Commentary Magazine


Topic: Roosevelt

This Is Not the Worst of Times

As others have pointed out, during his farewell remarks from the White House, Rahm Emanuel said to President Obama, “I want to thank you for being the toughest leader any country could ask for in the toughest times any president has ever faced.” Earlier that week, Jimmy Carter told PBS’s Charlie Rose that Obama took office facing “the most difficult circumstances a president has ever faced.” And Mr. Obama added his own interpretation of events in his interview with Rolling Stone: “Guys, wake up. We have accomplished an incredible amount in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.”

None of this is true or even close to true, as any elementary-school student who has studied American history could tell you. What these comments useful highlight, though, is the mindset that has taken hold of the president, his closest aides, and some of his remaining supporters. They really seem to believe that the scale of problems they face is unprecedented in American history, that the hand they have been dealt is worse than any who have come before them.

I worked in the White House during the worst attack on our homeland in history, two wars, a recession, and one of the worst natural disasters in our history (I had left the White House by the time the financial collapse of 2008 occurred) — and neither I nor any of my colleagues entertained, even for a moment, the thought that what we faced held a candle to what Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt (to name just three past presidents) confronted. If we had, it would have rightly elicited ridicule.

At least the Book of Lamentations contains real poetry and some important theological lessons in it. What we are getting from the president and his team is simply self-pitying nonsense.

As others have pointed out, during his farewell remarks from the White House, Rahm Emanuel said to President Obama, “I want to thank you for being the toughest leader any country could ask for in the toughest times any president has ever faced.” Earlier that week, Jimmy Carter told PBS’s Charlie Rose that Obama took office facing “the most difficult circumstances a president has ever faced.” And Mr. Obama added his own interpretation of events in his interview with Rolling Stone: “Guys, wake up. We have accomplished an incredible amount in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.”

None of this is true or even close to true, as any elementary-school student who has studied American history could tell you. What these comments useful highlight, though, is the mindset that has taken hold of the president, his closest aides, and some of his remaining supporters. They really seem to believe that the scale of problems they face is unprecedented in American history, that the hand they have been dealt is worse than any who have come before them.

I worked in the White House during the worst attack on our homeland in history, two wars, a recession, and one of the worst natural disasters in our history (I had left the White House by the time the financial collapse of 2008 occurred) — and neither I nor any of my colleagues entertained, even for a moment, the thought that what we faced held a candle to what Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt (to name just three past presidents) confronted. If we had, it would have rightly elicited ridicule.

At least the Book of Lamentations contains real poetry and some important theological lessons in it. What we are getting from the president and his team is simply self-pitying nonsense.

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Not Remotely a B+

Charlie Gasparino gets to the nub of Obama’s failure on spurring an economic recovery:

Obama is making a bad situation a hell of a lot worse—and that’s a far bigger scandal than offering Sestak a job to go away. …

His stimulus package was supposed to produce shovel-ready jobs that would repair our infrastructure much like the various public-works programs instituted by Hoover and Roosevelt. But instead of spending the money on building roads and bridges, states have hoarded much of the stimulus cash to keep their own workforces fat and happy. While the construction industry suffers 20 percent unemployment, state and local governments are keeping employment at the DMV just humming along.

It should come as no surprise that unemployment is alarmingly high just about everywhere—except in government and on Wall Street, the recipient of government bailouts, which is yet another reason why investors are getting antsy and stocks are starting to slide.

The former law professor and community organizer, as Gasparino points out, knows precious little about the free market. Raising taxes in a recession? Silly. Increasing the burdens on small business? Ridiculous. It must come as a shock to those in what passes as elite company in the media and academia that their icon is rather economically illiterate. Nor has that icon a very good grasp of history. (“He promised hope and change, but brought 1930s economic remedies that are producing similar results.”)

To recap, Obama’s not good at crises. He doesn’t excel in economics or history. Our foreign policy is in a shambles as foes run amok and allies realize they have an unreliable partner in the White House. Oh, and he’s driven his party’s electoral prospects into the ground. Most conservatives never imagined it would be this bad — and on so many fronts.

Charlie Gasparino gets to the nub of Obama’s failure on spurring an economic recovery:

Obama is making a bad situation a hell of a lot worse—and that’s a far bigger scandal than offering Sestak a job to go away. …

His stimulus package was supposed to produce shovel-ready jobs that would repair our infrastructure much like the various public-works programs instituted by Hoover and Roosevelt. But instead of spending the money on building roads and bridges, states have hoarded much of the stimulus cash to keep their own workforces fat and happy. While the construction industry suffers 20 percent unemployment, state and local governments are keeping employment at the DMV just humming along.

It should come as no surprise that unemployment is alarmingly high just about everywhere—except in government and on Wall Street, the recipient of government bailouts, which is yet another reason why investors are getting antsy and stocks are starting to slide.

The former law professor and community organizer, as Gasparino points out, knows precious little about the free market. Raising taxes in a recession? Silly. Increasing the burdens on small business? Ridiculous. It must come as a shock to those in what passes as elite company in the media and academia that their icon is rather economically illiterate. Nor has that icon a very good grasp of history. (“He promised hope and change, but brought 1930s economic remedies that are producing similar results.”)

To recap, Obama’s not good at crises. He doesn’t excel in economics or history. Our foreign policy is in a shambles as foes run amok and allies realize they have an unreliable partner in the White House. Oh, and he’s driven his party’s electoral prospects into the ground. Most conservatives never imagined it would be this bad — and on so many fronts.

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RE: RE: Lawyers Should Cheer

I totally agree with Jennifer about Jan Crawford’s put down of the Obami for trying to make the Supreme Court a political issue. Perhaps they should remember that even FDR got his head handed to him when he tried to adjust the political balance on the Court in 1937. And that was just after the greatest presidential landslide in American history up to that time, when Roosevelt’s political capital was at its peak. (Memo to the Obama political team: your boss tied his all-time low today in the Rasmussen Daily Tracking Poll — minus 21.) The American people, it seems, just don’t like politicians — even great ones — mucking about with the Court.

I was also struck by what Robert Gibbs actually said: “What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections — drowning out the voices of average Americans.” That simply is not true, as Justice Alito so eloquently and silently pointed out at the State of the Union speech.

And what is really troubling is that the President’s press secretary doesn’t seem to know what the Supreme Court does in the American system of government. It doesn’t decide cases on the basis of what it prefers (at least it’s not supposed to), as the political branches do, but on what it thinks the Constitution requires.  Does Gibbs really think the Court should have chucked the Constitution to do the Administration’s bidding?

Yeah, come to think of it, he probably does.

I totally agree with Jennifer about Jan Crawford’s put down of the Obami for trying to make the Supreme Court a political issue. Perhaps they should remember that even FDR got his head handed to him when he tried to adjust the political balance on the Court in 1937. And that was just after the greatest presidential landslide in American history up to that time, when Roosevelt’s political capital was at its peak. (Memo to the Obama political team: your boss tied his all-time low today in the Rasmussen Daily Tracking Poll — minus 21.) The American people, it seems, just don’t like politicians — even great ones — mucking about with the Court.

I was also struck by what Robert Gibbs actually said: “What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections — drowning out the voices of average Americans.” That simply is not true, as Justice Alito so eloquently and silently pointed out at the State of the Union speech.

And what is really troubling is that the President’s press secretary doesn’t seem to know what the Supreme Court does in the American system of government. It doesn’t decide cases on the basis of what it prefers (at least it’s not supposed to), as the political branches do, but on what it thinks the Constitution requires.  Does Gibbs really think the Court should have chucked the Constitution to do the Administration’s bidding?

Yeah, come to think of it, he probably does.

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A Blog Post I Wish I’d Written

On hearing a bon mot from someone, Oscar Wilde responded, “I wish I’d said that.”

“You will, Oscar, you will,” replied his friend James McNeill Whistler.

I know what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Walter Russell Mead’s blog post over at the American Interest on the Tea Party movement. It’s a brilliant piece of work and, indeed, “I wish I’d said that.”

Mead puts the movement firmly in the context of American history, demonstrating the similarity of this movement with previous populist movements in the Jacksonian, Progressive, and New Deal eras. All those movements changed the country profoundly and were anti-elitist in nature. As Mead explains,

The Tea Party movement is the latest upsurge of an American populism that has sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right, but which over and over again has upended American elites, restructured our society and forced through the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.

While it is way too early to tell how powerful the Tea Party movement will prove to be, it is certainly anti-elitist to the core. But this time, unlike in Jackson’s and Roosevelt’s days, the elite doesn’t really recognize itself as being an elite. They think they are doing the people’s work, even if the people are too stupid to know what’s good for them. Like Mead, I think those elites are soon to find out what the word democracy really means.

As Mead points out, the movement does not yet have its Jackson, Roosevelt, or Reagan to lead and personify it, making it still somewhat inchoate. But great movements make great leaders at least as often as the other way around.

If you want a beautiful example of the power of history to explicate the present, I recommend this brief and profound essay by Walter Russell Mead.

On hearing a bon mot from someone, Oscar Wilde responded, “I wish I’d said that.”

“You will, Oscar, you will,” replied his friend James McNeill Whistler.

I know what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Walter Russell Mead’s blog post over at the American Interest on the Tea Party movement. It’s a brilliant piece of work and, indeed, “I wish I’d said that.”

Mead puts the movement firmly in the context of American history, demonstrating the similarity of this movement with previous populist movements in the Jacksonian, Progressive, and New Deal eras. All those movements changed the country profoundly and were anti-elitist in nature. As Mead explains,

The Tea Party movement is the latest upsurge of an American populism that has sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right, but which over and over again has upended American elites, restructured our society and forced through the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.

While it is way too early to tell how powerful the Tea Party movement will prove to be, it is certainly anti-elitist to the core. But this time, unlike in Jackson’s and Roosevelt’s days, the elite doesn’t really recognize itself as being an elite. They think they are doing the people’s work, even if the people are too stupid to know what’s good for them. Like Mead, I think those elites are soon to find out what the word democracy really means.

As Mead points out, the movement does not yet have its Jackson, Roosevelt, or Reagan to lead and personify it, making it still somewhat inchoate. But great movements make great leaders at least as often as the other way around.

If you want a beautiful example of the power of history to explicate the present, I recommend this brief and profound essay by Walter Russell Mead.

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Might Experience Matter?

Kimberley Strassel reviews the last week or so of the presidential foreign policy debate:

And so it goes, as Mr. Obama shifts and shambles, all the while telling audiences that when voting for president they should look beyond “experience” to “judgment.” In this case, whatever his particular judgment on Iran is on any particular day. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Democrats entered this race confident national security wouldn’t be the drag on the party it has in the past. With an unpopular war and a rival who supports that war, they planned to wrap Mr. McCain around the unpopular Mr. Bush and be done with it. . . . .Then again, 9/11 and five years of Iraq debate have educated voters. Mr. McCain is certainly betting they can separate the war from the urgent threat of an Iranian dictator who could possess nukes, and whose legitimization would encourage other rogues in their belligerence. This is a debate the Arizonan has been preparing for all his life and, note, Iranian diplomacy is simply the topic du jour.Mr. McCain has every intention of running his opponent through the complete foreign-policy gamut. Explain again in what circumstances you’d use nuclear weapons? What was that about invading Pakistan? How does a policy of engaging the world include Mr. Ahmadinejad, but not our ally Colombia and its trade pact?

It may have been that in the fog of “Yes we can”-mania and Hillary Clinton’s phony foreign policy credentials many pundits grossly underestimated the importance of “experience,” at least in the realm of national security. Clinton didn’t have any more real experience than Obama with regard to national security, so one can hardly fault Democrats for choosing him. The contrast was simply not great enough, nor was Clinton a credible enough candidate to convince voters that Obama simply wasn’t up to the task of being commander-in-chief. And, of course, we have been in a primary dominated by voters in the Democratic base pushing the candidates ever farther to the Left.

But in the general election, the voters, including independents and non-primary voting Democrats, may still expect the next president to clear the national security bar in terms of knowledge, competence and, most importantly, toughness. 9/11 punctured the fantasy for many Americans that the world is a benign place, simply waiting for our good deeds and open hand.

And that, I think, is where Obama may have faltered this week. Somewhere between the muddled history lessons (no, the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit isn’t an argument for unconditional talks and no, Roosevelt never met with Hilter or Tojo) and the flip-floppery on unconditional negotiations with state sponsors of terror, Obama raised more questions than he answered. What does he hope to gain from these face-to-face encounters? Could he rhetorically carry the banner for the West on the world stage? And as a former competitor of McCain for the GOP nomination lays out here, are Obama’s instincts (he is, after all, running on “judgment”) sound when it comes to assessing and counteracting the threats America faces?

His supporters are shifting in their seats, trying to cover for the slips and bobbles, but sometimes they make it worse. Senator Joe Biden says Obama “has learned a hell of a lot.” That would be swell if this were all a graduate course in international relations. But at some point he’ll have to demonstrate he’s cleared the bar to be president.

Kimberley Strassel reviews the last week or so of the presidential foreign policy debate:

And so it goes, as Mr. Obama shifts and shambles, all the while telling audiences that when voting for president they should look beyond “experience” to “judgment.” In this case, whatever his particular judgment on Iran is on any particular day. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Democrats entered this race confident national security wouldn’t be the drag on the party it has in the past. With an unpopular war and a rival who supports that war, they planned to wrap Mr. McCain around the unpopular Mr. Bush and be done with it. . . . .Then again, 9/11 and five years of Iraq debate have educated voters. Mr. McCain is certainly betting they can separate the war from the urgent threat of an Iranian dictator who could possess nukes, and whose legitimization would encourage other rogues in their belligerence. This is a debate the Arizonan has been preparing for all his life and, note, Iranian diplomacy is simply the topic du jour.Mr. McCain has every intention of running his opponent through the complete foreign-policy gamut. Explain again in what circumstances you’d use nuclear weapons? What was that about invading Pakistan? How does a policy of engaging the world include Mr. Ahmadinejad, but not our ally Colombia and its trade pact?

It may have been that in the fog of “Yes we can”-mania and Hillary Clinton’s phony foreign policy credentials many pundits grossly underestimated the importance of “experience,” at least in the realm of national security. Clinton didn’t have any more real experience than Obama with regard to national security, so one can hardly fault Democrats for choosing him. The contrast was simply not great enough, nor was Clinton a credible enough candidate to convince voters that Obama simply wasn’t up to the task of being commander-in-chief. And, of course, we have been in a primary dominated by voters in the Democratic base pushing the candidates ever farther to the Left.

But in the general election, the voters, including independents and non-primary voting Democrats, may still expect the next president to clear the national security bar in terms of knowledge, competence and, most importantly, toughness. 9/11 punctured the fantasy for many Americans that the world is a benign place, simply waiting for our good deeds and open hand.

And that, I think, is where Obama may have faltered this week. Somewhere between the muddled history lessons (no, the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit isn’t an argument for unconditional talks and no, Roosevelt never met with Hilter or Tojo) and the flip-floppery on unconditional negotiations with state sponsors of terror, Obama raised more questions than he answered. What does he hope to gain from these face-to-face encounters? Could he rhetorically carry the banner for the West on the world stage? And as a former competitor of McCain for the GOP nomination lays out here, are Obama’s instincts (he is, after all, running on “judgment”) sound when it comes to assessing and counteracting the threats America faces?

His supporters are shifting in their seats, trying to cover for the slips and bobbles, but sometimes they make it worse. Senator Joe Biden says Obama “has learned a hell of a lot.” That would be swell if this were all a graduate course in international relations. But at some point he’ll have to demonstrate he’s cleared the bar to be president.

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Senator Lieberman’s Address

Senator Joseph Lieberman spoke last night at the annual Commentary Fund dinner at New York’s University Club, which I attended. Although he termed it a “lecture,” his address was in fact a history lesson, one that–in light of the past week’s events–it appears the country badly needs.

Lieberman reviewed the bipartisan war that both American political parties waged against fascism and then communism in the 20th century. He traced the committment to fighting totalitarianism that ran from Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy to Reagan. After a near-collapse during the Carter presidency and abandonment by a series of failed Democratic presidential candidates, that tradition of support for freedom and opposition to tyranny, he contended, was restored and became a mainstay in the Clinton administration. He praised Clinton’s willingness to use American military power in Bosnia to prevent ethnic cleansing in Europe’s midst. And he maintained this was the essential platform that he and Al Gore ran on in 2000.

With obvious pained disappointed he argued that his once stalwart Democratic party has in fact fallen prey to isolationism and defeatism. He spoke of his decision to endorse John McCain, who, he contends, understands the stakes in Iraq and more generally America’s role in the world. As for his own historic party, he is not yet ready to give up on the notion of a Democratic Party devoted to a muscular defense of American interest and thus remains an “Independent Democrat.”

What to make of the address? I confess I came away wondering how the American political alignment on this issues would have turned out had that Florida vote gone differently in 2000. But overwhelmingly, I felt a sense of regret that he really is a voice in the wilderness, without bitterness but nevertheless alone, in his struggle to return the Democratic party to its robust national security position. Still, his erudite and good-humored address reminds us that those in public life (and those who write about it) are obligated to teach and reteach the lessons of the past. Without them– properly told and properly understood–we are lost. And never more so than now.

Senator Joseph Lieberman spoke last night at the annual Commentary Fund dinner at New York’s University Club, which I attended. Although he termed it a “lecture,” his address was in fact a history lesson, one that–in light of the past week’s events–it appears the country badly needs.

Lieberman reviewed the bipartisan war that both American political parties waged against fascism and then communism in the 20th century. He traced the committment to fighting totalitarianism that ran from Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy to Reagan. After a near-collapse during the Carter presidency and abandonment by a series of failed Democratic presidential candidates, that tradition of support for freedom and opposition to tyranny, he contended, was restored and became a mainstay in the Clinton administration. He praised Clinton’s willingness to use American military power in Bosnia to prevent ethnic cleansing in Europe’s midst. And he maintained this was the essential platform that he and Al Gore ran on in 2000.

With obvious pained disappointed he argued that his once stalwart Democratic party has in fact fallen prey to isolationism and defeatism. He spoke of his decision to endorse John McCain, who, he contends, understands the stakes in Iraq and more generally America’s role in the world. As for his own historic party, he is not yet ready to give up on the notion of a Democratic Party devoted to a muscular defense of American interest and thus remains an “Independent Democrat.”

What to make of the address? I confess I came away wondering how the American political alignment on this issues would have turned out had that Florida vote gone differently in 2000. But overwhelmingly, I felt a sense of regret that he really is a voice in the wilderness, without bitterness but nevertheless alone, in his struggle to return the Democratic party to its robust national security position. Still, his erudite and good-humored address reminds us that those in public life (and those who write about it) are obligated to teach and reteach the lessons of the past. Without them– properly told and properly understood–we are lost. And never more so than now.

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Some Thoughts on Last Night

1. Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President. That was clear before yesterday; absent a complete and unforeseen disaster, it’s a certainty now. Democratic superdelegates will soon begin to break in large numbers for Obama. They have been wanting to do so for some time now; what they needed was a plausible trigger to justify publicly supporting Obama. Last night they got it. Yesterday in the voting booths of North Carolina, the last dog died.

The Clintons have done a lot of damage to our politics over the years, something which Obama tapped into with great skill. They have destroyed a lot of folks who they viewed as obstacles to their power, and so it’s good, very good, that they will not be returning to the White House.

2. Whether Hillary Clinton withdraws or not is a far less important question than it was 48 hours ago. She may formally continue in the race, but as last night’s speeches made clear, the rhetorical swords will be sheathed. And there will be a lot of energy spent in the next several days negotiating a graceful exit for Hillary and Bill Clinton. That may not be easy. Many adjectives apply to the Clintons. Graceful is not one of them.

3. Democrats will begin to rally around Obama and, once Hillarydrops out of the race, he will take a large, perhaps even a commanding, lead over John McCain. In the last month there has been some talk among Republicans that Obama will be an exceptionally weak candidate, on the order of a Dukakis (loser of 40 states), Mondale (loser of 49 states), and McGovern (loser of 49 states). That won’t be the case. Obama is far
more talented and appealing than Dukakis, Mondale, or McGovern ever were.

He also has in place one of the finest political operation the Democrats have ever put together. And beyond that, this year — unlike 1972, 1984, and 1988 — virtually every metric favors Democrats, whether we’re talking about fundraising, party identification, the public’s views on an array of issues, and the energy and excitement among base voters. In addition, it’s hard for an incumbent party to win a third term, particularly in an environment in which voters are longing for change, where the President’s popularity is extremely low, and where 80 percent of the country believes the nation is on the wrong track.

A disturbing sign was that last weekend the GOP lost its second House seat in a special election in two months – this time in Louisiana, in a seat that had been Republican for 34 years and one which Bush carried by 20 points in 2004. It’s true that most congressional races are local rather than national in nature and Woody Jenkins was a particularly weak candidate. Nevertheless, the results in Louisiana could be an ominous sign, especially for down-ballot Republicans.

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1. Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President. That was clear before yesterday; absent a complete and unforeseen disaster, it’s a certainty now. Democratic superdelegates will soon begin to break in large numbers for Obama. They have been wanting to do so for some time now; what they needed was a plausible trigger to justify publicly supporting Obama. Last night they got it. Yesterday in the voting booths of North Carolina, the last dog died.

The Clintons have done a lot of damage to our politics over the years, something which Obama tapped into with great skill. They have destroyed a lot of folks who they viewed as obstacles to their power, and so it’s good, very good, that they will not be returning to the White House.

2. Whether Hillary Clinton withdraws or not is a far less important question than it was 48 hours ago. She may formally continue in the race, but as last night’s speeches made clear, the rhetorical swords will be sheathed. And there will be a lot of energy spent in the next several days negotiating a graceful exit for Hillary and Bill Clinton. That may not be easy. Many adjectives apply to the Clintons. Graceful is not one of them.

3. Democrats will begin to rally around Obama and, once Hillarydrops out of the race, he will take a large, perhaps even a commanding, lead over John McCain. In the last month there has been some talk among Republicans that Obama will be an exceptionally weak candidate, on the order of a Dukakis (loser of 40 states), Mondale (loser of 49 states), and McGovern (loser of 49 states). That won’t be the case. Obama is far
more talented and appealing than Dukakis, Mondale, or McGovern ever were.

He also has in place one of the finest political operation the Democrats have ever put together. And beyond that, this year — unlike 1972, 1984, and 1988 — virtually every metric favors Democrats, whether we’re talking about fundraising, party identification, the public’s views on an array of issues, and the energy and excitement among base voters. In addition, it’s hard for an incumbent party to win a third term, particularly in an environment in which voters are longing for change, where the President’s popularity is extremely low, and where 80 percent of the country believes the nation is on the wrong track.

A disturbing sign was that last weekend the GOP lost its second House seat in a special election in two months – this time in Louisiana, in a seat that had been Republican for 34 years and one which Bush carried by 20 points in 2004. It’s true that most congressional races are local rather than national in nature and Woody Jenkins was a particularly weak candidate. Nevertheless, the results in Louisiana could be an ominous sign, especially for down-ballot Republicans.

4. What Senator McCain has working in his favor is that he has the greatest potential of any Republican on the national stage to reach beyond his base. That’s especially important in a year when voters are down on the GOP. The challenge for McCain remains his capacity to energize the Republican base while appealing beyond it. That is always the task of a nominee; this year, given McCain’s history with conservatives, it will be harder than most.

Also working in McCain’s favor is that Obama is a completely orthodox liberal in a nation that remains, for the most part, center-right. And Obama’s associations with Reverend Wright, William Ayers, and Tony Rezko have raised questions about his judgment and character. It remains to be seen if, in a general election, these concerns metastasize. One more troubling revelation about Obama’s associations, it could be quite
damaging to him. Hairline fractures can easily turn into complete breaks. And of course if Jeremiah Wright decides to re-emerge and hold forth on the virtues of “black liberation theology” and the vices of America, it could have a shattering effect on the Obama campaign.

5. The other thing McCain has working in his favor is that Obama has shown a limited appeal among rural and blue-collar voters, seniors, Catholics, and Latinos. Hillary Clinton has also done much better than Obama among conservative white Democrats. These demographic groups, and hence states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, are ones McCain has a chance to win. And a state like Florida is one where Hillary Clinton would have been a far more formidable opponent than Obama.

Obama’s strength has been with African Americans; in North Carolina, for example, he won more than 90 percent of the black vote amidst record turnout. He also runs extremely strong among young voters (18-29 years old), highly educated voters, in urban areas, and among elites — voters with high incomes and graduate degrees. Obama also has a realistic chance to carry Rocky Mountain States like Colorado and Nevada.

David Brooks has said that “demography is king” in this election. That has proven mostly true, and when it comes to the general election Obama has shown some worrisome (for Democrats) signs. That doesn’t mean he can’t surmount them, especially in a year that ought to favor Democrats. But it does mean that he is not without vulnerabilities.

6. Obama’s speech last night was a revealing roadmap to what he perceives as his own weaknesses. He ridiculed the notion of using “labels” to describe himself; it is, he has insisted in the past, part of the “old politics” that Obama alone can transcend. But let’s be specific: the label Obama has in mind is “liberal,” and in this instance it fits quite nicely. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Obama is an utterly conventional liberal – arguably the most liberal person running for president since McGovern. Obama has shown no willingness to challenge liberal orthodoxy. What he does not understand, or what he will not admit, is that a person’s political ideology reveals important things not only about his stance on individual issues, but also about his worldview, his assumptions and the beliefs that animate his political activism. In the past, the “liberal” label has been politically lethal for those running for President. Obama understands this – and since he can’t alter his record, he is going to do everything he can to smash the categories.

The man who last October proudly declared that he decided he wouldn’t wear an American flag pin shortly after 9/11 because it “became a substitute for I think true patriotism” last night spoke movingly about the “flag draped over my grandfather’s coffin” and what that flag stands for.

The man whose pastor, close friend and confidant referred to the United States as the “U.S. of K.K.K.” and whose wife declared our country to be “downright mean” and who has for the first time in her adult life found reason to be proud of America spoke glowingly about “the America I know.” Obama added this: “That’s why I’m in this race. I love this country too much to see it divided and distracted at this moment in history. I believe in our ability to perfect this union because it’s the only reason I’m standing here today. And I know the promise of America because I have lived it.”

The man who in San Francisco talked about the bitterness of small-town Americans who “cling” to their religion and guns and xenophobia, told us about the “simple truth I learned all those years ago when I worked in the shadows of a shuttered steel mill on the South Side of Chicago.”

The man who believes the Iraq war is irredeemably lost and wants to withdraw all major combat troops within 16 months — which would lead to a devastating American defeat, mass death and possibly genocide, a resurgent al Qaeda and a strengthened Iran – said, “I trust the American people to recognize that it’s not surrender to end the war in Iraq so that we can rebuild our military and go after al Qaeda’s leaders.”

The man who in the first year of his presidency wants to meet individually and without preconditions with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea declared last night, “I trust the American people to understand that it’s not weakness, but wisdom to talk not just to our friends, but our enemies – like Roosevelt did, and Kennedy did, and Truman did.” (The notion that Obama is in the same foreign policy tradition as FDR, JFK, and Truman is not a serious one; he is far closer to McGovern’s appeal to “Come Home, America.”)

Obama’s speech, then, was an effort to pivot to the general election and reposition himself as a post-partisan, post-ideological, mainstream, and unifying figure. That effort was fairly effective for a while. But the Obama magic is fading fast. As he showed last night, he remains an appealing figure. He is still able to make high-minded (if largely empty) appeals. Yet many of us, having watched him closely over the last few months, hear him differently than we once did. The words are largely the same; it’s the man delivering them who somehow seems different.

Barack Obama is still the favorite to be the next President. But he’s a good deal weaker than he was, and a long and withering campaign lies ahead.

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Obama Plays It Fast and Loose

“It is not weakness but wisdom to talk not just to our friends but to our enemies, like Roosevelt did and Kennedy did and Truman did,” he just said. Let’s see now. Roosevelt went to war with Japan and Germany; he did not “talk” to them. Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Kennedy did do some negotiating, so he’s got something there, but he also led the United States to the brink of war over Cuba. The more apposite examples, here, would be Richard Nixon (SALT treaty), Ronald Reagan (Reykjavik summit) and Jimmy Carter. Nixon and Reagan were Republicans, and Carter is currently looking for any terrorist whose boot he can lick. Maybe this is a line Obama should drop from his stump speech.

“It is not weakness but wisdom to talk not just to our friends but to our enemies, like Roosevelt did and Kennedy did and Truman did,” he just said. Let’s see now. Roosevelt went to war with Japan and Germany; he did not “talk” to them. Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Kennedy did do some negotiating, so he’s got something there, but he also led the United States to the brink of war over Cuba. The more apposite examples, here, would be Richard Nixon (SALT treaty), Ronald Reagan (Reykjavik summit) and Jimmy Carter. Nixon and Reagan were Republicans, and Carter is currently looking for any terrorist whose boot he can lick. Maybe this is a line Obama should drop from his stump speech.

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Bob Gates on Dissent

If you’re wondering why Admiral Fox Fallon had to step down as Commander of Central Command, it’s worth reading the speech that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates delivered at West Point on April 21. Gates never once mentioned Fallon’s name, but the testy admiral’s shadow loomed over his remarks on the role of dissent within the military chain of command.

He urged the cadets to tell the truth, even if it hurts: “if as an officer–listen to me very carefully–if as an officer you don’t tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you’ve done yourself and the institution a disservice.” But he also argued that, after an officer has had a chance to vent his disagreement, he must still carry out his orders, whether he likes them or not. In this regard, Gates cited the canonic example of George C. Marshall.

In 1940, he noted, “Marshall believed that rearming America should come first. Roosevelt overruled Marshall and others, and came down on what most historians believe is the correct decision–to do what was necessary to keep England alive.”

He went on:

The significant thing is what did not happen next. There was a powerful domestic constituency for Marshall’s position among a whole host of newspapers and congressmen and lobbies, and yet Marshall did not exploit and use them. There were no overtures to friendly congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition-building with advocacy groups. Marshall and his colleagues made the policy work and kept England alive.

Fallon undoubtedly met Gates’s directive “to provide blunt and candid advice always.” But, unlike Marshall, he fell short on two other measures laid out by the defense secretary: “to keep disagreements private” and “to implement faithfully decisions that go against you.”

Fallon was all too public in his differences with regard to administration policy on Iraq, Iran, and the broader Middle East. His downfall came shortly after he bared his thoughts to Thomas P.M. Barnett in Esquire magazine.

Beyond Fallon’s fate, the rules that Gates laid out seem like a very sensible distillation of the proper relationship between officers and their civilian superiors. In some respects the most noteworthy theme he struck was not that dissent can sometimes go too far but that he believes dissent and debate is healthy and should be encouraged–attitudes that, rightly or wrongly, were not seen as hallmarks of Donald Rumsfeld’s days at the Pentagon.

If you’re wondering why Admiral Fox Fallon had to step down as Commander of Central Command, it’s worth reading the speech that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates delivered at West Point on April 21. Gates never once mentioned Fallon’s name, but the testy admiral’s shadow loomed over his remarks on the role of dissent within the military chain of command.

He urged the cadets to tell the truth, even if it hurts: “if as an officer–listen to me very carefully–if as an officer you don’t tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you’ve done yourself and the institution a disservice.” But he also argued that, after an officer has had a chance to vent his disagreement, he must still carry out his orders, whether he likes them or not. In this regard, Gates cited the canonic example of George C. Marshall.

In 1940, he noted, “Marshall believed that rearming America should come first. Roosevelt overruled Marshall and others, and came down on what most historians believe is the correct decision–to do what was necessary to keep England alive.”

He went on:

The significant thing is what did not happen next. There was a powerful domestic constituency for Marshall’s position among a whole host of newspapers and congressmen and lobbies, and yet Marshall did not exploit and use them. There were no overtures to friendly congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition-building with advocacy groups. Marshall and his colleagues made the policy work and kept England alive.

Fallon undoubtedly met Gates’s directive “to provide blunt and candid advice always.” But, unlike Marshall, he fell short on two other measures laid out by the defense secretary: “to keep disagreements private” and “to implement faithfully decisions that go against you.”

Fallon was all too public in his differences with regard to administration policy on Iraq, Iran, and the broader Middle East. His downfall came shortly after he bared his thoughts to Thomas P.M. Barnett in Esquire magazine.

Beyond Fallon’s fate, the rules that Gates laid out seem like a very sensible distillation of the proper relationship between officers and their civilian superiors. In some respects the most noteworthy theme he struck was not that dissent can sometimes go too far but that he believes dissent and debate is healthy and should be encouraged–attitudes that, rightly or wrongly, were not seen as hallmarks of Donald Rumsfeld’s days at the Pentagon.

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Why WWII Matters

Matthew Yglesias asks “Do we really need a Richard Cohen column about how World War II was, in fact, a good war? Surely there’s some more pressing topic that the precious Washington Post op-ed page real estate could be devoted to.”

It would indeed be nice if, over half a century later, we did not require Washington Post columnists to remind us that “World War II was, in fact, a good war.” But recently a major American novelist undertook a history of World War II aimed at convincing us, in the words of the New York Sun’s Adam Kirsch,

that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler’s response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists, who refused to take up arms no matter how pressing the need.

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which Yglesias does not bother to mention in attacking the decision to publish Cohen’s piece) was not published by the sort of press that puts out tracts by Lyndon LaRouche or Lew Rockwell, but by Simon and Schuster. The book has received favorable notices in both the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine. It enjoyed, in other words, the blessing of American literary culture. Yglesias has an award for political non-conformism named after him. You’d think he’d be more skeptical of thinkers like Baker and the political sophism they practice, whatever sympathies he may share with them.

David Pryce-Jones’s review of Human Smoke, published in COMMENTARY last month, shows why Baker, with his outrageous moral equivalency, is what George Orwell would call “objectively pro-fascist.”Pryce-Jones writes:

For Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt were just as bad then as Bush is now: foolish, small-minded cowards who ordered the bombing of innocent civilians from the air and so participated in a process of reciprocal killing, both blind and, worse, needless.

Leon Wieseltier’s review of Baker’s 2004 novel Checkpoint (about assassinating President Bush), memorably began “This scummy little book . . .” Judgments about Baker’s latest effort should be no more charitable, and should find their way into even Yglesias’s discussions of the Second World War.

Matthew Yglesias asks “Do we really need a Richard Cohen column about how World War II was, in fact, a good war? Surely there’s some more pressing topic that the precious Washington Post op-ed page real estate could be devoted to.”

It would indeed be nice if, over half a century later, we did not require Washington Post columnists to remind us that “World War II was, in fact, a good war.” But recently a major American novelist undertook a history of World War II aimed at convincing us, in the words of the New York Sun’s Adam Kirsch,

that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler’s response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists, who refused to take up arms no matter how pressing the need.

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which Yglesias does not bother to mention in attacking the decision to publish Cohen’s piece) was not published by the sort of press that puts out tracts by Lyndon LaRouche or Lew Rockwell, but by Simon and Schuster. The book has received favorable notices in both the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine. It enjoyed, in other words, the blessing of American literary culture. Yglesias has an award for political non-conformism named after him. You’d think he’d be more skeptical of thinkers like Baker and the political sophism they practice, whatever sympathies he may share with them.

David Pryce-Jones’s review of Human Smoke, published in COMMENTARY last month, shows why Baker, with his outrageous moral equivalency, is what George Orwell would call “objectively pro-fascist.”Pryce-Jones writes:

For Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt were just as bad then as Bush is now: foolish, small-minded cowards who ordered the bombing of innocent civilians from the air and so participated in a process of reciprocal killing, both blind and, worse, needless.

Leon Wieseltier’s review of Baker’s 2004 novel Checkpoint (about assassinating President Bush), memorably began “This scummy little book . . .” Judgments about Baker’s latest effort should be no more charitable, and should find their way into even Yglesias’s discussions of the Second World War.

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Obama’s Hollow Doctrine

Spencer Ackerman has a long piece in the American Prospect which purports to be a serious exposition of Barack Obama’s foreign policy and of his choice of foreign policy advisers. Obama is said to have big, transformative ideas: He “is offering the most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we’ve heard from a serious presidential contender in decades.”

I got excited reading this — the kind of expectant feeling one gets upon sitting down to read something that proposes to be new and interesting. Ackerman writes that he “spoke at length with Obama’s foreign-policy brain trust” in order to take the measure of the “new global strategy” that President Obama will implement.

So what does this new strategy entail? Well, it will be

a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering “democracy promotion” agenda in favor of “dignity promotion,” to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root.

So our foreign policy will be guided by “dignity promotion.” Ackerman quotes Samantha Power to flesh out the idea:

Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it’s not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It’s not a human way to live. It’s graceless — an affront to your sense of dignity.

Power continues, arguing that U.S. policy should be “about meeting people where they’re at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That’s the swamp that needs draining. If we’re to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we’re not [providing].”

This is ludicrous. Islamist ideology itself is in many ways a type of “dignity promotion,” insofar as it is concerned with the recovery of Islam’s world-historical grandeur and the obliteration of western power, which is viewed as a source of humiliation and tyranny. Unfortunately for Obama and his brain trust, Islamism inspires a form of political and cultural dignity that runs far deeper than any sentiments created through enlarged American budgets for food distribution.

How does Barack Obama propose to offer Muslims the sense of dignity that they clearly derive from their participation in resistance movements whose most basic ambition is the rejection of the West? Is this really the sweeping foreign policy that Obama offers — an attempt to smother ideological radicalism with western materialism? This isn’t transformative policy; it is a banal example of defining a problem away.

You can continue reading the piece in search of specifics, but you won’t find any. It ends with a clichéd flourish:

Why not demand the destruction of al-Qaeda? Why not pursue the enlightened global leadership promised by liberal internationalism? Why not abandon fear? What is it we have to fear, exactly?

“He goes back to Roosevelt,” Power says. “Freedom from fear and freedom from want. What if we actually offered that? What if we delivered that in the developing world? That would be a transformative agenda for us.”

What does “liberal internationalism” mean in Ackerman’s imagination? What does “enlightened global leadership” entail? Does that mean we let Iran get the bomb, or not? Who knows. Now what was Ackerman saying at the beginning of his piece about hollow sloganeering?

Spencer Ackerman has a long piece in the American Prospect which purports to be a serious exposition of Barack Obama’s foreign policy and of his choice of foreign policy advisers. Obama is said to have big, transformative ideas: He “is offering the most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we’ve heard from a serious presidential contender in decades.”

I got excited reading this — the kind of expectant feeling one gets upon sitting down to read something that proposes to be new and interesting. Ackerman writes that he “spoke at length with Obama’s foreign-policy brain trust” in order to take the measure of the “new global strategy” that President Obama will implement.

So what does this new strategy entail? Well, it will be

a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering “democracy promotion” agenda in favor of “dignity promotion,” to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root.

So our foreign policy will be guided by “dignity promotion.” Ackerman quotes Samantha Power to flesh out the idea:

Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it’s not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It’s not a human way to live. It’s graceless — an affront to your sense of dignity.

Power continues, arguing that U.S. policy should be “about meeting people where they’re at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That’s the swamp that needs draining. If we’re to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we’re not [providing].”

This is ludicrous. Islamist ideology itself is in many ways a type of “dignity promotion,” insofar as it is concerned with the recovery of Islam’s world-historical grandeur and the obliteration of western power, which is viewed as a source of humiliation and tyranny. Unfortunately for Obama and his brain trust, Islamism inspires a form of political and cultural dignity that runs far deeper than any sentiments created through enlarged American budgets for food distribution.

How does Barack Obama propose to offer Muslims the sense of dignity that they clearly derive from their participation in resistance movements whose most basic ambition is the rejection of the West? Is this really the sweeping foreign policy that Obama offers — an attempt to smother ideological radicalism with western materialism? This isn’t transformative policy; it is a banal example of defining a problem away.

You can continue reading the piece in search of specifics, but you won’t find any. It ends with a clichéd flourish:

Why not demand the destruction of al-Qaeda? Why not pursue the enlightened global leadership promised by liberal internationalism? Why not abandon fear? What is it we have to fear, exactly?

“He goes back to Roosevelt,” Power says. “Freedom from fear and freedom from want. What if we actually offered that? What if we delivered that in the developing world? That would be a transformative agenda for us.”

What does “liberal internationalism” mean in Ackerman’s imagination? What does “enlightened global leadership” entail? Does that mean we let Iran get the bomb, or not? Who knows. Now what was Ackerman saying at the beginning of his piece about hollow sloganeering?

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Ron Paul: When Right Meets Left

When someone argues for moral equivalency between the American government and Al Qaeda and suggests Bush is leading America toward fascism, we tend to assume the person is a leftist. But those same views are widely shared by parts of the libertarian right.

This isn’t entirely new: in the 1930’s the pro-communist left and the isolationist right both decried Roosevelt as a fascist war-mongerer. In the 1960’s both the New Right and New Left were sure that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the incarnation of “friendly fascism.” The common thread was that both the anarcho-libertarians of Young Americans for Freedom and the anarcho-socialists of The Students for a Democratic Society saw the compromises of politics and the bureaucracies associated with governments as the spawn of soul-slaying managerialism. They (like Ron Paul) both adored Randolph Bourne, the American critic of WWI, entirely unaware of the appeal German romanticism and proto-fascism had for him. You could hear those common chords in Tim Russert’s interview with Ron Paul on Meet the Press this past Sunday:

MR. RUSSERT: But let me go back to this ad. You do not believe that Mike Huckabee, that ad commercial represents the potential of fascism in the form of a cross.

REP. PAUL: No. But I think this country, a movement in the last 100 years, is moving toward fascism. Fascism today, the softer term, because people have different definition of fascism, is corporatism when the military industrial complex runs the show, when the—in the name of security pay—pass the Patriot Act. You don’t vote for it, you know, you’re not patriotic America. If you don’t support the troops and you don’t support—if you don’t support the war you don’t support the troops. It’s that kind of antagonism. But we have more corporatism and more abuse of our civil liberties, more loss of our privacy, national ID cards, all this stuff coming has a fascist tone to it. And the country’s moving in that direction. That’s what I’m thinking about. This was not personalized. I never even used my opponents names if you, if you notice.

MR. RUSSERT: So you think we’re close to fascism?

REP. PAUL: I think we’re approaching it very close. One—there’s one, there’s one documentary that’s been put out recently that has generated a lot of interest called “Freedom to Fascism.” And we’re moving in that direction. Were not moving toward Hitler-type fascism, but we’re moving toward a softer fascism. Loss of civil liberties, corporations running the show, big government in bed with big business. So you have the military industrial complex, you have the medical industrial complex, you have the financial industry, you have the communications industry. They go to Washington and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s where the control is. I call that a soft form of fascism, something that is very dangerous.

Paul, the provincial, is as blissfully unaware of the history of 1300 years of Jihad as the Daily Kos and most of its readers. Here’s his exchange with Russert on Al-Qaeda:

MR. RUSSERT: It sounds like you think that the problem is al-Qaeda—the problem is the United States, not al-Qaeda.

REP. PAUL: No, it’s both. It’s both—al-Qaeda becomes violent. It’s sort of like if you step in a snake pit and you get bit, you know, who caused the trouble? Because you stepped in the snake pit or because snakes bite you? So I think you have to understand both. But why, why produce the incentive for these violent, vicious thugs to want to come here and kill us.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think there’s an ideological struggle that Islamic fascists want to take over the world?

REP. PAUL: Oh, I think some, just like the West is wanting to do that all the time. Look at the way they look at us. I mean, we’re in a, we’re in a 130 countries. We have 700 bases. How do you think they proposed that to their people, saying “What does America want to do? Are they over here to be nice to us and teach us how to be good democrats?”

MR. RUSSERT: So you see a moral equivalency between the West and Islamic fascism.

REP. PAUL: For some people, some radicals on each side that when we impose our will with force by a few number of people—not the American people—I’m talking the people who have hijacked our foreign policy, the people who took George Bush’s foreign policy of a humble foreign policy and turned it into one of nation-building which he complained about.

But for all the similarities between the heirs of the New Right and the New Left, Paul, a Texan still carries some burden peculiar to right-wing libertarians. Abe Lincoln is a very bad guy, the father of Leviathan state that’s lead to today’s incipient (it’s always incipient) fascism. And while there are and have been card-carrying left-liberal Lincoln haters (Gore Vidal, John Updike, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few) this is largely an affectation of the right. Paul, unaware that Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888 and Saudi Arabia till 1962, had the following exchange with Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. “According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.”

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the—that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We’d still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

Still, for all their similarities, the heirs of the New Right and the New Left do have some fundamental differences. In part because the leftists are afraid that we will pollute the world with our capitalist-liberal democratic ideals, while the rightists are worried that the rest of the world will pollute our founding traditions with statist and socialist effects. But the common bottom line is neo-isolationism.

When someone argues for moral equivalency between the American government and Al Qaeda and suggests Bush is leading America toward fascism, we tend to assume the person is a leftist. But those same views are widely shared by parts of the libertarian right.

This isn’t entirely new: in the 1930’s the pro-communist left and the isolationist right both decried Roosevelt as a fascist war-mongerer. In the 1960’s both the New Right and New Left were sure that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the incarnation of “friendly fascism.” The common thread was that both the anarcho-libertarians of Young Americans for Freedom and the anarcho-socialists of The Students for a Democratic Society saw the compromises of politics and the bureaucracies associated with governments as the spawn of soul-slaying managerialism. They (like Ron Paul) both adored Randolph Bourne, the American critic of WWI, entirely unaware of the appeal German romanticism and proto-fascism had for him. You could hear those common chords in Tim Russert’s interview with Ron Paul on Meet the Press this past Sunday:

MR. RUSSERT: But let me go back to this ad. You do not believe that Mike Huckabee, that ad commercial represents the potential of fascism in the form of a cross.

REP. PAUL: No. But I think this country, a movement in the last 100 years, is moving toward fascism. Fascism today, the softer term, because people have different definition of fascism, is corporatism when the military industrial complex runs the show, when the—in the name of security pay—pass the Patriot Act. You don’t vote for it, you know, you’re not patriotic America. If you don’t support the troops and you don’t support—if you don’t support the war you don’t support the troops. It’s that kind of antagonism. But we have more corporatism and more abuse of our civil liberties, more loss of our privacy, national ID cards, all this stuff coming has a fascist tone to it. And the country’s moving in that direction. That’s what I’m thinking about. This was not personalized. I never even used my opponents names if you, if you notice.

MR. RUSSERT: So you think we’re close to fascism?

REP. PAUL: I think we’re approaching it very close. One—there’s one, there’s one documentary that’s been put out recently that has generated a lot of interest called “Freedom to Fascism.” And we’re moving in that direction. Were not moving toward Hitler-type fascism, but we’re moving toward a softer fascism. Loss of civil liberties, corporations running the show, big government in bed with big business. So you have the military industrial complex, you have the medical industrial complex, you have the financial industry, you have the communications industry. They go to Washington and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s where the control is. I call that a soft form of fascism, something that is very dangerous.

Paul, the provincial, is as blissfully unaware of the history of 1300 years of Jihad as the Daily Kos and most of its readers. Here’s his exchange with Russert on Al-Qaeda:

MR. RUSSERT: It sounds like you think that the problem is al-Qaeda—the problem is the United States, not al-Qaeda.

REP. PAUL: No, it’s both. It’s both—al-Qaeda becomes violent. It’s sort of like if you step in a snake pit and you get bit, you know, who caused the trouble? Because you stepped in the snake pit or because snakes bite you? So I think you have to understand both. But why, why produce the incentive for these violent, vicious thugs to want to come here and kill us.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think there’s an ideological struggle that Islamic fascists want to take over the world?

REP. PAUL: Oh, I think some, just like the West is wanting to do that all the time. Look at the way they look at us. I mean, we’re in a, we’re in a 130 countries. We have 700 bases. How do you think they proposed that to their people, saying “What does America want to do? Are they over here to be nice to us and teach us how to be good democrats?”

MR. RUSSERT: So you see a moral equivalency between the West and Islamic fascism.

REP. PAUL: For some people, some radicals on each side that when we impose our will with force by a few number of people—not the American people—I’m talking the people who have hijacked our foreign policy, the people who took George Bush’s foreign policy of a humble foreign policy and turned it into one of nation-building which he complained about.

But for all the similarities between the heirs of the New Right and the New Left, Paul, a Texan still carries some burden peculiar to right-wing libertarians. Abe Lincoln is a very bad guy, the father of Leviathan state that’s lead to today’s incipient (it’s always incipient) fascism. And while there are and have been card-carrying left-liberal Lincoln haters (Gore Vidal, John Updike, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few) this is largely an affectation of the right. Paul, unaware that Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888 and Saudi Arabia till 1962, had the following exchange with Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. “According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.”

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the—that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We’d still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

Still, for all their similarities, the heirs of the New Right and the New Left do have some fundamental differences. In part because the leftists are afraid that we will pollute the world with our capitalist-liberal democratic ideals, while the rightists are worried that the rest of the world will pollute our founding traditions with statist and socialist effects. But the common bottom line is neo-isolationism.

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Book Review: God and Gold

In God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead coyly claims that the originality of his interpretation of the roots of Anglo-Saxon primacy rests in its focus on the meaning, as opposed to the mere dimensions, of American power. This is too modest: Mead’s achievement is larger than that. His real accomplishment is to restore religion to its rightful place in the history of Great Britain and the United States, and their roles in the world. This no small feat. It’s hard enough to explain why Britain—a small island in the North Sea lacking all natural resources except coal, potatoes, and herring—rose to be the first of the great powers by 1815, and equally hard to explain how the United States inherited and adapted the British system in the 20th century. Factoring the influence of religion into this dynamic is vastly more difficult, but Mead does an admirable job of it.

The historic grand strategy of Great Britain and the United States, as Mead understands it, is simply told: Britain was the world’s first enduringly liberal modern society, and the first practitioner of an open and dynamic economic system that traded throughout the world, relying on its navy to defend its trade routes. This system provided Britain the resources to fight and win its wars, and the power and self-confidence to promote liberal values and institutions. In the 20th century, the United States, shaped by its British inheritance, took over the role of protector of this maritime order from the totalitarian empires and enemies of modernity that continued to threaten it, of whom al Qaeda is merely the latest example. But the rise of Britain as a liberal capitalist power is only the better known half of the story. While capitalism generates resources and tax revenues on a scale unimaginable to early modern empires, it poses a big problem: the vast expansion of state power. Once the revenues begin to flow, in other words, the challenge becomes limiting the power of the state.

Read More

In God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead coyly claims that the originality of his interpretation of the roots of Anglo-Saxon primacy rests in its focus on the meaning, as opposed to the mere dimensions, of American power. This is too modest: Mead’s achievement is larger than that. His real accomplishment is to restore religion to its rightful place in the history of Great Britain and the United States, and their roles in the world. This no small feat. It’s hard enough to explain why Britain—a small island in the North Sea lacking all natural resources except coal, potatoes, and herring—rose to be the first of the great powers by 1815, and equally hard to explain how the United States inherited and adapted the British system in the 20th century. Factoring the influence of religion into this dynamic is vastly more difficult, but Mead does an admirable job of it.

The historic grand strategy of Great Britain and the United States, as Mead understands it, is simply told: Britain was the world’s first enduringly liberal modern society, and the first practitioner of an open and dynamic economic system that traded throughout the world, relying on its navy to defend its trade routes. This system provided Britain the resources to fight and win its wars, and the power and self-confidence to promote liberal values and institutions. In the 20th century, the United States, shaped by its British inheritance, took over the role of protector of this maritime order from the totalitarian empires and enemies of modernity that continued to threaten it, of whom al Qaeda is merely the latest example. But the rise of Britain as a liberal capitalist power is only the better known half of the story. While capitalism generates resources and tax revenues on a scale unimaginable to early modern empires, it poses a big problem: the vast expansion of state power. Once the revenues begin to flow, in other words, the challenge becomes limiting the power of the state.

The Anglo-Saxon societies surmounted this challenge because of their dynamic religious faith, which provided both a spiritual compass and assurance in the middle of rapid social and economic change and which, as a result of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1689, limited the ability of the monarchy to raise money without the consent of Parliament. The result was that British and American state power left room for both faith in God and the use of human reason, striking a balance between the two. This balancing continues today: the “cultural and political rebalancing the United States is currently witnessing,” writes Mead, is “part of the process by which American society adjust[s] to the rapid pace of change.”

In his book, Mead channels both Adam Smith’s understanding of the role of faith in the making of Anglo-Saxon society, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s convictions that democratic, open, and liberal institutions could not exist unless rooted in a society of believers. The failure of the declared enemies of the Anglo-Saxon order—Mead calls them Waspophobes—to understand the strengths of this order derives precisely from their focus on materialism, and on their failure to arrive at de Tocqueville’s realization that British and American society have, in their faith and their broader civil society, a cultural and intellectual life that is far from simply materialist. (Contemporary liberalism, I would say, suffers in a more mild way from the same deficiency.) Mead’s work, taken as a whole, offers a compelling vision of the roots of American power that is liberal in the truest sense of the word: that is, a study in the importance of human freedom and responsibility.

It is regrettable, therefore, that having run so well, Mead stumbles at the last gate. Throughout his book, Mead’s view is very much the view from 30,000 feet: events like the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, or the Suez Crisis fly by in paragraphs, or even in phrases. The emphasis throughout is on the essential unity of Anglo-Saxon culture, and on the grand strategy that resulted from it. There is much to be said for this vision, unpopular though it will be in some quarters, but by limiting himself to it, Mead misses the essential contribution of Britain and, especially, the United States to the modern world order. It is one thing to claim that the United States was influenced profoundly by British culture and faith. But while there may be an Anglo-Saxon culture, or even an Anglo-Saxon grand strategy, there is no Anglo-Saxon state: 1776 saw to that. The Anglo-Saxons did not invent the state or the diplomatic institutions by which states relate to one another. Nor, as Mead notes, is the Anglo-Saxon form of the state dominant in the world today: the French or Soviet models have a far better claim to that title. The uniqueness of Anglo-Saxon grand strategy is that it emphasized resisting empires and establishing rules of secession and state legitimacy; it was only within the nation-state order that the liberal values with which Britain and the United States identified could be defended.

In this context, the final chapters of Mead’s work are truly perplexing. Indeed, they are so out of tune that they raise the suspicion that Mead included them solely to cover himself on the Left. For, after three hundred pages of praise for the Anglo-Saxon order, he about-faces to argue that the mission of the United States now is to carry out a “diplomacy of civilizations” to assuage the grievances of the Islamic world, grievances that began with the Crusades. The United States now must turn to remedying the “centuries of inequality and oppression” by assuring that Muslims have “due recognition” for their “just and legitimate aspirations”—which Mead recognizes may not be compatible with the existing framework of the liberal maritime order.

Coming at the close of a book dedicated to sympathetic explanation of that order, this is a remarkable claim. It is only proper to note that Mead proposes to make the United States responsible for the resolution of grievances that arose long before it came into existence. Burdening the United States with the responsibility for Arab grievances is bad enough, but to view “the Arab world” as a unified entity is to make the same fundamental error that Mead makes when he writes of the Anglo-Saxons: it is to assume political unity where there are merely cultural commonalities. More concretely, it is to agree with the Islamists that the fall of the Caliphate was an immense tragedy.

Through his advocacy of the “diplomacy of civilizations,” Mead turns his back on the nation-state system and on the international organizations that Britain and the United States have, above all other nations, been responsible for creating. Mead, in fact, places the burden of satisfying the Muslim peoples entirely on the United States. He argues that “pious Muslims of unimpeachable orthodoxy, conspicuous virtue, conservative principles, and great passion for their faith,” not liberal reformers, must bring the Muslim peoples into a dynamic, capitalist, and liberal world.

To make things worse, Mead’s precise policy recommendations for the United States are conspicuous by their absence. His “diplomacy of civilizations” revolves, in the end, around listening more closely to the grievances of the Muslim world. Mead cites the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as this philosophy’s guiding light. Niebuhr’s role in Mead’s work, as it was in Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006), is to serve as a tough-minded but sensitive liberal who was fully aware of the reality of original sin, and, hence, of the need for the United States to be more understanding of its enemies and more aware of its own potential for evil. From all points of view, this is a most implausible picture. Developing a sympathetic understanding of declared enemies of the system is entirely foreign to Anglo-Saxon grand strategy and its values. Elizabeth I, Pitt the Younger, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Reagan had no time for this approach. Neither, in fact, did Niebuhr. His role in history was, in the era of Hitler and Stalin, to tell American liberals to get in the game, to remind them that a relentless focus on their own capacity for evil was demoralizing and destructive, and that there really were worse things in the world than the United States.

Niebuhr is indeed the philosopher that we, and the democratic world, need today. Mead’s work illustrates why. By casting his lot with the Muslim conservatives and accepting their right to set the international agenda of grievances, and by abandoning the Muslim liberals and reformers whom Niebuhr would have celebrated, Mead undermines, rather than reinforces, the order he wisely, if only partially, explains. A true history of the Anglo-Saxon contribution to the making of the modern world would emphasize not only religion and capitalism, but also the transformation of the world of empires into the international state system. Mead’s failure to find this third leg of the triad leads him into historical errors and contemporary fallacies that reveal the pervasive weakness in our understanding of the system that we ourselves have been the leading force in creating. But, by restoring religion to the story, he has already done a very great deal to correct the prevailing vision.

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Caveat Emptor

Are there people out there who take Wikipedia seriously as a source of objective information? There shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there are. In fact, lots of students use it a source of first resort. It’s so popular, that whenever you type almost any subject into Google, the first hit is usually for a Wikipedia entry.

Yet disinformation abounds, often motivated by animus or prejudice. There is, for instance, the by-now famous story of a former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy who was brazenly—and completely without foundation—accused on Wikipedia of complicity in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. (For this sorry tale, see his article.)

A friend has now called my attention to another bizarre distortion, this one an attempt not to besmirch the character of one man but of an entire country. If you look up the Philippine War (1899-1902) you get this entry. And in the very first paragraph you get this statement: “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described as a genocide, and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).”

I was pretty startled to read this. I have written a whole chapter on the war in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, and I have never once heard that the U.S. was guilty of genocide. How could it have entirely escaped my attention?

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Are there people out there who take Wikipedia seriously as a source of objective information? There shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there are. In fact, lots of students use it a source of first resort. It’s so popular, that whenever you type almost any subject into Google, the first hit is usually for a Wikipedia entry.

Yet disinformation abounds, often motivated by animus or prejudice. There is, for instance, the by-now famous story of a former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy who was brazenly—and completely without foundation—accused on Wikipedia of complicity in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. (For this sorry tale, see his article.)

A friend has now called my attention to another bizarre distortion, this one an attempt not to besmirch the character of one man but of an entire country. If you look up the Philippine War (1899-1902) you get this entry. And in the very first paragraph you get this statement: “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described as a genocide, and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).”

I was pretty startled to read this. I have written a whole chapter on the war in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, and I have never once heard that the U.S. was guilty of genocide. How could it have entirely escaped my attention?

There is, needless to say, not a scintilla of evidence that Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt made any attempt to wipe out the population of the Philippines. There is no doubt that a lot of Filipinos died in the course of the war, but most of those deaths were the result of disease, not American bullets. In my book, I cite the generally accepted casualty totals: 4,234 American dead and, on the other side, 16,000 Filipinos killed in battle and another 200,000 civilians killed mainly by disease and famine. My sources for these estimates are books written by William Thaddeus Sexton, an historian writing in the 1930’s, and two more recent accounts written by Stanley Karnow and Walter LaFeber. Neither Karnow nor LaFeber is exactly an American imperialist; in fact, both are well-known liberals. Yet their casualty counts are seven times lower than those claimed by Wikipedia, and they make no mention of any genocide.

Where does the Wikipedia figure come from? The footnote refers to an online essay, “U.S. Genocide in the Philippines” by E. San Juan Jr., posted on an obscure website. The author is described as follows: “E. San Juan, Jr. was recently Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, and visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, Republic of China.” Not exactly a pedigree that instantly screams out that he has any special expertise on the Philippine War.

In his short essay (1,046 words), E. San Juan Jr. concedes that his claims of genocide and of 1.4 million dead do not come from any mainstream sources. He writes: “Among historians, only Howard Zinn and Gabriel Kolko have dwelt on the ‘genocidal’ character of the catastrophe.” But even these ultra-left-wing “revisionist” historians (who also have no expertise in the Philippine War) have, in his telling, cited no more than 600,000 dead Filipinos.

So whence the figure of 1.4 million? According to Mr. San Juan, “The first Filipino scholar to make a thorough documentation of the carnage is the late Luzviminda Francisco in her contribution to The Philippines: The End of An Illusion (London, 1973).” I confess to never having heard of Ms. Francisco (whose works are cataloged online by neither the Library of Congress nor the New York Public Library), but Amazon does contain a link for one of her books. It’s called Conspiracy for Empire: Big business, corruption, and the politics of imperialism in America, 1876-1907 and it was published in 1985 by something called the Foundation for Nationalist Studies, which doesn’t have a web page (or at least none that I could discover).

I am, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by the historical evidence gathered here to accuse the U.S. of having killed 1.4 million people in an attempted genocide. This is not the kind of finding that would be accepted for a second by any reputable scholar, regardless of political orientation. But it is the kind of pseudo-fact that is all too common on the world’s most schlocky wannabe “encyclopedia.” Caveat emptor.

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Bush the Bookworm

No myth about George W. Bush has been cultivated more sedulously by his enemies than the idea that he has never read anything—that he is too ignorant to be the leader of the West. Of course, the same myth was created about Reagan, but the Teflon president had the natural ebullience to remain indifferent and undamaged in public esteem. Bush is more vulnerable.

Yet the accusation is even less warranted in his case than it was in Reagan’s. Last Wednesday the British historian Andrew Roberts was a lunch guest at the White House. The President had already read Roberts’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900—a chunky volume of over 700 pages—over Christmas, months before it was published in the United States. (It had appeared in Britain last fall.) His first instinct was to arrange to meet the author, a long-standing habit of his.

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No myth about George W. Bush has been cultivated more sedulously by his enemies than the idea that he has never read anything—that he is too ignorant to be the leader of the West. Of course, the same myth was created about Reagan, but the Teflon president had the natural ebullience to remain indifferent and undamaged in public esteem. Bush is more vulnerable.

Yet the accusation is even less warranted in his case than it was in Reagan’s. Last Wednesday the British historian Andrew Roberts was a lunch guest at the White House. The President had already read Roberts’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900—a chunky volume of over 700 pages—over Christmas, months before it was published in the United States. (It had appeared in Britain last fall.) His first instinct was to arrange to meet the author, a long-standing habit of his.

According to Roberts, he and his wife Susan “spent 45 minutes alone with the President in the Oval Office” before they were joined at lunch by Vice President Cheney and other senior officials. Then Mr. Bush proudly showed his guests the desk at which Churchill and Roosevelt were sitting when the latter broke the news of the British defeat at Tobruk—the opening scene of Roberts’s next book. In other words, the President had not only read the current book but had taken the trouble to inform himself about Roberts’s next one, too.

So how does this distinguished historian think President Bush compares to his predecessors? “He’s an amazingly well-read man, contrary to the way he’s portrayed in the media,” Roberts told the Daily Telegraph.

This chimes with the experience of my father, Paul Johnson, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Bush last December. In his eulogy, the President listed a few of my father’s many books and added, with typically self-deprecating irony, “I’ve read them all, of course.” The audience laughed, but it emerged in conversation that he actually had read some of them. Like Reagan, whose reading—including Modern Times, my father’s history of the world since 1917—encouraged him to persevere in his mission to win the cold war, George W. Bush has been strengthened by books in his determination not to give up in the war on terror.

Is it only the natural modesty of this President that leads him to wear his erudition so lightly that a cynical intelligentsia assumes that he has never opened a book? Or is it native cunning? Far better to be “misunderestimated” by your enemies than to flaunt your academic prowess and then—like the former president of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing—find your admission to the Académie Française publicly ridiculed. The only possible motive for President Bush to read big books by historians like Andrew Roberts and Paul Johnson is that he thinks history has important lessons to teach him. Whether he draws the correct conclusions from what he reads is another matter—but he can be sure that future historians of the early 21st century will at least judge him without the insufferable condescension of his contemporaries.

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