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The Penultimate Day of a Dreary Eight Years

Today is President Barack Obama’s last full day in office, and it’s been a long wait. We were loudly grousing about the man back when he was first elected on a waft of hope that he was some sort of messiah, we groused again when he ran re-election on the argument that his opponent was some sort of devil, we’ve been grousing ever since, and we feel obliged to grouse once again as he leaves office with unaccountably high approval ratings.
Obama’s more die-hard admirers have already unleashed newspaper serials and hour-long video tributes and full-length hardcover books explaining how great he was, almost as great as promised back in the days when he was talking about how sea levels would fall and the national debt would decline and all that unpleasantness with Islam and the rest of the world would surely be worked out, but the case is hard to make at the moment when Donald Trump is about to be inaugurated as president.
All the testimonials point out how very bad the economy was when Obama took office, and how not -so-bad it is upon his departure, but we’ve paid enough attention that we’re not impressed. The economy was indeed in a deep recession starting some four or five months before Obama was inaugurated, but recessions always end and this was officially over before Obama could get his literally more-than-a-trillion-dollar “stimulus package” passed, and despite all the spending that had been added on top of the literally-more-than-a-trillion dollar Troubled Asset Relief Program that Obama and pretty much everyone else from both parties voted for the recovery has been the weakest on post-war record, and although the headline unemployment rate looks pretty good the broader measure that includes part-timers and the unemployed and those out of the workforce and is buried deep in story hasn’t fully yet fully recovered. Massive new regulations for the financial industry and a major government power grab of the health care sector almost certainly had something to do with the sluggishness, and what growth did occur can largely be attributed to an oil boom that Obama tried to thwart. There was also a stock market boom, but that was because the Federal Reserve kept pumping money that had nowhere to go but the stock market, where it naturally wound up exacerbating all that economic inequality that Obama had vowed to end with his tax hikes, and although he has Bill Clinton’s luck that the bubble won’t burst until the next administration we’re not counting it as a major accomplishment.
Accomplishments are even harder to find in Obama’s foreign policy, although that doesn’t stop his admirers from trying. No one dares say that Obama’s Libyan adventure or that “red line” he in drew in the Syrian sand have worked out at all, and his past “reset” appeasement of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is suddenly unfashionable in liberal circles, but they do try to cast the deal with Iran where we give them billions of dollars and they sort of pretend not to be building a nuclear bomb as a breakthrough victory. The decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq helped win Obama re-election, and after four years it gets occasional mention, although even his most ardent admirers must admit there have been unhappy consequences. Obama’s efforts on behalf of the European Union and Israel’s more liberal political parties and Latin America’s more Marxist types have not proved fruitful, China and Russia and Iran and all the usual troublemakers are more troublesome than they were eight years, and we can’t think of any of international relationships that have been improved. His most ardent admirers point to his good intentions, which we’ll conceded for the sake of argument, but the only thing that good intentions wins is a Nobel Peace Prize.
All the promises of a post-racial and post-partisan and altogether more tolerant society have also proved hollow. The past eight years of attempts to impose racial quotas on law enforcement and school discipline have made life more dangerous for many black Americans and understandably annoyed a lot of the white ones, Obama’s declared belief that politics is a knife fight and the Democrats should bring a gun and the Republicans can come along for the ride so long as they sit in the back of the bus because “I won” has heightened partisan acrimony, and although we’ve got the same sex marriages that Obama claimed to oppose in both of his runs he’s fueling the intolerance for anyone who doesn’t want to bake a cake for the ceremonies.
Although it’s good to at long last see it all come to an end after today, we expect the effects to linger for a while. The next president has already promised a more-than-a-trillion-dollars stimulus package, plenty more market interventions, health insurance for everybody that’s going to be cheaper and better than what was promised in Obamacare, and no messing around with those Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid entitlements that are the main drivers of the national debt. So far Trump’s Russian policies make Obama’s seem downright Truman-esque, and our erstwhile allies in Europe are as alarmed as ourselves, and although Trump also seems a friend of Israel we have no idea what he has in mind for the rest of the Middle East. As far as that hyper-partisan atmosphere of guns and knives and relegating enemies to the back of the bus and the might of an electoral victory making right, we see little improvement ahead.
We’ve already been grousing about Trump for more than a year now, and expect to do so for another four years or more, but we’ll always attribute some share of the blame to Obama. Those who cheered on Obama’s racialist and partisan and intolerant rhetoric should have known what they were bound to provoke, and those who cheered on the executive actions and bureaucratic harassment of political enemies are about to find out what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and despite all promises about making America great again none of us are likely to find out it works out any better than the Obama administration’s blather about hope and change.

— Bud Norman

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The Hell of Gates

Despite his past association with the Obama administration, we’ve long had a fondness for the former Defense Secretary, Central Intelligence Agency director, and National Security Council member Robert Gates. It’s partly because he grew up here in Wichita, and partly because of his long record of distinguished service to every president since Nixon except for Bill Clinton, but now we can also appreciate him as a memoirist.
Gates’ “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” won’t be in the bookstores until for another week, but enough of it has been leaked to the press to create a fuss. Although the book reportedly contains some kind words for the current president, which seem to be the sort of thing one might expect from a man who has carefully guided his career of public service through administrations from both parties, Gates has also offered some pointed and apparently newsworthy criticisms. Currently getting the most attention are his observations that the president was not committed to the success of his “surge” strategy in Afghanistan, that both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted they had opposed a similar but more successful strategy in Iraq during the Bush administration only for political reasons, and that Vice President Joe Biden has been wrong about every major foreign policy issue of the past 40 years.
That last allegation prompted the White House to issue a statement calling Biden “one of the leading statesmen of his time,” providing the nation with a much-needed belly-laugh during this cold and bleak winter, but has otherwise the administration’s spokesmen has been cautious in their response. Gates was effusively praised for his service, vigorous debate and frequent disagreement within the administration was proudly admitted, and otherwise the spokesmen seemed content to let the press defend their president against such lese majeste.

Such a cordial reaction is probably best, as the administration has nothing to gain from further publicizing Gates’ book. Tell-all tomes by ex-administration officials are a staple of political non-fiction, and there are sure to be many more by Obama associates eager to disassociate themselves from his presidency, and in most cases they will quickly pass through the news cycle and be remaindered. In this case, though, the book raises points the president will be especially eager to ignore.

Gates’ book may soon be forgotten, but the failures of Obama’s foreign policy will be long remembered. There is nothing surprising about Gates’ revelation that Obama was not committed to success in Afghanistan, as the president has publicly ridiculed the very notion of victory, nor did any objective observer ever doubt that Senator Obama’s insistence on a premature surrender in Iraq was motivated by anything other than political ambition. We would have preferred that Gates had been similarly critical of Obama’s abandonment of allies in eastern Europe and South America and the Middle East, his groveling appeasement of the some of the world’s worst actors, and the general incoherence of his foreign policy, but perhaps he felt that was outside his duties as Secretary of Defense.
Whatever the literary and historical value of Gates’ book, he has done a public service even before its publication by forcing the media to at least briefly allude to foreign affairs. Obama put the lives of brave American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines at risk in Afghanistan without confidence that it would achieve anything in the country’s interests, and a war-weary public seems too satisfied to be getting out to be properly outraged about it, so it is good that the issue has at least been forced into the national conversation. The fledgling democracy that American forces gave birth to in Iraq might yet survive the latest onslaught by Islamist terrorists, but Gates deserves gratitude for pointing out that our erstwhile allies have to do it on their own for political rather than strategic reasons.
The debate should continue through the next presidential election, and much of the press already seems worried that Gates’ views will harm the chances of potential Democratic contenders Biden and Clinton. Even the sympathetic scribes at the McClatchy news chain had a hard time finding anything that Biden has been right about in the past 40 years, and it will take a most creative memoir by Clinton to disentangle from the messes created during her four years as Secretary of State. One book won’t win the debate, but this one seems to have started it well.

— Bud Norman

Losing the Cold War After All

There’s a lot to like about the Ukrainian people. Nothing warms an old cold warrior’s heart quite so much as the sight of an angry mob pulling down and smashing a statue of Vladimir Lenin, as demonstrators in Kiev did on Sunday, and any freedom-loving soul should sympathize with a long-oppressed people proudly demanding their independence.
They are getting little sympathy from the Obama administration, however, and that is yet another in a long series of foreign policy mistakes.
The current crisis is a result of President Viktor Yanukovich’s recent decision to scuttle a long-planned trade agreement with the European Union in favor of an economic alliance with Russia. Most Ukrainians are outraged by the move, which is understandable for a number of reasons. Europe is a more prosperous trading trading partner, and for all its flaws is also freer and more democratic than Russia. Ukrainians also carry vivid memories of the genocidal famine that Russia imposed on their country in the ‘30s, along with the other horrors endured during decades of forced membership in the Soviet Union, and they rightly perceive Yanukovich’s decision as capitulation to more Russian bullying and a threat to their hard-earned and still-fledgling independence. The predictable response has been weeks of angry but peaceful demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of citizens, and a forceful and increasingly violent response by the government.
Administration officials have offered perfunctory pleas for restraint, but no other support for the demonstrators. Secretary of State John Kerry has decided to skip a planned visit to Kiev this week, and during a press conference he conceded the popular support for the EU pact but pointedly declined to mention’s Russia role. President Obama has said nothing about the matter, and seems content to once again let the Russians have their way. “With Russia in mind,” reads a Washington Post headline, “U.S. takes cautious approach on Ukraine unrest.”
The administration’s apologists at the Brookings Institute think this wise, arguing that the EU should do the diplomatic dirty work on behalf of the Ukrainian people, allowing the U.S. to avoid giving any offense to Russia while Obama deals with more pressing matters in the Middle East and Asia. With all due respect to the once-prestigious think tank, this is utter nonsense. One would hope that the State Department is sufficiently well-staffed to have some time for the fate of Europe’s largest country, and the “re-set” of American foreign policy with Russia to a supine position has yielded so little in positive results that giving some offense is now clearly called for, and any distraction from Obama’s disastrous efforts at appeasement in the Middle East and Asia would be welcome.
Victory in the Cold War and the liberation of millions of people from Soviet domination was one of America’s greatest achievements in the 20th Century, and allowing Russia to re-establish its evil empire and resume its brutal oppression of neighboring states would be one of its greatest failures of the 21st Century.

— Bud Norman

Taking Both Sides

One might have gleaned from the past election an impression that Islamist terrorism had vanished forever after President Barack Obama personally killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands, but apparently this is not the case. The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the Canadian government’s thwarting of an al-Qaeda plot to commit mass murder on a train heading to the United States are only the most recent events indicating that Islamist terrorism remains a problem.
Thus far the reaction to these events has been largely apolitical, as most of the country remains in one of those moments of post-terrorism unity that punish any attempts at partisan point-scoring, but the necessary arguments about how to proceed will soon commence. Already the well-rehearsed rationalizations are being trotted out in the liberal media, along with the usual hand-wringing about the great Islamophobic backlash that is ever feared but never realized, and the conservative press has begun easing into a full-throated critique of administration policies. All of the familiar points will be reprised, but the debate will be complicated this time around by the shrewdly political nature of Obama’s policies.
Obama has presented himself as a hard-nosed hawk who has continued such Bush-era protocols as indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, ordered a surge in Afghanistan and prolonged the withdrawal from Iraq along the Bush timetable, prosecuted a terrorist-killing drone war with a ruthlessness that even Bush didn’t dare, and endlessly reminded the public of bin Laden’s death. At the same time he has cultivated a reputation as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning antidote to that awful cowboy Bush, and the impresario of conflict resolution who ordered a decrease in troop strength in Afghanistan and got us out of Iraq, won over Muslim hearts with his exotic background and eloquent apologias to Islamic culture, and banned such nastiness as the enhanced interrogation techniques that led to bin Laden’s death. As political strategy it has been a stunning success, with critics on both the left and right muted and the non-ideological center well satisfied so long as nothing was blowing up. A radical Islamist shouting “Allahu Akbar” killed 12 people at Fort Hood, Texas, but that was easily dismissed as just another instance of workplace violence, and an Islamist terror group killed an ambassador and three other Americans, but that was in some far-away place called Benghazi, Libya, and the Islamist governments being welcomed into power by the administration were reportedly an “Arab Spring,” so it seemed to be working.
Now things are blowing up, and too close to home for the media to ignore, and the policies don’t seem to be working to anywhere near the extent that the president and his supporters have promised. Specific questions will now be asked about the immigration rules that allowed the suspects into the country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s aborted inquiries into one of the suspect’s increasing radicalization, the legal procedures being used to try the surviving suspect, and other matters arising from the Boston bombing, but there will also be a broader debate about the totality of the administration’s policies. Some will blame the hard-nosed protocols carried over and expanded from the Bush administration, while others will blame the tendencies to legalism, appeasement, and accommodation, but it will be most interesting to hear Obama defend his combination of the two.

— Bud Norman