The ceremony opening George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum today in Dallas is the kind of thing that seems to bring out the best in all of current and former leaders. The gracious speeches praising the 43rd president from former presidents Carter and Clinton as well as from President Obama were in the best tradition of patriotism and bipartisanship. The institution they are dedicating today is, by all accounts, a magnificent achievement and will make a genuine contribution to our understanding of his time in office and to American history.
Just as important, the library’s opening seems to herald the beginning of a sea change in public opinion about Bush. He was badly treated by the media and, along with Vice President Cheney, became a piñata for both the chattering classes and popular culture and it may be that this day is the start of a reassessment of his presidency.
Yet there is also something slightly off-putting about the creation of what can only be described as yet another presidential pyramid. If at the beginning of the history of our republic, it was understood our presidents would, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus go home to their plows and resume life as an ordinary citizen of the republic, we now treat former commanders-in-chief as if they were dowager monarchs, each entitled to their own private court. The creation of the presidential library system, which started as an appropriate and necessary method for storing the papers of each administration, has become an excuse for the building of great monuments to each chief executive.
Like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, each successive president undertakes the building of their political mausoleums in order to ensure their memory is preserved. Even more importantly, it allows them to begin, as President Clinton noted today at the Bush ceremony, the task of “rewriting history” in order to burnish their reputations.
That there is no going back from this recently acquired tradition is certain. But it is worthwhile at such a moment to ponder just how recently this change went into effect. Prior to the mid-20th century, ex-presidents actually did go back to being ordinary citizens without Secret Service details or staffs paid for by the taxpayers. As Matthew Algeo noted in his 2011 book Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, it was possible as last as 1953 for an ex-president and his wife to actually jump in their car and drive around the country on their own.
Theodore Roosevelt was the exception to the rule of citizen ex-presidents. His celebrity after leaving the White House—as well as his status as a central figure in our politics until his death ten years later—was, however, unique. But it would be decades before another ex-president would be as big a deal as him.
The creation of what a previous generation called the “imperial presidency” changed not only the way our leaders govern but also the way they were regarded after their terms ended. As the size and power of the federal government grew after the Great Depression and World War II, the presidency grew with it, gradually making it impossible for his predecessors to even think about emulating Truman’s road trip.
Parallel to this was the way their libraries grew from document repositories to vast museums. Where the first presidential libraries were modest affairs, they have now become mammoth institutions that go along with the large lifestyles that are part and parcel of being an ex-president. If, as Bush noted today, Alexander Hamilton feared ex-presidents would be ghosts that would haunt our politics, they are today exalted pensioners more akin to royalty than anything else.
Though they were almost all members of society’s elite in one way or another, this is something the Founders never intended to happen in the republic they created. The notion of a permanent political ruling class of this sort is not just antithetical to democracy in principle but inspires the sort of resentment of politicians that leads to the cynicism with which so many Americans view those involved in public service.
It is a given that these libraries will only get bigger and bigger with each passing president. If the Bush 43 library dwarfs some of the early presidential libraries, one can only imagine the humongous edifice that will be erected to gratify the ego and the hubris of his successor by his adoring followers.
The only possible antidote to this trend is the spirit of humility with which George W. Bush opened his library today. He rightly called it a tribute to the people of the United States more than to those that served them. If we can truly make these libraries temples of democracy rather than merely tributes to the presidents then perhaps we can hold onto some vestige of the founders’ ideas. If, as the saying goes, any American can grow up to be president, then perhaps we can also return to the concept that ex-presidents are just Americans and not retired kings or queens.
Presidential Pyramids and Democracy
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
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Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.
Quid pro quo?
Until now, the notion that Donald Trump was providing Russia and Vladimir Putin with concessions at the expense of U.S. interests was poorly supported. That all changed on Wednesday afternoon when the Washington Post revealed that Donald Trump ordered his national security advisor and CIA director to scrap a program that provided covert aid to anti-Assad rebels in Syria.
The president made that decision on July 7, within 24 hours of his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The sources who spoke to the Washington Post accurately characterize it as a reflection of “Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia.” That is a fool’s errand but, more important, this move demonstrates that the United States is willing to cede ground to adversaries and bad actors as long as they are persistent enough.
I endeavored to demonstrate as thoroughly as I could why American interests in Syria and those of Russia not only do not align but often conflict violently. The president appears convinced, like his predecessor, that his personal political interests are better served by allowing Moscow to be the power broker in Syria—even if that makes America and its allies less safe.
Moscow has made it a priority to execute airstrikes on American and British covert facilities in Syria, and Donald Trump has just rewarded those air strikes on U.S. targets. Trump has sacrificed the goodwill he garnered from Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern governments when he executed strikes on Assad’s assets and, as recently as June, the U.S. downed a Syrian warplane for attacking anti-ISIS rebels laying siege to the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.
America will continue to provide support to indigenous anti-ISIS rebels, despite the fact that those forces are often under assault from both Russian and Syrian forces. It should be noted, however, that the CIA suspended aid to Free Syrian Army elements when it came under attack from Islamist in February. The agency said it didn’t want cash and weapons falling into Islamist hands, but this move exposes that claim as a mere pretext.
This concession to Russia is significant not just because it removes some pressure on Moscow’s vassal in Damascus. It sends a series of signals to the world’s bad actors, who will inevitably react.
The phasing out of aid for anti-Assad rebels (presumably the indigenous Sunni-dominated factions) gives Russia and Syria the only thing they’ve ever wanted: the ability to frame the conflict in Syria as one between the regime and a handful of radicals and pariahs. A cessation of aid will squeeze the remaining moderate, secular rebel factions in Syria and compel them to seek whatever assistance they can—even at the risk of augmenting the ranks of Islamist insurgents. How that advances America’s interests is entirely unclear.
This move will only further embolden not just Russia and Syria but their mutual ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. It will convince the region’s Sunni actors that the United States is not on their side—a matter of increasing urgency in Iraq. The insurgency in Syria is unlikely to end so long as regional fighters have a means of getting into the country. America will simply sacrifice its leverage over those groups.
This move will confirm, finally, that the use of weapons of mass destruction in the battlefield is survivable. A truly resolute American administration might fire off a handful of Tomahawk missiles at an abandoned airfield, but regime change is not in the offing. That will only beget other bad actors who will test the parameters of America’s willingness to defend the international norms prohibiting the use of WMDs. Because American servicemen and women are stationed around the world in unstable theaters, the likelihood that they will one day be fighting on chemical battlefields just became a lot more likely.
American covert involvement in Syria also filled a vacuum that the Obama administration allowed to expand in 2011 and 2012. “One big potential risk of shutting down the CIA program is that the United States may lose its ability to block other countries, such as Turkey and Persian Gulf allies, from funneling more sophisticated weapons—including man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS—to anti-Assad rebels, including more radical groups,” the Washington Post speculated. Ironically, American withdrawal from the anti-Assad effort could actually fuel the fire, but in a way that we can neither control nor effectively influence. We’ve seen that movie before. We know how it ends.
And all of this is for what? To garner goodwill with the bloody regime in Damascus? To court Moscow or Tehran? There is nothing to gain from cozying up to these regimes that is not offset by the sacrifice of American national interests and moral authority associated with rapprochement. For all of the Trump administration’s criticisms of Barack Obama’s policy with regard to those regimes, this decision suggests he’s willing to double down on Obama’s mistakes.
Is it Trump's posture, or is it simpler than that?
Though it enjoys a level of political dominance unseen since the 1920s, the Republican Party’s agenda is stalled. Yet, despite their failure to repeal and replace ObamaCare, Republicans are damned like Sisyphus to keep trying. Republican office holders must now administer health care’s taxes and subsidies, and the rest of the GOP agenda cannot advance without freeing up the revenue dedicated to the administration of ObamaCare. A dysfunctional, one-party Congress led by an unpopular neophyte in the Oval Office should precipitate a backlash among voters. But that outcome is far from certain. Ubiquitous surveys and studies dedicated to uncovering the mystery that is the curious and contradictory Trump voter suggests that this may indeed be a new political epoch.
Nationally, Trump’s job-approval rating hovers around 40 percent. By contrast, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey of adults in “Trump country” (e.g. the counties that voted for Donald Trump) found the president enjoying a 50 percent job approval rating. Reflecting on these numbers, WSJ columnist Jason Riley observed that the political world may still be operating on a set of assumptions that do not apply to Trump; critically, that voters are transactional and that their support for politicians is contingent upon delivery.
“I think there’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that Trump’s main appeal was validating the fears and concerns of a certain segment of Americans who felt they were being ignored by elites in the media, elites in politics, elite Republicans,” Cato Institute scholar and pollster Emily Ekins told Riley. That assertion is supported by the findings of another survey. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taking the temperature of the potential midterm electorate found that registered voters prefer a Democrat-led Congress over Republicans by a staggering 14 points. Democrats shouldn’t celebrate too soon, however. The survey also showed that those who “strongly support” Trump are more motivated to vote in 2018 than are those who strongly disapprove of the president, and by a whopping 11-point margin.
This should not be. Voters should be discouraged by legislative failure, internecine feuding, and sprawling legal investigations into a nascent presidency. Voters should be repulsed by a party that sends to Congress members who physically assault journalists. They should be disgusted by a president who describes people on television he dislikes as “psycho” and “bleeding badly from a facelift.” They should be unnerved by the fact that this president spent months spinning an erroneous exculpatory tale about his campaign’s links to Russian-affiliated operatives only to pivot to defending those links when the lie was exposed for what it was. But they’re not.
This is politics in the age of affect. As Riley observed, the voters who have received disproportionate scrutiny from the press demonstrate time and again that their support for the president is not contingent upon his achievements but his posture. He speaks to their concerns, even if he is ineffectual in his attempts to address them. His speech is not overburdened with pompous language. He does not moralize; he does not lecture; he clings to his character flaws like a security blanket. He eats poorly and his physique reflects it. Trump is no Olympian figure; he gets down into the mud even when he shouldn’t.
Republican political professionals are starting to build an identity for their party around Trump’s effective affectation. If Republican voters no longer care about the policies that allegedly so vexed them in the Obama years, then they will have to run on the cultural anxiety that Donald Trump so effectively marshals. There may be no better way to accomplish that than to use the political press as a foil.
A striking McClatchy report in June indicated that Republican strategists are preparing to rely heavily on media-bashing to retain control of Congress in 2018. “The press is held with disgust and contempt,” said Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising expert who advises state-and district-level campaigns. “Battling the press isn’t a bad strategy.”
It is, however, possible that political reporters and analysts are reading more into this moment than it deserves. Perhaps Trump’s voters are as transactional as anyone, but we’re reading the receipts wrong. Maybe Trump’s prickly demeanor and bull-headedness is part of his appeal, but not all of it.
The polling suggests that something simpler may be at work here. Only 40 percent approved of Donald Trump’s job performance in the latest Bloomberg survey released on Monday, but it also found that 58 percent of respondents reported feeling closer to realizing their career and financial goals (a record high since the question was introduced in early 2013). On the economy and “creating jobs,” Donald Trump dramatically outperforms his overall job-approval numbers (46 and 47 percent approval, respectively). The Washington Post/ABC News poll confirmed Bloomberg’s findings. Despite his abysmal 36 percent job approval rating in that survey, 43 to 41 percent reported approving of Trump’s handling of the economy.
Surely some of this is perceptional; the Trump administration’s handling of the economy is six months old and characterized not by substantive reforms but by aesthetics and gestures. It is also aspirational. After eight years of recession and a sluggish recovery, Trump-country voters are exhausted by insecurity. The benefits of the Trump years are tangible for Trump voters, even if political journalists see them as illusory. Maybe political analysts are poring over the Trump voter to their own detriment. Maybe it’s still the economy, stupid.
On July 16, 2017, Iranian Judiciary spokesman Gholamhosein Mohseni Ejehi announced that Iran had sentenced an American to ten years in prison for alleged espionage. An Iranian judiciary website subsequently identified the American as 37-year-old, China-born Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University Ph.D. student in history.
Hostage-taking is nothing new for the Islamic Republic. Indeed, since revolutionary students acting on behalf of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini first seized the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979, hostage-taking has become a central pillar of Iranian policy. For authorities in Tehran, the reason for hostage-taking is simple: It’s a strategy which has repeatedly paid off. The Carter administration rewarded Iran with millions of dollars and diplomatic concessions. Ronald Reagan, for all his tough rhetoric as a campaigner, did likewise with the arms-for-hostages policy, a scheme that backfired when Iran seized even more hostages once it had received the last delivery of weaponry and spare parts.
President Obama likewise rewarded Iranian hostage-taking by paying Iran over $1 billion for the release of imprisoned Americans, although he inexplicably left Robert Levinson, the longest-held American hostage, behind. No sooner had the U.S. government transferred the ransom in cash to a waiting Iranian plane (controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), then Iranian security forces seized several more Iranian Americans and permanent residents, most prominently Iranian American businessman and political activist Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer.
What makes Wang’s arrest and imprisonment different is that Wang presumably had an Iranian visa. Americans must get a visa in advance and, on the off-chance Wang was traveling on a Chinese passport, he would likely also have required a visa, although there is some wiggle-room for Chinese citizens with confirmed bookings in five-star hotels.
Other Americans who were arrested in Iran in the years since the Embassy seizure were traveling on Iranian passports: Iran does not recognize dual citizenship for Iranians and requires Iranian-Americans to travel on Iranian documents. Renouncing Iranian citizenship takes an act of Iran’s parliament, and so it is beyond the means for pretty much every Iranian-American. The Iranian government has no desire to ease that restriction for both ideological reasons—it’s hard to demonize “the Great Satan” when so many Iranian citizens want to live in the United States—and because the requirement for Iranian-Americans to register births and keep passports current is a cash cow for the Iranian foreign ministry. When Iran has seized Americans, there, it has operated under the legal fiction that those arrested were simply Iranian citizens. Often, Iranian diplomats tell State Department and the Swiss diplomats who look out for American citizen interests in Iran to buzz off.
Levinson was a slightly different case: He traveled without a visa to Kish Island, an Iranian free trade zone which is visa-free (but which is dominated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ business interests). Regardless, the fact remains: previous Americans seized in Iran were not traveling on U.S. passports with Iranian visas.
Wang’s arrest hits home for me as I went to Iran—with proper Iranian visas in my passport—for a total of seven months while I was working on my history Ph.D. Since I received my doctorate and since I won’t self-censor what I think or write about the Iranian regime in order to gain access, I have since been unable to get the Iranian visa, even when I have been invited for academic conferences in my field. There’s never an outright rejection—just an endless series of “maybe tomorrow”—until the conference has come and gone. For academics and other Americans, however, there was always an understanding, that if the Iranian foreign ministry (and behind-the-scenes, the Iranian intelligence ministry) issued a visa and the visa-holder behaved him or herself, there would be no serious problems.
So what does Wang’s arrest mean? First, he represents the human cost of the Obama administration’s willingness to pay ransom. Second, that the security forces and judiciary targeted him suggests both that they have augmented and consolidated control despite all the Western self-deception about Iranian moderation and also that they wish to humiliate the United States. Wang’s arrest is also a signal by those who control Iran that Americans should think twice about traveling to the country. The New York Times may profit handsomely from its Iran tours, but Iran may profit more if they refuse to allow one or more of those tourists to depart.
No hostage-taking is acceptable, and the fact that any Western diplomat would trust, let alone tolerate, their Iranian counterparts absent an Iranian renunciation of the practice past and present reflects poorly on both the United States and Europe. The fact that Iran targeted an Iranian visa holder rather than an “Iranian citizen” suggests the Islamic Republic is crossing lines even they have long avoided.