War and Peace in a Complicated World

obama child statue copyA child shall lead them

After President Obama made his ill-advised announcement that he will begin reversing the coming surge in Afghanistan just 18 months from now, I wrote that “he’ll have plenty of time between now and July 2011 to figure out how to explain, if necessary, that the withdrawal must be delayed.”

In Kabul today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates got an early start on walking back that commitment:

“While we hope to transfer power in July 2011, we will have a large number of forces here for some time beyond that,” Gates told the group at Kabul International Airport. “This is the first time in Afghan history when foreign forces are here to help, and we intend to be your partner for a long time.”

Meanwhile, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize nine days after announcing an escalation of what is now Mr. Obama’s War, the president made the best of a bizarre situation by acknowledging the obvious:

Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight.

And in Jakarta, Indonesians marked the occasion by unveiling a statue of the Obama Child, swaddled in T-shirt and shorts, embarking on his earthly ministry with the predestined Nobel medallion draped around his neck.

Photo: AFP/Getty

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obamamessiahWriting in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank discusses the downward trend in President Obama’s approval rating among liberals — a decline that seems likely to accelerate now that he has announced an escalation in what shall henceforward be known as Mr. Obama’s War.  The disillusionment…

… was bound to happen eventually. Obama had become to his youthful supporters a vessel for all of their liberal hopes. They saw him as a transformational figure who would end war, save the Earth from global warming, restore the economy — and still be home for dinner. They lashed out at anybody who dared to suggest that Obama was just another politician, subject to calculation, expediency and vanity like all the rest.

My first substantive post on this blog dealt with this very issue.  But in my case, I welcomed the emerging evidence that Obama is a politician, not a messiah.  I still do.

From that July 2008 post:

My biggest concern with Obama was the very thing that endeared him to many others — the idea that he was “not a politician,” or was “a new kind of politician.” I never believed that to be the case… but enough people believed it that I had to consider the possibility. The idea of a president who is not a politician is scary. It’s like the idea of a Supreme Court justice who’s not a lawyer. There’s no law against it, and it might even work out OK. But it makes no more sense to put a non-politician in the country’s top political job than it would to put a non-lawyer in the top legal job.

It ain’t always pretty and it ain’t always fair, but politics is the mechanism through which our country is governed.  How many times have you heard variants of “So-and-so is just doing that for political reasons,” with the word “political” spat out as a term of contempt.  But another way to say “doing something for political reasons” is “representing one’s constituents.”

As with any politician, Obama’s constituency is far from monolithic.  But he had a large cadre of supporters who bought into the Obamessiah myth, and it was inevitable that they eventually would feel betrayed.  As he positions himself for re-election, his twin goals will be to convince enough of the former true believers that he is still the best option available, while doing what needs to be done to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat the jihadists.

There’s a tension between those two goals, as we can see in the announcement of the new strategy for Mr. Obama’s War.  His ill-advised announcement of a date certain for beginning to reverse the coming surge is a face-saving fig leaf for the true believers.  Fortunately, he’ll have plenty of time between now and July 2011 to figure out how to explain, if necessary, that the withdrawal must be delayed.

But in the meantime, sounding a tentative trumpet is not the way to rally the troops and win a war.

noble_medalsWhat to make of the bizarre awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a president who had completed 0.82% of his term at the time the nominations were due?

Or, as Claudia Rosette frames the question, “What Price for Obama’s Nobel Prize?“  Her conclusion:

America, in the course of defending its own freedoms, has long extended to the likes of Norway, Denmark and Sweden a protective umbrella. Under that shelter, too many Europols have come to believe that peace is a function of nothing more than talk and hope and dreams and … premature prizes.

Obama said on Friday morning that he will accept this award as “a call to action.” Action on whose behalf? The five Norwegians who make up the Nobel peace prize committee chose to give him this award, for their own purposes. Obama, and America, owe them nothing. The real hope is that Obama will remember he took an oath (twice) not to serve as global spokesman for the Norwegian Nobel Committee, but “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Before his presidency is over, keeping faith with that oath may require him to do things [that] would knock the stuffing out of the featherbed philosophy of this sanctimonious crowd of Scandinavian free-riders.

To pick a completely unhypothetical example, it may require him to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan.  At first blush, the Nobel Prize may seem to make it harder for an Obama administration to do anything involving a projection of American military power.

But there’s another way of looking at it.  While the prize is ridiculous, it’s not Obama’s fault that it was awarded.  At the risk of indulging in wishful thinking, the prize may give him protective cover to act in the long-term interests of peace — even when it involves military action in the short run.  If so, it would be part of the silver lining I’ve been monitoring since Election Day.

As I’ve said before, I expect now that Obama is safely ensconced at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the cutthroat competitiveness of the news media is going to drive more and more reporters to go after the only President we have.

Campbell Brown has a show on CNN called “No Bias, No Bull.” When you market yourself that way, you have to be prepared to smack down anybody, “without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved,” in the immortal words that used to guide The New York Times. To her credit, Brown is a rare example of a mainstream journalist who actually took a hard shot at Obama before the election — dinging him for rejecting campaign finance limits once it became clear that Obama’s fund-raising power was much greater than McCain’s. She even quoted an Obama supporter saying the flip-flop met the definition of a “hypocrite.”

She raised the stakes in a commentary on last night’s show, using the H word without the fig leaf of attributing it to someone else. The piece, which describes how the administration is seeking a waiver from its own restrictions on hiring lobbyists, is available today on CNN.com, under a headline “Commentary: Obama’s Hypocrisy is Showing.”

Mr. President, if you want to hire former lobbyists because you think they are the best people to do the job, then hire former lobbyists. Just don’t hold a big news conference first to tell us how your administration is going to be so different from previous administrations in that you won’t be hiring lobbyists.

Don’t make your disdain for lobbyists and your pledges that they won’t wield influence in your administration a centerpiece of your campaign.

It’s the hypocrisy and the double-talk that makes so many of us so cynical. Do what you think is best for the country. Just be straight with us about how you’re going to do it.

(To be clear, there was a flurry of commentary when the administration first sought a waiver to the lobbying rules just a day after promulgating them. But this is the first time I’ve seen such sharp criticism on the issue from a nominally nonpartisan source.)

While the revolving door between government and lobbyists can be unseemly, lobbying is a form of free speech. Some regulation of lobbying is appropriate, and government officials need to make a special effort to seek out the opinions of people and groups that cannot afford a fancy office on K Street. But the reason why lobbyists are able to command high salaries for plying their trade is that they have substantial expertise in the ways of Washington and the business interests of their employer — it would make little sense to exclude such people from the government completely.

Interestingly, the lobbyist that sparked Brown’s commentary is intended to be chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. I haven’t returned to the subject of Geithner since writing, just after the tax controversy first surfaced, that I didn’t think his tax “peccadillos” should sink his candidacy. Geithner has been confirmed, but I’ve changed my mind about his suitability for the office he now holds. The turning point for me was reading the objections of the three Senate Democrats who voted against his confirmation. As Sen. Tom Harkin said:

He has stated this was an innocent mistake and that there was no intent to deliberately avoid paying the required taxes. However, the IMF informs us that in order to avoid exactly this kind of situation, its U.S. citizen employees are fully informed of their obligation to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes and must sign a form acknowledging that they understand this obligation.

Moreover, the IMF gives its U.S. citizen employees quarterly wage statements that detail their U.S. tax liabilities. The IMF pays its U.S. citizen employees an amount equal to the employer’s half of the payroll taxes with the expectation that the individual will use that money to pay the IRS.

Geithner failed to pay the required taxes for four successive years. When the problem was discovered, he was billed for back taxes only for the last two of those years, because the IRS statute of limitations had passed on the earlier two years. He finally settled up for the earlier two years only after being nominated as Treasury Secretary.

I hope this guy does a really good job managing the financial crisis. Even if he does, I don’t think it will be enough to justify the fact that the man we’ve put in charge of overseeing the IRS appears to be a tax cheat.

(Photos: CNN.com; Geithner swearing in from LA Times)

Gaza, and Obama Derangement Syndrome

Photo: Associated Press via Yahoo! News

Caption: Muslim protesters wearing masks of, from left, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, take part in a rally against Israeli air strikes on Gaza, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009.

I didn’t vote for Obama, but I wish him well, because there’s a lot at stake. Sixteen days from now he’ll be America’s president, and my president.

So I don’t want to slip into the kind of partisan glee some conservative bloggers have been showing at the growing evidence that the man behind change.gov (I bet they retire that domain before 2012) will face some limitations in his ability to change the world.

There’s little doubt that Obama will be treated with considerably more respect throughout his term by the American news media than Bush ever was. That’s likely to be true around the world as well, at least initially. But America has real enemies, and Obama will quickly become the face of the Great Satan for jihadists everywhere. The process is under way.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, I am more confident than I was two months ago that Obama will protect America with a muscular foreign policy. It will be interesting to see how the longtime purveyors of Bush Derangement Syndrome will react when it’s their man making the tough decisions.

Faux News vs. MSDNC

A McCain Voter Finds Silver Linings

Differences on policy issues should not, on this day, obscure the marvel that has occurred. A man who in his early childhood could not use certain public restrooms has just been elected to the most powerful office in the world.

The 109-year-old daughter of a slave lived long enough to help elect a black president.

There will always be toxic individuals, but it’s now permissible to hope that we may have seen “The End of Racism” as a potent force in our society.

I’ve read a lot of conservative commentary in the past few hours, some of it cranky and bitter, more of it gracious and respectful. Here’s an excerpt from my favorite, from Mike Potemra in The Corner:

I voted for John McCain because I admire him immensely as a person, and agree with him on many more issues than I do with Senator Obama. And I ask a rhetorical question: Can we McCain voters, without embarrassment, shed a tear of patriotic joy about the historic significance of what just happened? And I offer a short, rhetorical answer.

Yes, we can.

As Peggy Noonan said earlier, “this means a great deal.”

It also means a great deal that America’s first black President is not a grievance monger like Jesse Jackson or a race-baiting thug like Al Sharpton. Obama is an archetypal family man who exudes a sense of calm leadership and stresses personal responsibility, and who built a winning coalition by earning the support of millions of people of all races. Jackson, who as recently as 2006 was named America’s “most important black leader,” will never wear that mantle again, and America will be the better for it.

More silver linings (and no, dammit, the silver lining metaphor is NOT racial code):

  • As I’ve written before, it’s probably too late to surrender in Iraq — even though Obama’s support for doing so helped him win the Democratic nomination. Enough progress has been made that once it becomes Mr. Obama’s war, 76 days from now, he will not want to be the President who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • Obama’s election will, at least temporarily, dramatically improve America’s standing in the eyes of the rest of the world. (I consider this to be similar to the redemptive benefit of electing a black President. It’s not reason enough for me to vote for Obama in a time of war, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be pleased by that part of the package.) When the time comes to respond to the next terrorist assault, President Obama will be more free of the phony unilateralist label than President McCain could ever hope to be.
  • Despite holding the Presidency and both houses of Congress, the Democrats will be constrained in their ability to increase the size of government by the financial crisis that will take at least a year or two to unwind. The Obama Administration may well turn out, against its instincts, to be more financially conservative than the Bush Administration. Not a high hurdle, I admit.

I’ll close this tour of silver linings by returning to the theme of the first post I wrote about Obama: I Prefer the Chicago Politician to the Obamessiah. Obama is an extraordinarily charismatic and talented politician. To quote The Corner again:

The manner of this political victory is important, as well. This was not some prize bestowed upon him, and Barack Obama didn’t just buy a winning lottery ticket; he out-smarted and out-worked both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. It is healthy that the American political system gathers the energies and talents of those who feel excluded into the nation to change it, rather than pushing them away from the nation to oppose it.

“Politics” is often considered a dirty word, but politics is the craft of government, and America has elected a master craftsman. He is a man comfortable in his own skin. Even while taking full electoral advantage of the cult-like following he inspired, he remained self-aware enough to jokingly deny rumors that he was “born in a manger.”

Although I’ve written at length about his occasional appalling choices in associates, to me that always seemed much more of a blot on his judgment than on his own moral character. No person is without flaws, and no successful politician can always take the high road. But I believe President-Elect Obama — like the man he defeated — is fundamentally a good and decent human being with the capacity to be an inspirational leader. The fact that our political system gave us a choice of two such candidates may be the greatest silver lining of all.

The Corner vs. the Messiahmercial

The Web Goddess and I watched the Obamavision special via DVR while snuggling together on the couch. We’re a red-and-blue couple, but in the spirit of bipartisanship, I wore a purple shirt.

I started checking out of the campaign emotionally after the final debate (see “Stick a Fork in Mac, He’s Toast“). So tonight (ok, last night) I took a couple of minor jabs at The One, but afterwards I muted the Obamatron and said to Nina, “he’s good.” I’m in the mode of trying to make the best of the coming Obama presidency, and I was impressed by the performance. His communication skills rival Reagan’s and Clinton’s. I then navigated the DVR to the new Law & Order: SVU that I missed Tuesday night. Up now with a touch of insomnia, I learn that apparently the Phillies won the World Series.

The Corner’s still on the case, however. Some of the Cornerites are trying too hard — “If any undecided voters are moved by this nearly unwatchable garbage, then we will get what we deserve.” But there’s a link to a useful AP deconstruction of the ways in which “Barack Obama was less than upfront in his half-hour commercial.” Then there was this:

I was struck by the guy at the Ford plant; it noted that his father and grandfather had worked at Ford and retired with full benefits. And now he’s only paid to work every other week. Is he suffering currently because of the state of the economy and George Bush’s economic policies, or because his dad and grandad’s union extracted exorbitant benefits and retirement packages that mean Ford is now saddled with crushing financial obligations?

… which eloquently captures the half-formed thoughts that were swirling through my mind at the time.

Nina and I both joked about the “amber waves of grain” that opened the show. Later on we saw the “purple mountain’s majesties” in the backdrop of the Albuquerque (Hi Mom!) vignette. K-Lo came through with the best dig:

“He had me at the waving wheat.” [Kathryn Jean Lopez]
That’s how Rachel Maddow began her show tonight. Must turn off MSNBC.

Joe the Plumber Becomes Collateral Damage


Obama talks with Joe Wurzelbacher, who should not have had any reason to fear that his life was about to change.
(Photo: Jae C. Hong / AP)

The snap judgment about Wednesday night’s Presidential debate, according to headlines all over the Internets, was that “the big winner of the debate was Joe the Plumber.” The line brought a smile to my face, and I daydreamed about how he could build a marketing campaign around it.

Not so fast.

HOLLAND, Ohio — Joe the Plumber’s story sprang a few leaks Thursday.

Turns out that the man who was held up by John McCain as the typical, hard-working American taxpayer isn’t really a licensed plumber. And court documents show he owes nearly $1,200 in back taxes.

“Joe,” whose name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher…

The implication here is, this guy lied about being a plumber, he’s a tax cheat, and his name isn’t even Joe. I’ll be damned before I’ll post any links to the left-wing fever swamps (or the right-wing fever swamps, for that matter), but if you search for a bit you’ll find all of these allegations and more, stated explicitly. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced, and you can find those details elsewhere.

My point here is that this feeding frenzy is the blogospheric equivalent of a rapist’s defense attorney grilling the victim about her sex life on the stand.

An unidentified emailer on The Corner summed it up better than I can:

That said, the way the pro-Obama media and bloggers, and Obama himself, have responded to Joe has got me nearly shaking with rage. They are attempting to destroy a man — a private citizen — who had the audacity to ask The One a question. Mind you, Joe was on his front lawn playing football with his son when Obama strolled up to give him his hopenchange spiel. Obama approached Joe, not the other way around. And Joe asked Obama an honest question. And Obama gave him an honest — and very, very revealing — answer. Again, mind you, the embarassment was on Obama’s end, not Joe’s. It wasn’t a gotcha question.

And yet, for that Joe is being pilloried, every aspect of his private and professional life being sorted through and exposed.

It wasn’t a gotcha question, but to be clear, it certainly was a challenging question. It was the kind of question an ordinary citizen might ask if he’s trying to decide which candidate to support. It was the kind of question candidates ought to hear. If McCain had strolled up to Wurzelbacher’s front lawn, Joe might have asked, “is Sarah Palin really ready on Day One to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency while we’re fighting two wars?”

Through absolutely no fault of his own, “Joe the Plumber” was mentioned 11 times during the debate (if I remember correctly from something I surfed past and can’t find right now). And what was the result?

Reporters camped out by his house overnight and by midmorning there were 21 people on his driveway surrounding him, holding cameras and notebooks.

Thought experiment: Is there any aspect of your life that you would prefer not to have to explain and defend to reporters on your driveway? Yes, I’m talking about that incidentthat one, right there. [Me? I've got a whole menu of choices.]

Because of that incident, you know better than to run for President — or, if you’re running for President, you’ve had plenty of time to think about how to explain away that incident.

But it turns out that if you truly want to safeguard yourself and your family, you’d better not have the audacity to question The One.

Update from the Comments: SuDoNum said [in response to another commenter]I am a small government, low tax, personal freedom/responsibility conservative. What this administration has done in the last 7 years is a travesty. Torturing US Citizens? You condone that under any circumstances? BS, I don’t care what crime you have or may have committed, if you are a US citizen you are entitled to all the rights provided under the Constitution.

It’s pointless to debate you. Arguing over the internet is an exercise in futility. My advice to you and all “conservatives” is quit making excuses for the impending avalanche. We are reaping what we sowed.

Chris said… Obama’s “spread the wealth around” slip still stands. Although Obama’s fans in the media and on forums worldwide tried to bury it with “Joe’s not a plumber and he doesn’t pay his taxes” tabloid fodder, that one comment keeps popping up, haunting the biggest socialist to have a good chance at the White House since FDR….

We already have too much socialism in our system. We don’t deserve to “reap” more, regardless of anything the current administration has done.

From the start, my take on Obama has been that he’s a talented and charismatic politician who some day could become an important senator.

For the most part I like him. I’ll be voting for the other guy, but if Obama wins, it’s not like I’m going to flee the country. Regardless of who wins, there will be things I like and things I dislike about the next president. If it’s Obama, the fact that a black man with a foreign-sounding name can rise to become president will be a powerful symbol of cultural evolution and the enduring power of the American dream. And symbols are important.

On a policy basis, my major disagreement with Obama is Iraq, the issue that in my mind trumps all others. I’m not a big fan of Hillary Clinton (although I voted for her husband twice — three times if you count the 2000 race). But as long as she was in the race I favored her over Obama. There’s barely a nickel’s worth of difference between them on most issues, but she seemed slightly less eager to surrender in Iraq, and to her credit she voted in favor of overthrowing Saddam. I also thought that as a female president, she would feel a need to demonstrate toughness (cf. Meir, Golda and Thatcher, Margaret).

From a character standpoint, my biggest concern with Obama was the very thing that endeared him to many others — the idea that he was “not a politician,” or was “a new kind of politician.” I never believed that to be the case… but enough people believed it that I had to consider the possibility. The idea of a president who is not a politician is scary. It’s like the idea of a Supreme Court justice who’s not a lawyer. There’s no law against it, and it might even work out OK. But it makes no more sense to put a non-politician in the country’s top political job than it would to put a non-lawyer in the top legal job.

But it turns out Obama is a politician. After winning the Democratic nomination by appealing to the young, the idealists, the activists and the pacifists, he’s swerved right so fast that many of his supporters have whiplash.

The anguish may be coming from the left, but conservative Charles Krauthammer has the best synopsis I’ve seen of “Obama’s brazen reversals of position and abandonment of principles — on public financing of campaigns, on NAFTA, on telecom immunity for post-9/11 wiretaps, on unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad.”

Krauthammer also makes a prediction I agree with:

“Obama’s seasonally adjusted principles are beginning to pile up… What’s left? Iraq. The reversal is coming, and soon…. He will use his upcoming Iraq trip to acknowledge the remarkable improvements on the ground and to abandon his primary-season commitment to a fixed 16-month timetable for removal of all combat troops.”

I certainly hope so. There was a political logic to being the champion of the surrender option during the primaries and before, when the war had been going so badly for so long. But now the war is going so well that the media and the public have largely lost interest — and General Petraeus still has half a year to consolidate the gains before the next president takes office. It seems likely that a broad consensus of the public will recognize how tragic it would be to abandon those hard-won gains and leave the Iraqi people to the tender ministrations of al Qaeda on the one side and the Iranian terror masters on the other.

So I still prefer McCain as commander-in-chief, but I take comfort in the overwhelming evidence that Obama is a politician. Politicians know how to maneuver around unwise campaign promises, and how to avoid being held hostage by their political base.