis on his decision to go to war in Korea, which he called “the most important in my time as President of the United States.” Here there is another important lesson for Obama, who has derided calls for military action as the rash actions of men who have not considered the horrors of war. Obama then chose as his defense secretary a man who had served in Vietnam heroically, and whose experience, he said, has taught him the futility of armed conflict to such an extent that he made it his practice to publicly take the military option off the table so as to try and ensure it won’t even be considered, whatever the progression of crisis.

Truman also served with distinction, but didn’t believe his service required him to refuse to send others into the field. “I was a soldier in the First World War, and I know what a soldier goes through. I know well the anguish that mothers and fathers and families go through. So I knew what was ahead if we acted in Korea,” Truman said. But he also remembered what came before the Second World War, and had to allow history into his decision making process as well: “The Japanese moved into Manchuria, and free men did not act. The Fascists moved into Ethiopia, and we did not act. The Nazis marched into the Rhineland, into Austria, into Czechoslovakia, and free men were paralyzed for lack of strength and unity and will. Think about those years of weakness and indecision, and the World War II which was their evil result.”

Individual liberty and religious liberty are not to be trifled with, Truman warned. They are in large part the reason he predicted the demise of the Soviet Union and the success of the American tradition: “In the long run the strength of our free society, and our ideals, will prevail over a system that has respect for neither God nor man.” Those around the world yearning to be free, fighting against oppression and the injustice of dictatorship, must know the president of the United States is in their corner. America will win the Cold War and the battle of ideals, Truman said, but not through a policy of nonintervention born of perceived futility.

Sixty years after that speech, Obama—and any president, really—should take to heart Truman’s message, and the way history judges a leader who can honestly deliver such a farewell address.

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Greatest Foreign Policy President? The Case for Harry Truman

With the presidential debates coming up and foreign policy emerging as an issue in the election, CNN’s Global Public Square blog has asked a panel of historians and writers to weigh in on the following question: “Who was the best foreign policy president?” There are not many surprises–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush appear prominently. (Realists love Herbert Walker, and their votes for him can best be understood as a begrudging acceptance of the success of the Reagan administration he served without having to actually grit their teeth and name him.)

FDR and Reagan are fairly obvious choices, and not bad ones: Nazism and Communism are generally considered the twin evils of the 20th century, and each presided over the defeat of those ideologies. But there is someone else who deserves at least honorable mention, if not a nomination for the top spot himself. For although FDR and Reagan served decades apart, one president played a significant role in the achievements of both men, and whose foreign policy outlook eventually became the consensus: Harry Truman. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Truman Doctrine, and it’s worth taking a stroll through his presidency and its legacy.

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With the presidential debates coming up and foreign policy emerging as an issue in the election, CNN’s Global Public Square blog has asked a panel of historians and writers to weigh in on the following question: “Who was the best foreign policy president?” There are not many surprises–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush appear prominently. (Realists love Herbert Walker, and their votes for him can best be understood as a begrudging acceptance of the success of the Reagan administration he served without having to actually grit their teeth and name him.)

FDR and Reagan are fairly obvious choices, and not bad ones: Nazism and Communism are generally considered the twin evils of the 20th century, and each presided over the defeat of those ideologies. But there is someone else who deserves at least honorable mention, if not a nomination for the top spot himself. For although FDR and Reagan served decades apart, one president played a significant role in the achievements of both men, and whose foreign policy outlook eventually became the consensus: Harry Truman. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Truman Doctrine, and it’s worth taking a stroll through his presidency and its legacy.

It’s true that FDR got the U.S. involved in, and then successfully prosecuted, the Second World War, and there’s no reason to diminish that accomplishment. But it’s worth noting that FDR’s dismissal of Poland at Yalta opened the door to the spreading of Soviet influence that was only stemmed by Truman first at Potsdam and then in Greece. Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan will probably always be the most famous wartime decision of his presidency. But it was Truman’s resolve to use the bomb immediately upon hearing of its readiness while at Potsdam that stopped him from even considering giving Stalin the foothold in Turkey he wanted in return for Soviet engagement in the Pacific.

While Truman certainly is given most of the credit for the doctrine bearing his name, he is rarely considered the visionary that he was. A certain snobbishness had always greeted Truman in Washington; he was our last president not to have a college degree, and he was always viewed as something of an accidental president. (This is surely unfair to Truman, since the decision to drop Henry Wallace from the final Roosevelt presidential ticket was made with succession in mind. FDR was dying.) Additionally, Truman had the blessing and the curse of being surrounded by what was an all-star team of advisers and diplomats. Many of these men believed that Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes should have been president. Byrnes, who fashioned himself a kind of co-president to the ailing, but still globetrotting, FDR, certainly believed this. As such, Byrnes ran State as if it were the Executive Branch. Truman quickly reasserted his authority, but the underlying conflict sent Byrnes packing soon after.

And George Kennan, author of the famous “long telegram,” is widely credited with the American policy of containment toward the Soviet Union. This credit is an egregious and outstanding overestimation of Kennan’s contribution. He correctly diagnosed the political situation in the Soviet Union and even correctly predicted how it would act, and how and why conflict would arise in the future. He was a pessimist of the highest order, but he was no saber-rattler. Had Kennan been in charge of policy the Truman Doctrine would have been much weaker, and so would have been Truman and the U.S. As Elizabeth Edwards Spalding has shown, the Truman Doctrine’s ideas were Truman’s. Reading Spalding’s account, in fact, it seems that if anyone deserves more credit than he receives, it is (and I can already hear the groans in contempt) the self-styled “wise man of Washington” Clark Clifford.

The following year brought another momentous decision when Truman immediately recognized the new state of Israel. The significance of this recognition by the world’s new democratic major power (and emerging superpower) cannot be understated. As we now know, this decision not only was Truman’s call, but it seems there were scant few who even agreed with it around the president.

It is often noted that the Korean War was unpopular. But the legacy of South Korea speaks for itself. Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur was controversial to say the least; “The Kremlin should give you a 21-gun salute,” a woman from Texas told Truman, according to Stanley Weintraub. But Truman’s decision served to fend off the last serious challenge to civilian control of the military, which thus reasserted by Truman became a prerequisite for democratic governance.

Truman forged a friendship with Winston Churchill and permitted Churchill to speak for the Western world on the evils of Soviet Communism–something Truman was under no obligation to do, since Churchill was no longer prime minister, and something which, as I have written, Truman went out of his way to do.

He oversaw the Marshall Plan for European recovery, the gold standard of foreign aid. And he oversaw the creation of NATO–though of course Dean Acheson (another of Truman’s all-stars) would play an important role in that as well. FDR worked hard to oversee the inauguration of the United Nations, but this week’s UN General Assembly should tell you all you need to know about which multinational organization is still upholding the defense of democracy, and which is undermining it.

None of this is to suggest that Truman didn’t make mistakes, but the crucial and successful implementation of American policy from the last stages of World War II through the early stages of the Cold War were Truman’s. More than half a century later, it’s Truman’s world we’re living in.

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Is Obama Repeating Truman’s Error?

The Obama administration is signaling that, against the backdrop of genocidal rhetoric and faced with an existential threat from Iran, Israel cannot count on the United States. There is no greater sign than the wavering U.S. commitment to the Jewish state than the Obama administration’s decision to scale down considerably a forthcoming joint military exercise.

Obama may wish to express his displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he should realize that it can encourage war when enemies believe U.S. commitments to American allies are shakable. Here, the genesis of the Korean war should provide an important lesson. On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in which he laid out U.S. interests in Asia:

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The Obama administration is signaling that, against the backdrop of genocidal rhetoric and faced with an existential threat from Iran, Israel cannot count on the United States. There is no greater sign than the wavering U.S. commitment to the Jewish state than the Obama administration’s decision to scale down considerably a forthcoming joint military exercise.

Obama may wish to express his displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he should realize that it can encourage war when enemies believe U.S. commitments to American allies are shakable. Here, the genesis of the Korean war should provide an important lesson. On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in which he laid out U.S. interests in Asia:

In the first place, the defeat and the disarmament of Japan has placed upon the United States the necessity of assuming the military defense of Japan so long as that is required, both in the interest of our security and in the interests of the security of the entire Pacific area… The defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and those we will continue to hold… The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands. Our relations, our defensive relations with the Philippines are contained in agreements between us. Those agreements are being loyally carried out and will be loyally carried out… So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.

Acheson continued to advise those states not covered by the defensive perimeter to resist on their own or rely on the United Nations. “It is a mistake, I think, in considering Pacific and Far Eastern problems to become obsessed with military considerations,” he explained.

Kim Il Sung heard Acheson’s speech and interpreted his omission of South Korea (and Taiwan) from the defense perimeter as a green light to attack South Korea six months later. Had the Truman administration signaled an unshakable commitment to South Korea, it might have impacted Kim’s thinking.

Obama may not like Netanyahu, but by amplifying his antipathy into symbolic chastisement of Israel, the president may be impacting Iranian thinking in ways that will be very costly to the United States (not to mention Israel) and impossible to reverse.

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Obama, Truman and Israel: An Unfortunate Comparison

As I wrote earlier today, most Israelis are unimpressed with the Obama administration’s Jewish charm offensive which is aimed at convincing Jews that the president’s first three years of fights with the Jewish state was a figment of our collective imagination. But the fact that three quarters of Israelis don’t seem him as friend isn’t stopping the Democratic campaign from doubling down on this push. Predictably, Vice President Joe Biden, a man for whom hyperbole is as natural as breathing, is taking this effort to extremes. While, as Alana noted, most of Biden’s foreign policy address at New York University yesterday was devoted to trashing Mitt Romney, one passage in which he waxed lyrical about the president’s devotion to Israel deserves our notice. In it, he not only exaggerated Obama’s record in terms of helping Israel, he went way out on a rhetorical limb and declared, “no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama.” Read More

As I wrote earlier today, most Israelis are unimpressed with the Obama administration’s Jewish charm offensive which is aimed at convincing Jews that the president’s first three years of fights with the Jewish state was a figment of our collective imagination. But the fact that three quarters of Israelis don’t seem him as friend isn’t stopping the Democratic campaign from doubling down on this push. Predictably, Vice President Joe Biden, a man for whom hyperbole is as natural as breathing, is taking this effort to extremes. While, as Alana noted, most of Biden’s foreign policy address at New York University yesterday was devoted to trashing Mitt Romney, one passage in which he waxed lyrical about the president’s devotion to Israel deserves our notice. In it, he not only exaggerated Obama’s record in terms of helping Israel, he went way out on a rhetorical limb and declared, “no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama.”

As I have written previously, there is a case to be made for Obama as a friend of Israel or at least not a foe. But Biden’s taking credit for the Iron Dome missile defense system without noting that the project was conceived, initiated and funded first by the Bush administration is absurd. His claims about Obama’s efforts to isolate Iran have a leg to stand on but may also be undermined by the fact that the diplomatic process the president has embarked on is more likely to lead to a result that will please Iran than Israel. But by claiming that Obama is a better friend to Israel than any president since Truman — and that includes men like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who were ardent friends of Israel — the vice president is making an assertion that is so detached from reality that it boggles the mind. Yet even as we sort out this piece of hyperbole it should also be pointed out that the comparison with Truman is not as flattering as Obama’s fans might think.

President Truman is rightly revered by friends of Israel for his courage in standing up to the foreign policy establishment when he chose to support the partition of Palestine into one Jewish state and one Arab state in 1947. He also bucked the State Department and his Secretary of State, General George Marshall, a legendary figure whom Truman practically idolized, when he famously became the first to recognize the newborn State of Israel on May 15, 1948. These acts, which help set in motion the process whereby Israel joined the community of nations were of inestimable help to Israel and for doing so he is rightly honored as among the great friends of the Jewish people in the 20th century.

But to claim, as Biden did, that Truman aided Israel’s security more than his successors — or did anything in that regard — is simply not true.

It is generally forgotten but prior to the Six Day War, the United States offered little aid to Israel of any sort. John F. Kennedy was the first president to authorize the sale of weaponry to Israel when he okayed a limit package of anti-aircraft equipment. It was only after 1967 that Washington began to look at Israel as a strategic asset and Lyndon Johnson helped lay the foundation for the alliance that blossomed under Ronald Reagan and was strengthened in turn by each successive administration.

As for Truman, as much as his diplomatic support was important, the United States never lifted a finger to help Israel during the life and death struggle of its War of Independence when approximately one percent of its population was killed. No arms were given or sold to Israel nor did the United States use its superpower clout to stop the Arab nations that invaded the new Jewish state on the date of its birth. In terms of its security situation, Israel was on its own during that war. Though Truman certainly wished it well, something that could not be said of his State Department, he was merely a bystander as the besieged and bombed new country fought for its existence.

Indeed, in a touch of historical irony that is rarely appreciated, it might be said that the Soviet Union did more for Israel’s security in 1948 than the United States since it allowed its Czech satellite to sell vital arms and ammunition to the Jews that it could not obtain from any Western source. It was those guns and bullets and not Truman’s telegram of recognition that saved Israel on the battlefield. Indeed, as Israeli veterans of that conflict will invariably point out, it was the sacrifice of thousands of Jewish youngsters — the “Silver Platter” immortalized in verse by poet Natan Alterman — that secured the Jewish state, not the words of diplomats.

In the years after the War of Independence, Truman offered Israel no assistance and, despite his goodwill, it often found itself isolated in the diplomatic world with even the U.S. calling for it to retreat from the 1949 armistice lines to accommodate the Arabs.

As for Obama, it must be said that Truman did far less than the current resident of the White House for Israel’s security. But as far as the Israelis are concerned the question is whether, like Truman, he will stand by and watch passively, if their lives are placed in jeopardy. That is hardly a comparison that Biden or any other Democrat should wish to make.

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Churchill, Truman, and the Origins of a Modern Alliance

In October 1945, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to see Winston and Clementine Churchill at their new London townhouse. Churchill’s party had lost the elections in a landslide earlier in the year, just as Churchill was trying to negotiate postwar Europe at Potsdam. When the butler brought them vodka sent as a gift from Moscow, Clementine told him to throw it out and bring brandy instead.

“King would soon discover the symbolism of this,” writes Philip White, as he recounts the story in his new book Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance. The symbolism was that Churchill was about to begin in earnest his post-premiership mission: to alert the world of the threat of Soviet Communism and forge a hardy alliance with the United States. Though the speech is among the most famous modern addresses, the background and analysis White offers are valuable. And there are two stories with immediate relevance as British Prime Minister David Cameron spends the day in Washington today with President Obama, awaiting his state dinner tonight.

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In October 1945, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to see Winston and Clementine Churchill at their new London townhouse. Churchill’s party had lost the elections in a landslide earlier in the year, just as Churchill was trying to negotiate postwar Europe at Potsdam. When the butler brought them vodka sent as a gift from Moscow, Clementine told him to throw it out and bring brandy instead.

“King would soon discover the symbolism of this,” writes Philip White, as he recounts the story in his new book Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance. The symbolism was that Churchill was about to begin in earnest his post-premiership mission: to alert the world of the threat of Soviet Communism and forge a hardy alliance with the United States. Though the speech is among the most famous modern addresses, the background and analysis White offers are valuable. And there are two stories with immediate relevance as British Prime Minister David Cameron spends the day in Washington today with President Obama, awaiting his state dinner tonight.

We remember Harry Truman as a hero and a visionary–and rightly so–but Truman was himself in awe of Churchill. When Truman met Churchill in Missouri, and the two prepared to spend a train ride in conversation, Truman asked Churchill to call him Harry. Churchill said he would, but only if Truman would call him Winston. Truman balked. “I just don’t know if I can do that,” he said. “I have such admiration for you and what you mean, not only to your people, but to this country and the world.”

Humble giants, they were. Today we are lucky to just get the humility from our leaders. The second story is one of nuance–something Churchill wasn’t known for, certainly, but at one point in his famous Fulton speech deployed with utter genius. Here is an otherwise forgettable and forgotten paragraph from the speech:

The president has told you that it is his wish, as I am sure it is yours, that I should have full liberty to give my true and faithful counsel in these anxious and baffling times. I shall certainly avail myself of this freedom, and feel the more right to do so because any private ambitions I may have cherished in my younger days have been satisfied beyond my wildest dreams. Let me however make it clear that I have no official mission or status of any kind, and that I speak only for myself. There is nothing here but what you see.

In a footnote, White adds that when he discussed that last line with Larry Arnn, the latter pointed out the subtle brilliance of it. As White writes:

What the audience saw was the former prime minister flanked by the president of the United States and his leading advisers. So, if they focused on “nothing” but what was in front of them, they, and Stalin, could not fail to behold unity between Churchill and Truman–and, ergo, Britain and America.

The symbolism of that, too, is important. So is the seemingly insignificant incident of the Obama team’s removal of the bust of Churchill kept in the Oval Office during the presidency of George W. Bush. The Obama White House explained that “every president puts his own stamp on the Oval Office.” Indeed they do.

We also have the Obama administration’s failure on two separate occasions to support British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. This is a painfully easy call, and you would have to go out of your way to get it wrong and needlessly insult our allies–which Obama did.

The Republican candidates for president have been critical of the president’s dismissive attitude toward the British, so you might imagine Cameron, leader of his country’s conservatives, would drop them a line to say hello, the way Gordon Brown met with Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election when he came to visit Bush. The Telegraph reports this is not to be the case, though Cameron will be meeting important figures, such as “the actor starring in the American television series ‘Homeland.’” The Telegraph explains:

Downing Street aides insist that there is no “snub” to the Republicans by not meeting the presidential candidates. Senior sources say that the schedule was organized by the White House.

If only Cameron had a scheduler of his own! Or access to a phone. But don’t fault Cameron for his priorities, for although he does not arrive bearing the bust of Winston Churchill or with the promise of support over the Falklands, Obama did give him a lift on Air Force One.

As in 1946, “There is nothing here but what you see.” A bit less inspiring today, however.

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