Several months ago in this space, on slight twinklings of accelerated economic growth, confirmation of the path to energy self-sufficiency, conciliatory noises to the Republicans, and (prayerfully hopeful) signs that the president’s irrational preoccupation with arms control might cause him to do something about the Iranian nuclear program, I dared to write that he could be the first president since James Monroe whose second term would be better than his first. That was not a very high bar, as I am unable to find any positive accomplishments of his administration in its first term. Despite my frequent expressions of under-appreciation of this administration, I always hope the president of the United States does well, and am eager to seize any plausible pretext to be positive.
But it is really an insuperable challenge to put any positive face on the events of the past few weeks. As I wrote here last week, it is impossible to imagine what the president thinks he is doing in Syria. And the brush-off he received at the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland last week from Vladimir Putin, the head of the Russian thugdom that by fraud and force rules the shriveled remnant of the country that imploded after 45 years of trying to rival America, appears to be a new nadir in the self-abasement of the U.S. presidency.
Even more astonishing is his continuing preoccupation with arms control. The entire arms-control regime has been exposed by the Iranian theocracy, in its only service to the civilized world. It was always, almost from Hiroshima on, a club whose membership was gained by a succession of countries that declared they were adequately important and responsible to make and deploy such weapons. The Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and, discreetly, Israel and South Africa (which has since renounced these weapons) joined the nuclear club uninvited, while most countries signed the Non-Proliferation Agreement, which pledges the growing ranks of the nuclear powers to seek world disarmament. This was always an impossible and undesirable objective; only the presence of deliverable nuclear weapons in the hands of some of the main Western powers, especially the United States, has saved the world from a devastating general war these 65 years. It was a matter of time before one or more completely unacceptable countries tried to acquire these weapons to exploit the potential they conferred for blackmailing others. Stalin could claim that the Soviets needed an atomic bomb to avoid intimidation from the United States (i.e., intimidation into honoring their commitments at the Yalta Conference in 1945 to a free and democratic Eastern Europe). The British, even under the Labour party, could claim justification because they had been co-developers of atomic weapons with the U.S. and wished a deterrent to the USSR indigenous to Western Europe. France would have these weapons if the British and Russians did, China if the Americans and Russians did, India if China did, and Pakistan if India did.
This administration has allowed Russia to maintain its first-strike capacity against Western Europe by downsizing the U.S.’s promised anti-missile defenses there, sending a regrettable message to the Czechs and Poles, while it seems to be handing Iran a satellite-dominance of Syria. There is no rationale at all to official American policy toward Iran. It is neither strength nor appeasement, but stern promises that are not followed up by action: the worst of all worlds, and the technique best assured of inciting the most undesirable behavior by the power it is attempting to influence. It is simply mad, an almost indescribable lapse of judgment, for President Obama to show up in Berlin warbling about nuclear disarmament. There is no reason for the United States to disarm further.
This is all against the backdrop of a crumbling decay of the administration’s moral authority at home. The National Security Agency controversy is a sideshow. Everyone knew that there were habitual gross liberties taken at the expense of the privacy of the citizens. Fifty years after Bobby Kennedy was tapping Martin Luther King’s telephone, and 45 years after Lyndon Johnson tapped the phone of his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey, no one — given 9/11 and other excuses for massive upward redefinition of the federal government’s right to monitor its citizens — should be surprised at the invasion of citizens’ privacy, unjustifiable and reprehensible though it is. And the indictment of the revealer of these secrets, Edward Snowden, under the Espionage Act, is nonsense. He is a thief, not a traitor, and has in some respects performed a useful service. The pathetic spectacle of the outgoing director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, testifying before a congressional committee about the IRS affair illustrates the administration’s determination to fumble and dissemble its way through that outrage, which has caused Mr. Obama’s honesty to be discredited. (The new director of the FBI, James Comey, is one of the worst possible choices: He is steeped to the eyeballs in the skulduggery of the American prosecutocracy, and the persecutor of Martha Stewart and Frank Quattrone, though he did resist some of the excesses of the Patriot Act.)
The Benghazi affair — crowned by Hillary Clinton’s address to the Muslim world assuring it of America’s high regard for Islam, to support the administration’s canard that an Islamophobic kook provoked the assault on the consulate in which the ambassador to Libya was murdered — is the most profound depth, to date, this regime has plumbed. A political concern that the country would realize the falsity of the president’s claim that the War on Terror had effectively been won was never a cause worth the sacrifice of the life of an ambassador. The combination of all these events and the president’s terminally detached, robotic adherence to a decades-old, long-discredited playbook, as he somnambulates through an apparently endless sequence of blunders and fiascos, leaves America and the world impatient for another election. This administration is not just a lame duck, but a comatose one.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].