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On the Run

The American government has taken the extraordinary step of closing its embassies in a wide swathe of the Muslim world for a week, and there’s no way of knowing for sure if it’s a good idea. The information that prompted the decision is classified, what has been leaked to the press has no doubt been leaked selectively and reported incompletely, and even in those in the know can’t say with any certainty what might happen next.
This hasn’t stopped the criticism, of course. Some are arguing that even if the terror threat is real it sends a dangerous signal of weakness to be seen hiding from it, and that the better response would be heightened security and defiance. Others are making a case that the temporary closings only force the terrorists to delay their plans for a week, and that if measures can be taken in such a short span of time to thwart the plot they should have been undertaken earlier. Still others are contending that the threat isn’t real, and has been manufactured by the administration for political reasons.
There is no hard evidence for the lattermost school of thought, but the cynicism is understandable nonetheless. At this point any base motivation for the administration’s actions seems all to possible, and the countless lies told about the deadly attack on a consulate in Libya last September 11 prove that president and his advisers regard even matters of national security as subordinate to the political considerations. To further fuel the speculation the embassies are being closed at a time when the country is debating the administration’s invasive intelligence-gathering techniques, with even more controversial details slowly emerging, and the claims of an imminent terror plot have become a talking point for the administration’s defenders in both parties. The talk of a terror plot also comes at a time when the president’s poll numbers are in decline and could use a boost of rally-round-the-president sentiment, leading to the now obligatory talk of a “wag the dog” scenario.
Although plausible, these theories strike us as unlikely. Closing so many embassies for such an extended period of time is a far more elaborate response than a political ploy would require, and hiding Americans away hardly seems calculated to bolster the president’s reputation for boldness. A strategy of shrugging off any controversy as a “phony scandal” has worked well enough for the administration, too, and the debate about the National Security Agency’s methods wasn’t even the most damaging brouhaha afoot. More convincingly, an eminent threat of a serious terror attack is not the sort of lie that President Obama likes to tell.
All of the lies told about the Benghazi debacle, as well as the conceit that the Fort Hood massacre was an act of “workplace violence” committed by overstressed soldier, and that the bombings at the Boston Marathon were caused by the alienation felt by two immigrants who had been insufficiently embraced by American society, were all in service of a bigger lie that the terror threat had receded. During his re-election campaign the president constantly boasted that al-Qaeda was “on the run,” and after it proved a successful pitch he has made the claim that the war against Islamist terrorism was winding down. The president no doubt wishes it were so, as it would vindicate his accommodationist instincts, justify the defense cuts he has always desired, and allow him to spend the money and his time on the domestic initiatives that are most dear to his heart. He might even have believed it, but the embassy closings are an unmistakable admission that Islamist terrorism remains at least as deadly a threat as ever.
Admitting this unpleasant fact creates more political problems for the president than it could ever solve. The administration’s response to terrorism has been a strange brew of drone strikes and apologetic speeches, scanning the phone records of millions of average Americans while failing to heed warnings about specific Muslim suspects, “kill lists” of suspected terrorists in some countries while arming Islamist revolutionaries in others, and it’s suddenly harder to make the case that it’s working.

— Bud Norman

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The Sequester Question

To hear the president tell it, this “sequester” business is darned scary.
According to the president’s account, if those rich-folk-loving Republicans don’t accede to his demand for more taxes there is absolutely nothing he can do to prevent “about a trillion dollars” of “arbitrary budget cuts.” This will be about the worst thing that ever happened, the president explained on Tuesday, as this “meat cleaver approach” will hinder the nation’s military readiness, “eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research,” reduce the hours worked by Border Patrol agents, furlough agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, force prosecutors to let criminals run amok, cause further delays at airports, lay off thousands of teachers, cause tens of thousands of parents to “scramble to find childcare for their kids,” and leave hundreds of thousands of Americans without health care. The president also noted, as a group of uniformed emergency responders sat grimly behind him, that “their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded.”
None of which, the president seemed quite pleased to report, is in any way his fault. It’s all because Congress passed a law which forced itself to agree on a plan to cut $4 trillion of deficits or face this dire outcome. Alas, the president sadly noted, “They haven’t come together and done their jobs, so as a consequence, we’ve got these automatic, brutal spending cuts that are poised to happen next Friday.” Being a reasonable sort of fellow, the president assured those emergency responders and the rest of the nation that he would have preferred a “balanced approach” of tax hikes and “smart cuts” to “spending that we don’t need” and “programs that aren’t working,” but that he can’t bring himself to sign any bill that doesn’t further soak the rich because it “would hurt the middle class.”
This makes the sequester seem so frightening, and the president so sensible, that one might not notice that it’s all nonsense.
The president was the one who cooked up the sequester plan, as the formerly revered Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has documented, and anyone with a “Schoolhouse Rocks” level of education knows that the bill Congress passed didn’t become a law until the president signed it. Furthermore, the Republican-controlled House has passed two attempts to undo the sequestration agreement but could not get them through the Democrat-controlled Senate, and a series of more sensible cuts could still be quickly agreed upon if the president were willing to compromise his redistributionist principles.
One should also note that none of the dire consequences that the president describes will come to pass unless he wills it, as the executive branch will decide how the mandatory cuts to each agency are enacted. Competent chief executives of many enterprises have made similar cuts in their organizations without calamity, so the smartest president ever should be able to do the same.
Nor is there any reason to believe that the consequences will be so dire as the president claims. The defense cuts are worrisome, but not nearly so much as a country that will believe Barack Obama’s accusation that it is the Republicans who are eager to undermine the nation’s military readiness. Those job-creating “investments” in energy are creating jobs at a cost of $4.8 million a piece, a rate that will bankrupt the country long before it reaches full employment. Border Patrol administrators rather than agents could have their hours cut, although that might have the unintended consequence of making the border more secure. Teachers and emergency responders will still be generously funded at the state and local level, assuming the economy doesn’t collapse under the weight of the national debt. Better prioritizing could prevent the other horrific outcomes, as well, although we’d still be treated to sob stories about the poor bureaucrats tossed out of their plush offices by the heartless Republicans.
If the president truly believes that there is “money we don’t have to spend” and “government programs that don’t work” he could easily arrange an agreement with the Republican leadership to cut those, but so far he has failed to identify anything in government that he doesn’t want. During the past campaign he made clear that subsidies to the multi-million dollar Sesame Street producers were sacrosanct, so it is hard to imagine anything else the federal government is doing that the president won’t deem essential.
No cuts will be entirely pain-free, of course, but a failure to get the government’s spending within the nation’s ability to pay for them will soon wind up hurting a great deal more. The president should know this, but he seems confident that the Republicans will wind up with the blame and he’ll avoid the scariest consequence of all.

— Bud Norman

That Obama is Sooooo Smart

Regular readers of this publication have no doubt noticed that we are not averse to sarcasm. Wielded effectively, sarcasm is an effective rhetorical device, can even achieve a satisfying literary quality, and often provides the added benefit of a healthful chuckle.

Such is our regard for sarcasm that it pains us to see it misused, as President Barack Obama has so often done over the past many years. In Monday night’s final presidential debate against Mitt Romney, for example, Obama employed sarcasm on several occasions to a disastrous effect.

The most celebrated incident occurred after Romney inveighed against Obama’s parsimonious defense budget proposals, rightly noting that they would leave the Navy with fewer ships than at any time since 1917 and well short of what the admirals have determined are necessary to fulfill their mission. Sneering like one of the late-night comedy show hosts that he so often hangs out with, Obama retorted that “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Reports indicate that the lines prompted a big cheer from press gallery, but it is unlikely that more objective observers were as enthusiastic. Reaction from the military was certainly unimpressed, with soldiers noting that both horses and bayonets have played a role in the war Obama has been prosecuting in Afghanistan, sailors noting that submarines are called “boats” in naval parlance, and almost everyone in uniform down to the lowliest “corpseman” wondering at what point in his career as a community organizer and adjunct law professor and hack politician Obama became such an expert military strategist. A majority of the civilian population probably had a similarly unfavorable reaction, with even the most militarily unsavvy doubting that such barbs would adequately substitute for a few cruisers or destroyers in wartime.

Worse yet, the line probably garnered few laughs outside the press room or the sweetly smoked living rooms of MSNBC’s paltry viewership. Sarcasm is a challenging art, and Obama fell short of its magnificent potential for reasons well known to the accomplished practitioner.

Sarcasm should only be deployed in appropriate circumstances, to cite but one rule that Obama disregarded. Except in the most unusual circumstances sarcasm should be eschewed at events such as funerals, elementary school awards presentations, baptisms, death bed visits, and presidential debates concerning matters of national security. Obama’s sneering screed seem petty and unserious, while Romney’s forbearance made him seem far more presidential.

Sarcasm should also be reserved for the most obvious fallacies, and one needn’t be a hard-core Romney supporter to see his argument made a serious point that warranted a serious response. The sarcasm was an insult not only to Romney, but to all those interested to hear a serious response from Obama.

Truly skewering sarcasm ends a debate on any point, but when it misses the remark it only invites a withering counterattack of sarcasms. So it was with Romney’s follow-ups that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” The gag belongs to a genre of jokes that was stale even by the time the “Seinfeld” program lampooned it million syndicated re-runs ago, presupposes that most voters will share its assumption that the peace-through-strength model that ended the Cold War is no longer relevant. Obama’s relentless Bush-bashing seems to have some popular appeal, but Reagan-bashing is offensive to the old folks and makes one seem something of a geezer to the young.

Similar sarcasm abounds in the Obama campaign, which has turned into a veritable stand-up routine of knee-slapping Big Bird and binder jokes, and the die-hard fans who still turn up at the rallies seem to eat it up. Lefties love their sarcasm, no matter how unskillful, so long as it’s aimed at the proper targets. The left’s obsession with sarcasm dates back at least to Saul Alinsky, the late leftist guru of community organizing whose “Rules For Radicals” advocated ridicule as a propaganda method, and it increasingly seems to be their favorite method of argument.

Lefty sarcasm can be effective, as Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and any number of other irrecoverably ridiculed conservatives will attest, but it seems unlikely to prevail against the sobering economic realities that are ever present in this election. Should this prove true, we’ll be eager to offer a witty “duh.”

— Bud Norman