It is my solemn pledge to readers that I have tried to give President Obama a bit of a honeymoon in my thoughts as he takes the oath for a second term, and to think kindly of Secretary Clinton, as she hands over the State Department, and of her successor-designate, John Kerry. I have tried, and, up to a point, I have succeeded, but last week’s inaugural address and Mrs. Clinton’s congressional-committee appearance severely challenged that effort. The president won the election fair and square, and he continues legitimately as the 42nd direct successor to George Washington, and deserves the respect his office commands. But his claim on more than the pro forma deference due the holder of his position must rest on his adopting a suitable post-campaign tenor for his comments, and on his being somewhat believably sincere in what he says. The license to utter pre-electoral partisan whoppers has expired.
He spoke of unity and the need for the federal government, executive and legislative and both parties, to think in terms of the whole country, even as he resurrected his coalition of racial minorities; people who believed his claptrap about a Republican war on women and on gays and lesbians; ecological militants and Goreite fear-mongers; and all those susceptible to his mantra about “the privileges of . . . a shrinking few who do very well,” especially those who suffer the inordinate burdens heaped on “the broad shoulders of the rising middle class.” Of course, the middle class has not been rising in the United States for many years. It is not this administration’s fault that its predecessors urged the people to borrow and spend and not save, maintained insanely low interest rates to spur spending and discourage savings, and ushered the nation into a housing bubble that became an economic disaster. But he can’t rail forever against the errors of previous administrations, particularly as he has continued many of them.
He has spent four years lamenting mistakes of preceding presidents, but in fiscal matters he has given no hint of what he proposes to do about them. This is in vivid contrast to his foreign-policy performance. He had been opposed at all times to the Iraq War, and he has withdrawn from it. He had warned about Pakistan and has been much less easily or profoundly swindled by the government of that shambles of a country than the George W. Bush administration was. There is room for debate about the wisdom of the Obama foreign policy, but at least the president’s criticism of former policy has been followed by the implementation of a change of course consistent with his campaign position. While the administration has been thoroughly disingenuous about the Iranian nuclear program, was very late imposing serious sanctions, and even then was much less purposeful than a unanimous Senate requested, the apparent decision to do nothing effective about Iranian nuclear military development is also at least consistent.
As commentator Jonathan Schanzer wrote last week in Foreign Policy, the American “chattering classes” were served “an all-you-can-eat buffet of crow” by the Israeli voters, who seem to have recognized in their election last week that the United States will do nothing to stop Iran, and will not support Israeli intervention to prevent a nuclear-armed Islamist regime in that country (pledged to the destruction of Israel). Israel elected a delicately balanced Knesset that will step gingerly into this new and tenebrous era in the Middle East — an era that promises to make a Swiss cheese of the nonsensical Obama arms-control policy, as Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others will probably follow the same path. And non-proliferation, which has been gradually disintegrating since before that treaty in which the nuclear powers pledged to seek disarmament was adopted, will cease even to enjoy the false lip service it has been accustomed to receive.
But the larger, overarching goal of withdrawing to or toward America’s shores and borders, while not acknowledged, is being carried out, and it is not all bad as a policy. In his inaugural address, the president made his ritualistic statement about America leading its “alliances.” But the U.S. doesn’t really have any allies any more. It was only eleven years ago that NATO unanimously voted that the entire alliance had been attacked on September 11, 2001, and Le Monde, an influential and not overly pro-American newspaper, headlined: “Today, We Are All Americans.” The Bush administration brushed that off; NATO degenerated into the flimflam of a “coalition of the willing,” and now the most successful alliance in history is barely going through the motions.