On My Politics
Some readers have noticed my recent criticism of Democrats and President Barack Obama, particularly relating to national security matters. Some seem quite upset by this, hurling invectives like “RWNJ” (Right-Wing Nut-Job) at me, a common playground term they employ. I have indeed been sharply critical of certain policies pursued by this White House, particularly relating to the almost unimaginably dysfunctional National Security Council, led by the almost unimaginably awful Susan Rice, a presidential favorite. History will not be kind to Obama over his NSC, nor should it be.
Some months ago, the American mainstream media, what might be termed the court press, began stating what was obvious, that Obama’s foreign and defense policies were going off the rails. Sensible liberals were signaling that, with these missteps, some of them notably serious and, worse, eminently avoidable errors, Obama was endangering the Democratic Party and the liberal project — as is surely true. The recent midterm Congressional bloodbath is an indication of where things are headed for the Democrats if they don’t start course-correcting soon. Senator Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) recent broadside against the White House’s political priorities indicates a civil war may be brewing in Democratic ranks.
This has been met with vociferous denials that Obama and his staff have done anything wrong — not now, possibly never. These are the people who refer to Obama as “PBO,” which gives a creepy, vaguely North Korean feel. Despite the fact that hardcore Obama fans have convinced themselves that no administration has ever been criticized like this one, with racism (of course) being at the root of the alleged atmosphere of hyper-critique, actually the opposite is the truth. Fearful of appearing critical of Obama, the mainstream media for years low-balled or simply didn’t report the concerns about the administration’s competence that they shared privately. Having helped create the Obama myth, and playing a key role in getting him elected twice, the MSM until recently had no interest in having the horse’s teeth checked by a reputable dentist. Now, however, when it’s apparent to all but Obama hacks that the president is doing damage to the Democratic brand that may have lasting impacts, MSM voices are at last willing to state the obvious about the lamentable state of this administration.
Yet the MSM’s role in fomenting enduring dysfunction in this White House is a key part of the story. By covering for Obama and his staff, the media prevented a normal process of critique and adjustment. This was advocacy journalism of a particular sort, and just as pernicious as it always is. Every administration makes mistakes; the first year of any presidency has goofs and worse due to inexperience and hubris (see: Bay of Pigs). Presidents remembered as successes control their staffs, not the other way around, and cashier the ineffectives. They learn to do better. What is astonishing about Obama is how his White House continues to make rookie missteps nearly six years into its tenure on Pennsylvania Avenue.
This is not about ideology, rather competence. Obama is surrounded by sycophants and yes-men (actually mainly yes-women); what this says about his mindset I leave to others to analyze. It is, however, impossible to miss that Democrats who are famous for getting things done, like Chicago knife-fighters Rahm Emmanuel and Bill Daley, tried and failed, unable to penetrate the White House security detail of sycophancy, ultimately abandoning this administration in something like despair.
The story of Obama has been told many times, from many angles, but is clear in its essentials. This is a talented man whose gifts lie in the propagation of Big Ideas rather than the execution of them. Obama’s inexperience at Washington, DC, politics got less MSM attention in 2008 than it merited, while his descent into hubristic ridiculousness at the outset — what else will history make of Obama’s overblown July 2008 campaign speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, much less his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for getting elected? — set standards that Obama never stood a chance of meeting. For this, he has nobody to blame but himself and his handlers.
I have objected less to Obama’s policies than to their delivery. His dealings with the collapsing financial sector when he entered office, with all their imperfections, nevertheless will stand up better under historical scrutiny than almost anything else Obama has done, while even the dishonest hash this White House made of the ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare, cannot mar the fact that Obama at least tried to do something about America’s troubled health care system, as no president had seriously attempted in decades. In combat training they tell you that when you’re under fire, “Do something. Even if it’s wrong — But do something!” and this has application in politics too. Like Sen. Schumer, I think ACA got too much attention in Obama’s first term, at the expense of pressing economic issues, but then Monday morning quarterbacking is the nature of life inside the Beltway.
It was in foreign and defense affairs, above all, that I felt Obama offered the country a much-needed course correction. During the two terms of George W. Bush’s presidency, I witnessed, up close, two wars halfway around the world go very wrong; that one of them was a misguided war of choice made the situation all the more tragic. I always believed “Dubya” was a decent, if somewhat superficial, fellow, who had no business being in the White House. His essential humanity was never in doubt — I can personally vouch that Bush took our battle deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan much harder than the public knew — yet some of his closest advisers lacked his decency and humanity. The result was disaster in many areas. History will not be kind to the likes of Cheney or Rumsfeld (or, let it be said, Franks, Tenet, and many others who were lauded at the time), nor should it be. It will take America many years, perhaps many decades, to recover from Bush’s well intentioned yet deeply misguided responses to 9/11. Perhaps, like Britain after its ugly and needless Boer War of 1899-1902, we never really will.
It is in this context that Obama’s interactions with the world must be viewed. Having made decisions under pressure, I have innate sympathy for anybody who must do the same, especially for the Commander-in-Chief, whose burdens are very great. Obama’s 2008 promises — to close Guantanamo Bay, to get out of Iraq, to return the country to a more peaceful footing in its foreign affairs — were all things I supported. Yet, even when Obama has done some of them, their execution has been flawed. Sometimes deeply so. Noble intentions do not by themselves effective policy make. Here the role played by senior White House advisers of dubious ability, and honesty, must be considered cancerous, though the task falls to future historians to untangle the frightful mess that Obama’s foreign policy has become.
I have been sharply critical, in particular, of Obama’s dealings with an increasingly aggressive Vladimir Putin. Here is a case where, first in Syria then in Ukraine, Obama has dodged difficult choices and has thereby enabled progressively worse outcomes. In his commendable zeal to back away from Bush-era aggressiveness in foreign affairs, Obama has gone to the opposite extreme, imagining a world where raw power has no just place. This, to say the least, is an odd position for the world’s leading power to find itself in. It’s therefore not surprising that Putin views Obama with undisguised contempt — Russian put-downs of our president, which microphones have caught coming from the mouths of disturbingly senior Kremlin officials, invariably imply effeminacy — which is a most dangerous thing.
Obama seems to misunderstand how the whole world watches the actions he and his top staff undertake, and makes plans accordingly. When you telescope indecision and weakness, others less fissiparous will expect more of the same. My greatest fear is that Putin will grow increasingly aggressive and Obama will stand by until, finally, Putin goes too far and the White House must respond — and we have a major war on our hands. To be fair to the dangerous men in the Kremlin, why would they assume Obama’s talk of “redlines” has any validity, after they saw the American president brush them aside in Syria? Neither do Obama’s feckless efforts to crush the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria inspire confidence in his statesmanship.
Obama has more than the whiff of the faculty lounge about him, something that any professor, and KGB colonel, can smell across the room. The flashes of professorial petulance the president emitted on occasion in his first term have become commonplace of late. It seems that, having witnessed the damage to the Democratic Party that his own policies have caused, as the recent midterm elections rendered obvious, Obama is doubling-down and seeking to irritate Republicans further. This does not bode well for the last two years of this administration.
I have no sympathy for the GOP. Having surrendered principles during Bush’s two terms, they shattered the Republican coalition that had stood reasonably firm for decades. That said, adults in the GOP have weathered their Tea Party tantrum, which looked to drive the Grand Old Party over the cliff in its hunt for ideological purity, and have reasserted control, at least for now. I expected the GOP’s in-the-wilderness phase to last many years, thanks to Bush’s grave mistakes, and the remarkable rebirth of the Republicans as a national party, looking at the 2014 Congressional results, can be attributed less to the GOP’s ability than to the rising incompetence of their opposition.
Democrats read Obama’s two election victories quite wrong. The president assembled an odd coalition of high-income whites, plus minorities sexual and racial, and single women (the “gays, blacks and college professors” bloc, in the words of Democratic stalwart Paul Begala) that may not have coherency without Obama on the ticket. Certainly they prematurely asserted that demographics rendered the GOP obsolete. While such messaging may yet pay great dividends around 2040, they will not suffice to win big much before then.
Moreover, telling whites, especially working class ones — who, after all, remain the single biggest voting bloc in the country — that they are obsolescent, not to mention saddled with old-think, is no way to win national elections, while the obvious contempt that liberal commentators express for Southern whites ought to render the total Democratic collapse among such voters no mystery at all. Belatedly, even liberal stalwarts have realized that maybe it’s not Kansas that has the problem.
Time will tell; it always does. Since my title promised a look at my own politics, here I deliver. Like most people who have worked in counterintelligence, I take a jaundiced, not to say cynical, view of all democratic politics. I despise the empty theater that passes for debate in our political system, and I assume many, if not most, politicos are on the take in some fashion. Certainly most of them don’t quite mean what they say. Yet the true-believers scare me: corruption is preferable to fanaticism.
I find much to like, and even more to dislike, in both our major parties. I lack the gene that makes partisan politics fun for its own sake, I suppose. I don’t think either party has offered real solutions to the grave socio-economic problems that confront America today. My politics derive more from Central European traditions, particularly post-1945 Christian Democracy, than anything I see on FoxNews or MSNBC. I’ll take Adenauer, Schuman or DeGasperi over Maddow or Hannity any day of the week.
I worry deeply about rising inequality in America, which has been growing my whole life and shows no signs of abating, rather the contrary. It is making the country something very different from what it was for several happy generations. Accepting that mass prosperity, which peaked in the middle of the last century, making us the envy of the world, is gone for good will change American politics in ways that we can only yet see in outline. We cannot stop globalization and technological changes that promise to up-end the economy, nor should we try to, but wise and compassionate politicians will seek to soften their impacts on fellow citizens.
The obvious home for socio-economic reform, the Democrats, once the proud party of working people like many of my forebears, has lost its way. Its emphasis on identity politics at the expense of basic socio-economic fairness has driven away countless average people who are struggling and want justice, yet don’t like being lectured endlessly about how racist, sexist and cisnormative they are.
The Republicans have run perilously close to pushing these people, who are mostly white but by no means exclusively so, away too, with their fetishizing of the free market at the expense of common sense, but if the GOP decides to not be stupid by prioritizing ideology over victory, they can win many of these voters to their side; the recent midterm results will be surveyed closely by Republican pollsters who want to win the presidency in 2016.
I believe in quite a few old-fashioned things that would place me on the right-wing of today’s GOP, such as a tough law and order approach to crime, a need to secure our borders to protect our security and American jobs, plus a belief in religion as a social good. Yet the Republican embrace in recent years of neoconservative adventurism, a utopian desire to transform the world through force, a dangerous Wilsonian fantasy untempered by countless disasters since 2001, means that there is little of this “conservatism” that I can stomach.
At the same time, I’m too left-wing to fit comfortably in the Democratic Party of 2014. I’m probably closer to Bernie Sanders than Elizabeth Warren on many socio-economic issues. I think Hillary is less noxious than most of the options confronting us in our next presidential election — unlike several of the Republican possibles, Ms. Clinton is at least in earth orbit, politically speaking — but her personal embrace of corporate greed exemplifies much that has gone wrong with the party of JFK and RFK that I was taught to adulate in my childhood (my parents had pictures of Jesus Christ plus the martyred Kennedy boys on the living room wall: guess which were bigger). Moreover, the Democrats’ flirtation with Social Justice Warrior fanatics, who seek to purify America in line with their Cultural Marxist fantasies, is driving countless normals away, and I’m in that disaffected brigade too.
This leaves me homeless, politically speaking. I’ll settle for being called a reactionary social democrat, since that appellation fits better than most. Above all, my worldview — rather Weltanschauung, to talk like the Ph.D. that I am — is suffused with a sense of both the promise and the tragedy of the human animal. My faith tradition teaches that people are neither angels nor devils, but both. George Kennan, a figure I can easily relate to, spoke of man as “a cracked vessel” eloquently in his cranky memoir, and that homo sapiens surely is.
Moreover, having spent quite a bit of time in the Balkans, I have an acute sense of how fragile civilization really is. Beneath the pleasant surface there lurk monsters, and those monsters are us. In a few short years, Yugoslavia went from being a success story, a benign socialist regime with a high standard of living and apparent amity among its photogenically diverse peoples, to a charnel house of terror. Economic decline and ethnic resentments, combined in evil fashion, led to war and genocide. It’s nice to pretend this can’t happen, but history shows plainly that it can. After all, American optimists in the 1850’s, the TV talking heads of the day, considered the Civil War that was looming ominously to be impossible — right until cannons roared at Fort Sumter.
America remains a great country with enormous promise. I’m with Obama in being a bit skeptical of “American exceptionalism,” which seems well intentioned until it’s used to justify invading other countries, but there’s no doubt that we are blessed by the huge oceans and smaller neighbors that surround us. Even in the age of ICBMs and transnational terrorism, these give the USA a degree of security that most countries can only envy. Over a century ago, Bismarck famously quipped that God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America, and that still may be the case. I feel certain that the only genuine threat to America now is within itself. How we deal with this will determine the course of this still rather new century.