Commentary Magazine


Topic: rocket scientist

Obama’s Denigration Reflex

In his response to Jen and me, Max writes: “But in this particular instance, I would cut Obama some slack. It does sound as if the president raised human-rights issues with Nazarbayev, as he should have.”

The relevant question, of course, is not whether the issue of human rights was raised at all, but specifically what was said when the subject was broached. None of us were in the meeting between Obama and Nazarbayev, but here’s the report of what Michael McFaul, NSC senior director (who may well have been in the meeting), said:

In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights,” NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. “Both presidents agreed that you don’t ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.”

We also have this:

In an interview, Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov told [Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal], “There was no pressure at all in the meeting,” and that Obama quoted Winston Churchill as saying that democracy is “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, and you don’t need to have worked in the highest branches of the federal government, to understand what transpired in the Obama-Nazarbyev meeting. Rather than put any pressure on Nazarbyev, Obama decided to make the banal observation that none of us have reached perfection in our quest for the Ideal State, and to prove the point, America’s president highlighted America’s imperfections. And McFaul, when pressed on whether Obama was making a moral equivalence comparison, insists that wasn’t the case – and then proceeds to cite the presidency of Obama as evidence that we are in the process of perfecting American democracy.

These kind of exchanges are actually quite helpful in a certain way; they reveal a particular cast of mind. And Obama’s reflex often involves denigrating America in public and in private, to – well, to do what exactly?

I quite understand, as I’m sure Jen does, that, in Max’s words, “in this imperfect world some short-term compromises are necessary.” And neither of us is insisting that Obama should have cut off relations with Kazakhstan, which is playing an important role as it relates to Afghanistan. I just don’t think that Obama, who has a well-established habit of (a) downplaying human rights and (b) bashing our allies and showing remarkable deference to our enemies, is striking anything like the right balance here. Which is why I’m not inclined, in this particular case, to cut Mr. Obama any slack at all.

My former White House colleague Will Inboden, who worked in the NSC, weighs in with an intelligent post here [http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/].

In his response to Jen and me, Max writes: “But in this particular instance, I would cut Obama some slack. It does sound as if the president raised human-rights issues with Nazarbayev, as he should have.”

The relevant question, of course, is not whether the issue of human rights was raised at all, but specifically what was said when the subject was broached. None of us were in the meeting between Obama and Nazarbayev, but here’s the report of what Michael McFaul, NSC senior director (who may well have been in the meeting), said:

In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights,” NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. “Both presidents agreed that you don’t ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.”

We also have this:

In an interview, Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov told [Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal], “There was no pressure at all in the meeting,” and that Obama quoted Winston Churchill as saying that democracy is “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, and you don’t need to have worked in the highest branches of the federal government, to understand what transpired in the Obama-Nazarbyev meeting. Rather than put any pressure on Nazarbyev, Obama decided to make the banal observation that none of us have reached perfection in our quest for the Ideal State, and to prove the point, America’s president highlighted America’s imperfections. And McFaul, when pressed on whether Obama was making a moral equivalence comparison, insists that wasn’t the case – and then proceeds to cite the presidency of Obama as evidence that we are in the process of perfecting American democracy.

These kind of exchanges are actually quite helpful in a certain way; they reveal a particular cast of mind. And Obama’s reflex often involves denigrating America in public and in private, to – well, to do what exactly?

I quite understand, as I’m sure Jen does, that, in Max’s words, “in this imperfect world some short-term compromises are necessary.” And neither of us is insisting that Obama should have cut off relations with Kazakhstan, which is playing an important role as it relates to Afghanistan. I just don’t think that Obama, who has a well-established habit of (a) downplaying human rights and (b) bashing our allies and showing remarkable deference to our enemies, is striking anything like the right balance here. Which is why I’m not inclined, in this particular case, to cut Mr. Obama any slack at all.

My former White House colleague Will Inboden, who worked in the NSC, weighs in with an intelligent post here [http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/].

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McDonnell’s Model: Save the Flash

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Virginia governor-elect Bob McDonnell demonstrates the qualities that got him elected — an unflappable ability to stay on message, an attention to nitty-gritty details (on the budget, on school reform, etc.), a willingness to engage in meaningful bipartisan policy making (on charter schools), and an entirely conservative message. On the economy:

“Virginia’s unemployment rate, 6.6%, is lower than the 10% national average, but it is up sharply from its low of below 3% in 2007. In the worst economy in 80 years,” says Mr. McDonnell, “it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what we ought to be talking about.” He adds: “I do think that talking about the excesses of the federal government is something you are going to hear Republican and Democratic candidates for statewide office talk about for a while because I think you’re going to see a resurgence of discussions of federalism, about the 10th Amendment, about limits on federal power, and federal spending.”

Nor does he plan on jettisoning social issues or changing his political stripes to attract new supporters. (“I am 100% pro-life . . . We were unequivocal about our position on marriage.”) After all, he won by nearly 20 points.

He ran as a policy-wonkish conservative and he appears anxious to govern as one with an eye toward reform, rather than just slashing the size of government. He’s not, at least for now, running for anything else (Virginia limits its governors to one term); so he has the “luxury” of focusing on his job. In that and in his consistent political persona and message, he is an oddity these days. We have gotten used to politicians who run as one thing and govern as another, or those (like incumbent Tim Kaine) who take on other jobs or campaigns rather than attend to their day jobs.

Republicans will be scrambling to duplicate the McDonnell “model” — it is tempting to do so, given his margin of victory. But the real lesson of McDonnell is that the public, battered and bruised by recession, responds to serious campaigns and respects serious people. The key is to find candidates who don’t need to fake competency and who don’t need to reinvent themselves. We’ve had a year of learning that an “historic” and “charismatic” candidate doesn’t necessarily make for an effective office holder and that inviting everyone to project their own hopes and dreams onto a blank canvas may be a recipe for disappointment. If the public is tired and grumpy, maybe a little angry, and looking to once again throw the bums out, it might be attracted in 2010 to those who don’t want to dazzle but rather just want to do their jobs. It’s not an exciting formula, perhaps, but maybe we’ve had enough excitement for awhile.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Virginia governor-elect Bob McDonnell demonstrates the qualities that got him elected — an unflappable ability to stay on message, an attention to nitty-gritty details (on the budget, on school reform, etc.), a willingness to engage in meaningful bipartisan policy making (on charter schools), and an entirely conservative message. On the economy:

“Virginia’s unemployment rate, 6.6%, is lower than the 10% national average, but it is up sharply from its low of below 3% in 2007. In the worst economy in 80 years,” says Mr. McDonnell, “it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what we ought to be talking about.” He adds: “I do think that talking about the excesses of the federal government is something you are going to hear Republican and Democratic candidates for statewide office talk about for a while because I think you’re going to see a resurgence of discussions of federalism, about the 10th Amendment, about limits on federal power, and federal spending.”

Nor does he plan on jettisoning social issues or changing his political stripes to attract new supporters. (“I am 100% pro-life . . . We were unequivocal about our position on marriage.”) After all, he won by nearly 20 points.

He ran as a policy-wonkish conservative and he appears anxious to govern as one with an eye toward reform, rather than just slashing the size of government. He’s not, at least for now, running for anything else (Virginia limits its governors to one term); so he has the “luxury” of focusing on his job. In that and in his consistent political persona and message, he is an oddity these days. We have gotten used to politicians who run as one thing and govern as another, or those (like incumbent Tim Kaine) who take on other jobs or campaigns rather than attend to their day jobs.

Republicans will be scrambling to duplicate the McDonnell “model” — it is tempting to do so, given his margin of victory. But the real lesson of McDonnell is that the public, battered and bruised by recession, responds to serious campaigns and respects serious people. The key is to find candidates who don’t need to fake competency and who don’t need to reinvent themselves. We’ve had a year of learning that an “historic” and “charismatic” candidate doesn’t necessarily make for an effective office holder and that inviting everyone to project their own hopes and dreams onto a blank canvas may be a recipe for disappointment. If the public is tired and grumpy, maybe a little angry, and looking to once again throw the bums out, it might be attracted in 2010 to those who don’t want to dazzle but rather just want to do their jobs. It’s not an exciting formula, perhaps, but maybe we’ve had enough excitement for awhile.

Read Less




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