Obama Honeymoon-Over Watch: Jon Stewart and Chas Freeman

I’ve been neglecting the “Honeymoon-Over Watch” category of my blog because the notion of “watching” for something implies infrequent sightings, not a target-rich environment. The media certainly has not been hounding Obama as mercilessly as it did his predecessor, and I’m quite confident that will never happen. But the stimulus fight and economic news have been bruising, and now even the New York Times editorial page has seen fit to take a few jabs at the still-new administration. Last week, in discussing AIG Bailout 4.0, the Times snarked:

This time, the Obama Treasury Department — sounding a lot like the Bush Treasury Department — promised another $30 billion to the American International Group, the giant insurer….

What no one is saying — the Bush folks wouldn’t, and the Obama team seems to have taken the same vow of Wall Street omertà — is which firms would be most threatened by an A.I.G. collapse.

Also last week, comparisons of Obama and Bush spread to the late-night comedy shows (hat tip: Pajamas Media). Jon Stewart is a very funny man, and is backed by a team of writers and researchers who expertly suss out whiffs of hypocrisy by comparing current news footage with embarrassing older footage. Stewart is a stalwart leftie, but I admire his craft even though I frequently disagree with his views.

When Obama announced his plans for withdrawal from Iraq recently, I wrote that it was exactly the same as the plan President Bush announced last year. Last week, Stewart made the same point, only much funnier (4:16):

Perhaps the true test of the “overness” of the honeymoon will be found in the reporting of the Congressional testimony today of Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, who will be asked (by Republicans) about his appointment of Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council. So far only conservative media outlets — including the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Washington Times — seem to have made note of the impending testimony. From the National Review’s editorial:

Charles Freeman is a career diplomat, a Saudi apologist, and a savage critic of Israel. He also argues that Beijing did not strike down the Tiananmen Square protesters with sufficient swiftness. Barack Obama proposes to make him head of the National Intelligence Council. It’s an abominable appointment. …

He has distinguished himself as a rabid Israel-hater who regards the Jewish state’s defensive measures as the primary cause of jihadist terror. He is a shameless apologist for Saudi Arabia (where he once served as U.S. ambassador) despite its well-documented record of exporting terrorists and jihadist ideology. And he is a long-time sycophant of Beijing, where he served as Richard Nixon’s interpreter during the 1971 summit and later ran the U.S. diplomatic mission.

As Jake Tapper notes on his ABC News blog, Freeman appears to blame “the Israel Lobby” for the 9/11 attacks.

Freeman in 2006 wrote of the U.S.-Israel relationship, “We have paid heavily and often in treasure for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel’s approach to managing its relations with the Arabs. Five years ago, we began to pay with the blood of our citizens here at home.”

At Commentary’s blog, Contentions, Jennifer Rubin notes describes the scanty coverage of the appointment, then asks:

[H]ow long can the rest of the mainstream media hold out without reporting on an embarrassing debacle for the Obama administration? This is the John Edwards story on steroids — a virtual conspiracy of silence with little if any journalistic justification. And here the issue is really important — the appointment of a key intelligence official who is alleged to harbor serious conflicts of interest and extreme views.

How long? We should know later today. Blair’s testimony is already under way.

Update: In today’s hearing, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., pursued the Chas Freeman issue in a lukewarm challenge to Dennis Blair. Here are transcript and video (begins at about the 87-minute mark). Blair said:

We’ve found over time that the best way to inform policy is to have strong views held within the intelligence community and then out of those we come out with the best ideas.

As Lieberman closed by saying, “to be continued.”

Updated Update: Late this afternoon, apparently shortly after I left my global headquarters in Maplewood to go into Manhattan for an event, Chas Freeman withdrew his nomination. The earliest timestamp I can find is on a Wall Street Journal blog at 5:29 p.m. Eastern. More than four hours later, there is no mention of the withdrawal on the homepages of the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN or MSNBC. The Times and the Post are probably keeping their powder dry while they prepare articles for their print editions, but I have no idea what the excuse is for CNN and MSNBC. Yet another high-profile Obama appointee has to withdraw? That isn’t news?

Next-Day Update: Unbelievable.

Mr. Obama’s War: I Told You So

President Bush salutes in front of General David Petraeus
and Admiral William Fallon, September 2007, in Iraq

President Obama today announced an Iraq withdrawal plan that George Bush would be proud to call his own. Actually, it IS Bush’s own.

Don’t be fooled by the lawyerly language in his pledge to complete “the responsible removal of our combat brigades from Iraq” by August 2010. He’s leaving up to 50,000 troops in place until the end of 2011, and I guarantee that they’ll have weapons and the capability of responding with more than battalion strength. I’m not sure how he’s defining “combat brigades,” but he must be dancing close to an outright lie — a brigade is only 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers, it looks to me like he’s leaving three divisions in place.

Thank God.

Fully seven months ago, in July, I wrote the following:

If it’s going to become Mr. Obama’s war, I can take some comfort in the fact that at least he’s showing signs of an ability to think independently of the extreme pacifist wing of his party.

Candidate Obama already was tacking to the right on the war — his clarion call for surrender lost its usefulness as a wedge issue once Hillary Clinton withdrew from the race. The previously hapless George Bush had finally found the right general and the right strategy. Well before the election, even Obama had to acknowledge that the surge had “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

After winning in November, Obama co-opted Hillary and her one-time support for the war by naming her Secretary of State. But the clearest indication that the grown-ups would be in charge of the war came when Obama announced that he was retaining Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who oversaw the turnaround in Iraq. I feel much better about the Obama Presidency now than I did on Election Day.

The Bush Administration won the war in Iraq just in time, making it too late for the Democrats to surrender. The real test will come with the war Obama says he wants to fight, in Afghanistan. I wish him every success.

(Photo: Associated Press)

My Kind of Dangerous Muslim Jihadi

Mad props to Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, better known as Dr. Fadl, for attacking al-Qaeda from the jihadi perspective. (Hat tip: Cliff May)

Half an hour ago I had not heard of Dr. Fadl, but apparently he is an al-Qaeda co-founder. Remember that when al-Qaeda was founded, its primary mission was not to terrorize America, but rather to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Dr. Fadl doesn’t approve of the course Osama bin Laden has charted since 1988.

Dr. Fadl has a new book out, written from what apparently is his cushy cell in an Egyptian prison. Cliff May’s column today is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s my favorite passage, quoting Fadl:

Every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq is the responsibility of bin Laden and Zawahiri and their followers,” he writes. “Was it not al-Qaeda that lit the fuse of sectarian civil war in Iraq, through
[the actions of al-Qaeda in
Iraq commander] Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who killed the Shi’ites en masse? . . . Can the mentality that caused the loss of an Islamic state that existed in reality, in the Taliban
s Afghanistan — can this mentality be expected to establish an Islamic state in Iraq — in reality, and not on the internet? And have the Islamic peoples become guinea pigs upon whom bin Laden and al-Zawahiri try out their pastime and sport of killing en masse?

If America and the West are going to defeat Islamic fascism, one component of the struggle has to involve nurturing an alternate vision of Islam. That’s why al-Qaeda threw everything it had into the war in Iraq — a successful secular Islamic state is a much bigger threat to Islamic fascism than America itself could ever be.

Similarly, Dr. Fadl is arguably a more dangerous enemy for al-Qaeda than George Bush was. Fadl, a former leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, may not be a Boy Scout himself, but man, I’m liking him today.

Iraqis Vote to Stabilize Their Country

Incomplete election returns from Iraq are very heartening. In addition to being almost completely peaceful — with security provided solely by Iraqi forces, with Americans on standby — the results appear to have strengthened the secular government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The various Sunni factions, which largely boycotted the 2005 elections, appear to have won representation proportionate to their numbers, giving them a stake in the government.

From an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (emphasis added):

The big loser in this election was Iran. Iranian agents spent a lot of money trying to influence the outcome of the elections in the south, and they largely failed. Iran’s favored parties did poorly. The Iranians had hoped to persuade Iraqi voters to punish Mr. Maliki for signing the security agreement with the United States. Instead, these elections proved to be a powerful vote of confidence for the prime minister and his policies, including that agreement.

The big winner in this election was the concept of a unitary Iraq. An attempt to hold a referendum on establishing an autonomous Basra failed before the election. ISCI, the only Arab party that had favored the creation of an autonomous Shiite region, lost ground throughout that region, including in its own stronghold of Najaf. Iraqis have sent a clear message that they want to live in a single state with a strong central government connected to strong provincial governments, rather than in some sort of artificially federated state.

Iraq has gone from being an impending disaster to a golden opportunity. Helping Iraqi internal politics develop peacefully and across sectarian lines is a critical part of reintegrating Iraq into the Arab world, making the world’s only Shiite-controlled Arab state acceptable to the Sunni regimes that surround it. That reintegration, in turn, offers tantalizing prospects for balancing Iran and stabilizing the heart of the Muslim world. The stakes in Iraq remain very high, but we are finally starting to see the return on our investment.

Thank you, President Bush. The only way to defeat Islamic fascism is to nurture and support peaceful alternatives in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Iraq is a good start.

(Photo: AP)

In Iraq, the People Have Spoken — Peacefully

What if they held an election and the terrorists stayed home? From MSNBC:

BAGHDAD – Iraqis held their most peaceful election since the fall of Saddam Hussein on Saturday, and voting for provincial councils ended without a single major attack reported anywhere in the country.

In the NBC Nightly News report of the elections, below, we see how women are beginning to play a more prominent role in Iraqi government and society.

Yesterday’s election occurred 1 year, 9 months and 11 days after the Senate Majority Leader’s shameful attempt to preemptively surrender:

Our new president also opposed the surge, of course, and he won his party’s nomination in part because he alone among the major candidates opposed the war in Iraq from the start. I’m very grateful that he was not the commander in chief in 2007, when the new strategy was put in place. Now that it’s Mr. Obama’s war, I’m heartened by the fact that he kept in place the Defense Secretary who oversaw the change in strategy.

“I congratulate the people of Iraq on holding significant provincial elections today,” Mr Obama said in a statement. “This important step forward should continue the process of Iraqis taking responsibility for their future.” Thanks to President Bush, they have the opportunity to do so.

(Photo at top is from PUK Media, where there are dozens more photos from the voting.)

Iraqis Embrace Democracy With a Passion

Citizens of one of the world’s newest democracies go to the polls Saturday to elect representatives to the Provincial Councils. It’s the third nationwide election in Iraq, and the first since 2005.

But the Washington Post reports the atmosphere now is nothing like “the 2005 vote, when violence and its threat lurked menacingly over the process. Neither candidates’ names nor their pictures were published, for fear they might be assassinated.”

Plenty of candidates are willing to show their faces now. Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger, runs some of the numbers:

- Candidates up for election Iraq-wide: 14,428…

- Number of seats these +14k are fighting to nab for themselves: 440 (that’s 32.7 candidates per seat!)

- Candidates for Baghdad Council: 2371

- Number of seats on Baghdad’s Council: 57 (41.6 per wannabe ‘council member’ per seat.. there will be tears.. a lot of tears)….

- Number of FOREIGN journalists registered with Iraqi Electoral Commission to cover elections: 358

- Number of IRAQI journalists registered with Iraqi Electoral Commission to cover elections: 1629 (who knew we had that many journalists!)

It’s not perfect. There are concerns about fraud and vote-buying, and only 14 of the country’s 18 provinces are taking part — the Kurdish provinces are not participating. And while the violence has greatly diminished, it is by no means over.

But Iraqis are determined to make their voices heard. It may be contagious — the country’s neighbors should be on notice.

(Photo: Salam Pax)

You (Could Have) Read It Here First

Long-time readers (hi Sweetie!) know how much I admire Charles Krauthammer’s writing. I’ve said that when I read his columns, I often wish I had written them first. Well, now that fantasy has partly come true.

Krauthammer’s column today covers some of the same ground as my post Wednesday on Obama’s mixed signals to the Muslim world. (No, I am not so delusional as to think he got the idea from my blog, which weighs in at 213,974th in Technorati’s blog rankings. I’m just tickled that we’re on the same wavelength.)

We both reacted to Obama’s statement that he wants to return to “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago” by noting that the Iran Hostage Crisis began 30 years ago. Despite Obama’s implication that his predecessor’s administration was hostile to Muslims, we both noted that Bush prominently reached out to Muslims six days after 9/11.

Here’s an additional Krauthammer point that I wish I had made:

In these most recent 20 years — the alleged winter of our disrespect of the Islamic world — America did not just respect Muslims, it bled for them. It engaged in five military campaigns, every one of which involved — and resulted in — the liberation of a Muslim people: Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Great column, Chuck! I mean Charlie. I mean… Mr. Krauthammer.

(Photo: Univ. of North Carolina)

Bush, Reagan, Moral Clarity, and the Politics of Evil

President Bush has outpaced former President Reagan when it comes to calling evil by its name. What remains to be seen is whether history will vindicate Bush as it has Reagan.

From President Bush’s farewell address to the nation last night (hat tip: K-Lo):

As we address these challenges — and others we cannot foresee tonight — America must maintain our moral clarity. I’ve often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense — and to advance the cause of peace.

I’m all in favor of tolerance, open-mindedness and humility. I try to remain alert to the possibility that other cultures, belief systems and ideologies may have something to teach me. But at some point, open-mindedness must give way to moral clarity.

I’ve not always thought this way. In 1983 I was one of the many liberals who sneered when President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” So simplistic, I thought, and dangerous. I loved America and certainly preferred it to the Soviet Union, but the Soviets were an important force in the world, and I thought it was naive and arrogant to speak out so strongly against them.

I didn’t learn about it until years later, but I would have been even more scornful if I knew about the philosophy of the Cold War that Reagan had voiced several years before he became president, in a conversation with his future National Security Advisor, Richard Allen:

“So,” he said, “about the Cold War: My view is that we win and they lose. What do you think of that?”

What a simpleton, I would have thought. But by the time I first heard of the conversation, America had won the Cold War — and Reagan, more than any other individual person, made it happen. He created the conditions for victory by bankrupting the Soviet Union with an escalation of the arms race — which I also derided at the time. While I joined others in rolling my eyes, he startled his staff and captured the world’s imagination with his clarion call: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And then, when he sensed the time was right and that Gorbachev was a different kind of Soviet, Reagan pushed past harsh criticism from his right and engineered a landmark nuclear arms treaty, signed at the White House in 1987, as shown in the photo above.

Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years after that, the Soviet Union fell.

In context, Reagan’s evil empire passage squarely attacks the sense of moral relativism that still guides so much criticism of the United States, both domestically and abroad:

I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

The Soviet Union was, in fact, an evil empire, but I and many others chose instead to focus on America’s shortcomings. The starkness of the contrast between the two great powers became clear to me only in retrospect, but Reagan saw it from the start, and never wavered in his opposition to evil.

Which brings us back to President Bush.

In his January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush famously declared that Iraq, Iran and North Korea constituted an “axis of evil.” Just over four months earlier, I and millions of others had watched evil unfold on live television, as the second plane plowed into the South Tower and the second fireball announced that this was no mere accident. So in the State of the Union address, my main quarrel with Bush’s formulation was not “evil,” but “axis,” evoking as it did the formal World War II partnership of Germany, Japan and Italy.

When a North Korean ship smuggling Scud missiles was intercepted in the Middle East later that year, I warmed somewhat to the term “axis,” but I still think it was problematic. More broadly, however, I’m a fan of Bush’s references to evil and evil-doers — so much so that I named the blog after someone else’s famous quote about evil.

Bush started talking about evil in the days after 9/11 and continued during the run-up to the Iraq War and beyond. He is faulted for insisting before the war that Saddam had — or more accurately, still had — stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Even though Bill Clinton was convinced, both as President in 1998 and through Bush’s overthrow of Saddam in 2003, that Saddam had WMD, Bush was labeled a “liar” when no such stockpiles were found. I suppose a case can be made that Bush was guilty of believing what he wanted to believe about WMD, but the idea that he lied about it has always been silly — why lie about a momentous matter when you know the lie must be discovered?

WMD or no, Bush’s liberation of Iraq rid the world of a truly evil regime. I still believe it was the right thing to do, and I’m not alone — support for the war has never dipped below a third of all Americans, although until recently you wouldn’t guess that from the tenor of media coverage. Iraq War supporters are a minority, but we are not a fringe group.

For better or worse, Bush’s legacy will always be inextricably tied to the war in Iraq. This means, as I’ve written before, there is a chance Bush will be remembered years from now as the man who planted the first stable democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East. If some day Islamic fascism joins Soviet communism in the category of defeated ideologies, a President’s clarity about the United States as a bulwark against evil may again be a large part of the reason.

(Photo of Reagan and Gorbachev from the Reagan Library. Berlin Wall photo from Agence France-Presse. Graph from Pew Research.)

Obama Silver Lining Watch (Gitmo Edition)

“The single best thing about the election of Obama may be that we now have a chance to view the terror threat without the distorting lens of Bush hatred.”

So says Jack Goldsmith, a former assistant attorney general in the Bush Administration, as quoted in a William McGurn column in today’s WSJ. The topic of the column is Guantanamo, and McGurn describes reports that Obama may tread cautiously despite his campaign promise to close the prison camp and move the remaining 250 detainees.

During the campaign, of course, both John McCain and Barack Obama vowed to close Gitmo down. But a President Obama will likely find it easier to do the prudent thing. As a Republican hawk charged by his opponent with representing a third Bush term, Mr. McCain would have been under immense pressure to prove that he wasn’t George W. Bush. And a hasty closing of Guantanamo would have been a high-profile way to do it.

Fortunately, Mr. Obama is under no such pressure. …

Yes, it’s a double standard. But it could turn out to be a good thing for the nation. What the American people need today is a sensible policy that recognizes three facts: that terrorists present a unique challenge to our rules of war; that capturing and holding terrorists is different from capturing and holding criminals or prisoners of war; and that the men and women who set up Guantanamo did so not because they were out to shred the Constitution but because, faced with some very imperfect choices, this was thought to be the best way to protect the American people.

Six weeks from today, Barack Obama becomes commander-in-chief of the global war against Islamic fascism, as well as the active combat theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama won the Democratic nomination on a platform of surrender in the Iraqi theater, but events overtook him — it’s now too late to surrender there, as the war in Iraq has largely been won.

By retaining the Secretary of Defense who oversaw the turnaround in Iraq, Obama has signaled that he will take seriously his duty to protect American interests. Caution on Guantanamo is a similar signal. Sometime in 2009, I fully expect Obama to begin explaining why America’s best interests are served by a stable democracy in Iraq — rather than chaos in the wake of a too-hasty withdrawal. And because the explanation will no longer be coming from the hated Bush, both of America’s major political parties will begin to have a stake in the success of the war effort.

That’s why this McCain voter sees yet another silver lining in Obama’s electoral victory. (Wait a minute… silver lining? Are you calling Obama a “dark raincloud”? Don’t even go there.)

How Will History Judge Bush?

A few months ago, a friend started a conversation with the words, “now that George Bush is generally agreed to be the worst president in history…”

I have no idea what she said after that, as my mind was reeling. I silently edited the statement: “Among partisan Democrats who ignore Warren Harding, George W. Bush is generally agreed to be the worst president in history.”

But my friend can point to academic support for her claim, because even some historians, who should know better, have been eager to label George W. Bush the “worst president in history.” They would do well to let some history occur before they presume to speak for the ages, and to remember how Ronald Reagan evolved in a few short years from the bumbler of the Iran-Contra scandal into the hero who won the Cold War.

At Pajamas Media, Ron Radosh discusses an academic who is grappling with the issue of Bush’s legacy:

As Professor Moen points out, Bush’s “ability to actually stay convinced that Iraq had to be won, when nobody else in the world agreed with him…is an aspect of his strong leadership that people will respect more over time.” One can argue that when Bush leaves office, Iraq will be on the way to forging an actual democracy; the war will have been effectively over and Al-Qaeda will have been defeated.

This is not to say that critics are incorrect when they attack the serious mishandling of Iraq after Saddam’s ouster. No one can justify Abu Ghraib, the excesses in interrogation techniques and the sanction of actual torture, or the problems at Guantanamo. Nor can one fail to be critical of the President’s inability to explain to the American public why Iraq had to be won and why they should support Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Future generations will have to assess the final outcome. If Iraq does emerge as a democracy in the Middle East, joining Israel as a state pledged to democracy in a sea of tyrannies, then future historians will see the President in a more favorable light than their contemporaries seem to do today. Whatever their conclusions turn out to be, I have one prediction: Bush’s position in the rankings of American Presidents will have risen close to the center. Check back with me in a decade.

I think it may take longer than a decade, and in any event it will depend on the future course of Iraq and the Middle East. Today, after mismanaging the war for years, Bush can point to a tenuous, fledgling democracy in Iraq. Twenty or forty years from now, if things go well, he may — may — get credit for creating the first stable democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East. And if Iraq becomes a beacon of hope in the neighborhood, the missteps in the early years of the war will become a mere footnote in the history books.