History books are filled with examples of unplanned and unexpected events. U.S. presidents like any head of state anywhere in the world must be capable of responding to sudden, serious and totally unexpected turns of events. As renowned historian Arnold Toynbee famously noted, “History is just one damn thing after another.” It is easier to criticize during a campaign than it is to govern when stark facts with which one’s predecessor had to grapple are presented or new unplanned events occur. Then the choices become opaque.
President Obama came to office imbued with the notion that American unilateralism was the cause of our unpopularity in much of the third world. President Bush saw and acted through his belief in American exceptionalism along with certain core principles largely predicated on his notion of what American leadership in the world required. This was especially true following the attacks of 9/11. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, seemed primarily to see American arrogance as the cornerstone of prior foreign policy, so he quickly moved to reset our relationships with long-standing as well as more recent adversaries. No more bold, “you’re either with us or with the terrorists,” would emanate from the Obama White House.
To set the stage for his new emphasis, Mr. Obama thought it necessary to distance the United States from some of its traditional friends. What had been our “special” relationship with Great Britain (a phrase repeated by every president in the post‑World War II era) did not issue from his lips. In fact, the new president, apparently finding no room in any White House closet sent that “dust catcher” of a sculpture of Winston Churchill back to the Brits. Not only did this set a tone, it slapped a face.
Israel was also slated for Mr. Obama’s new policy of reset relationships. Since he was of the view that solving the Israel ‑ Palestine dispute was the magic elixir to bring peace and stability to the Middle East, the new president made a series of blunders. He implied, rather early in his administration, that America could no longer be counted upon by Israel to counter the appeasement policies of the European powers or the hostility of the U.N. He famously and gratuitously insulted the visiting Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, by keeping him unceremoniously waiting in the West Wing for a couple of hours so he could dine with his family in the White House living quarters.
He also refused to hold a joint press conference with him. What by now is generally recognized (except, perhaps, by Mr. Obama himself) as his biggest blunder in moving forward with what is euphemistically called “the peace process,” he demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which, sure enough, the Palestinians quickly adopted as a condition for further direct negotiations, a condition which the Palestinians had not previously made. Israel bashing, as every experienced American diplomat anticipated, didn’t quite work out as he expected and so the president, within a few months, invited Prime Minister Netanyahu back to Washington where he was accorded the respect every head of government receives, a joint press conference and a modicom of White House hospitality. Presumably this time Mr. Netanyahu was included when lunch was served.
Then we were treated to Mr. Obama’s famous policy of reaching out his hand to the Iranian despot, Ahmadinejad, in the hope of turning him away from his quest to acquire nuclear weapons. What he got instead of a handshake was spit in his eye. The Iranian mullahs saw his outreach as weakness, and, with even greater bravado, they have continued their march toward nuclear capability.
As we have been reminded over and over by him, Mr. Obama inherited a boatload of problems when he took office. True enough. Our economy stood at the precipice of free fall, the result of the bursting of the housing bubble and its impact on banks and the rest of the financial markets. The Bush Administration responded with the much-criticized TARP program. The Democrats howled that Republicans were bailing out the big boys and leaving the average Jane and Joe to be hung out to dry. Bush lamented the Hobson’s choice with which he was confronted, that of using the tax dollars of hard working Americans to bail out reckless Wall Street banks, or overseeing an immediate descent into depression. His decision when confronted with those choices? “No Depression!”
Once in office and seeing the economy up close and personal, Mr. Obama appointed Tim Geithner, who was President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, to be his Treasury Secretary and continued the TARP program which is now credited with saving the economy from complete meltdown. Moreover, most of the TARP loans have been repaid with interest.
And what about all the criticism from the anti‑antiterror left which constantly cried crocodile tears about the detainment and mistreatment of terrorists captured abroad who were being held without trial at Guantanamo. While the Supreme Court did, indeed, determine that the detainees are entitled to their day in court, “their day in court” has not turned out well for them. The detainees whose cases the DC Circuit has heard (the DC Circuit is where the court action is taking place) has consistently found against the detainees, and has returned them to Gitmo. The DC circuit just last week determined, in effect, that the detainees’ Forrest Gump defense (that they just turned up in the wrong place at the wrong time) are nonsense.
Mr. Obama promised in the first week of his Administration to close the infamous “Gitmo” facility during his first year in office. How quickly rash decisions come “a haunting”. Closing Gitmo didn’t prove to be possible; in fact 28 months into the Administration that island facility continues to operate. Congress won’t appropriate the money to close it and no state wants to have terrorists housed in penal facilities within its borders. Moreover, much to the Administration’s consternation and embarrassment, many of the detainees who the government did release quickly returned to terrorist activities.
The president’s attorney general tried to placate Gitmo critics by announcing plans to try the most notorious of the terrorists, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in federal court in downtown Manhattan. It is hard to think of a more widely derided pronouncement out of the Obama Administration. The Obama Administration seemed to be making hard work of common sense. New York’s elected officials raised such a stink (as well they should) that Mr. Holder reversed himself until he could decide upon a new venue. At this writing there is, as yet, no new venue and the Administration is once again returning to the concept of military tribunals. Commenting on the president’s announcement regarding military tribunals, columnist Charles Krauthammar observed in his regular Washington Post column:
Of course, Obama will never admit in word what he’s doing in deed. As in his rhetorically brilliant national-security speech . . . claiming to have undone Bush’s moral travesties, the military commissions flip-flop is accompanied by the usual Obama three-step: (a) excoriate the Bush policy, (b) ostentatiously unveil cosmetic changes, (c) adopt the Bush policy.
And despite all of the criticism of “Mr. Bush’s wars,” Mr. Obama has followed the same path in Iraq as did President Bush, and in one of his greatest flip flops, the President, who while in the U.S. Senate, opposed Mr. Bush’s surge in Iraq (now considered the decision which turned that war in our favor) adopted a similar surge strategy in Afghanistan.
Now we come to the events of recent weeks; the uprisings roiling the Mideast and North Africa. This is the perfect example of the kind of surprise that confronts every president. Who (other than, perhaps, historian Toynbee) would have expected that the suicide of a Tunisian protester would touch off spontaneous uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Jordan with more sure to come. Citizens in the entire region are seeking to overthrow despotic regimes and gain some measure of freedom and democracy, a goal constantly championed by none other than George W. Bush and his largely derided Neocons. If ever we needed proof that the Israel ‑ Palestine conflict was not the root of Arab anger and frustration, at last we have it.
The President seems not to comprehend the cosmic change that is now occurring in the Arab world, a change that Senator John Kerry has called the most important event since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank likened to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. There appears to be no coherence in the Administration’s policy. He belatedly distanced himself from Hosni Mubarak (who was the host to Mr. Obama’s speech to World Islam). He spoke out with vigor against the brutality of Muammar Qaddafi, but disdained an American leadership role. Contrast his verbal support of the Libyan rebels with his refusal to give even token support to the brave young Iranians who were gunned down challenging the election results in which Mr. Ahmadinejad was fraudulently “reelected.”
Mr. Obama has now, asserting multilateralism and support from the world “community”, given airpower support to the Libyan rebels. In this, even if halfheartedly, he has gotten the U.S. into a Mideast conflict without clear cut objectives, an end game or a time frame. When Mr. Bush, after countless U.N. resolutions, invaded Iraq, or later, despite opposition from left‑leaning lawmakers including then Senator Obama, initiated the surge, he was excoriated by them. As liberal columnist Steve Chapman observed in his online blog, Townhall.com:
It’s a good thing we didn’t elect Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in 2008. A McCain victory would have meant an escalation in Afghanistan, a third war in the Middle East and a president sending U.S. forces into harm’s way heedless of public opinion or Congressional power.
Instead, we elected Barack Obama, who firmly rejected military action for purely humanitarian reasons. In his 2002 speech opposing the Iraq war, Obama insisted that though Saddam Hussein “butchers his own people to secure his own power,” the war was unjustified.
Hussein, he pointed out, “poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors” and “can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.
Presidents cannot be captive to foolish campaign rhetoric once they take the oath of office and have the actual responsibility for the nation’s economic well-being and its safety. Mr. Obama has shown flexibility and a willingness to pursue actions he once disdained, but his actions should be undertaken pursuant to a consistent, well considered overall policy. By that measure, President Obama still seems to have a long way to go.
By Hal Gershowitz and Stephen Porter