Napoleon applied as his first criterion for appointing someone to a high military command that he be lucky. Luck may be an equally crucial factor in the success or failure of U.S. presidents.
The Roosevelts, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton were lucky, though that alone certainly does not explain their success and popularity. Wilson, Hoover, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter were unlucky, but that alone does not explain their problems and the fact that none of them left office in both good political and physical health.
At this point, President Obama is looking distinctly lucky. The sudden onset of a serious recession during the campaign helped him win, and also created the conditions for the possible enactment of his relatively radical taxing, spending, and regulatory programs. One of the key elements in his early lead over Senator Clinton for the nomination was his consistent opposition to the Iraq War and his nonchalant advocacy of simply conceding that it was a bad idea and withdrawing. Now that he is commander-in-chief, he is very responsibly building on the indisputable success of the Bush “surge” policy in Iraq.
It is impossible to make any sensible policy in the Persian Gulf in the teeth of the hostility of the two main local powers, Iran and Iraq. It is impossible to make any headway in South Asia in the teeth of the hostility of the two main powers there, India and Pakistan. President Clinton bequeathed the hostility of all four to Pres. George W. Bush. President Bush also reaped the whirlwind, on 9/11, of President Clinton’s inadequate responses to the terrorist attacks on the Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And President Bush, by intelligent diplomatic and military actions, helped to end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and restored democracy there and in Pakistan; introduced at least comparative power-sharing and reduced levels of civil violence in Iraq and Afghanistan; forged an extremely important alliance with India; and almost completely stopped terrorist outrages in the world outside the Middle East.
Tom Friedman of the New York Times has had some idiosyncratic moments in his analysis of Middle Eastern affairs, and he has certainly not been conducting a hallelujah chorus for George W. But he returned from the Middle East recently and wrote in the Times that technological advances in communications, the presence of a victorious U.S. army in Iraq, and the democratic progress in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan had profoundly changed the Middle East since he served with distinction as the Times’s correspondent there 20 years ago.
President Bush has received minimal credit for all of this, and President Obama is reaping the harvest of what his predecessor had sown. The danger in this is that it might occasion the sort of overconfidence that misled the Kennedy administration into believing it had a new Harvard Business School system of scientifically calibrated crisis management. In fact, we now know that planning during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was based on completely false intelligence, that only the president’s intuition avoided disaster, and that this new method of precise strategic planning led directly down the critical path to the debacle in Vietnam. Obama and his entourage don’t seem any more averse to drinking their own bathwater than were the Best and the Brightest.
As I write this, protests continue against the fraudulent reelection of Ahmadinejad in Iran. It is hazardous to predict the outcome of such disturbances. There is no sign that the corrupt, pseudo-theocratic gerontocracy can reduce the country to such docility as the jackbooted junta in Burma (Myanmar) did with protesters there last year. In Burma, it was the military suppressing the clergy; that country has no tradition of successful mass disturbances, is little influenced by its neighbors, and is not nearly as well covered by cell phones, the Internet, and text-messaging as Iran is. Iran already had a tradition of mass uprisings, going back to the shah’s father, not to mention the famous 1952 demonstrations for Mohammed Mossadegh, a raving lunatic whom President Obama unwisely tried to legitimize in his remarks at Cairo. (He would have done better to have lamented the shah, a competent secular modernizer whom Jimmy Carter — in the words of an Iranian general — “threw . . . out of the country like a dead mouse” after huge demonstrations 30 years ago. It was one of America’s greatest strategic blunders of all time.) In Iran, if the protesting masses cannot in the end be dispersed with tear gas, truncheons, fire hoses, and plastic and rubber bullets, it is unlikely that the security forces could be relied upon to use live ammunition on huge crowds of malcontents, any more than they could have been for the shah 30 years ago, or for Syngman Rhee in South Korea, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, or Ceausescu in Romania.
If a regime is essentially democratic and competent, like de Gaulle’s in 1968, all it need do is await bourgeois impatience and fear of disorder and financial loss, and then, as de Gaulle did, declare martial law, threaten the use of the army, stand on the constitution, and call real elections. The événements of 1968 were just a frothy outburst of Sixties student-worker radicalism, despite the effort of bedraggled veterans of that incontinence to represent them, on their 40th anniversary last year, as important and positive. It was just trendy hooliganism, and de Gaulle didn’t need more than an implicit threat of Napoleon’s famous mob-control technique of administering a “whiff of grapeshot” to concertina the demonstrations and get everyone back to work.
If the regime is self-confident and has the loyalty of the armed forces, a Tiananmen Square solution is possible. This contemptible regime in Tehran does not have a leader of the stature of de Gaulle or Deng Xiaoping. Its claims of democracy have been exposed as false; its masquerade as a dynamic Middle Eastern force, the cutting edge of militant Islam and proud nativism, has been illuminated in these events in its putrid infirmity. Ahmadinejad emerges not as a diabolical adversary of the West, but as the rabidly yapping chihuahua of the Islamic Republic’s palsied feudalism.
Even if the ayatollahs can crush the opposition, they will have a very reduced capacity to inspire Islamic extremism –and so the second link in what President Bush accurately described as an axis of evil will break. In either case, President Obama has probably been correct to respond cautiously, but he should not have declared neutrality while trying to wink supportively and believably at the opposition. Instead of trying to suck and blow at the same time, he should have said that it was not for the U.S. to choose the leaders of other countries, but that of course the U.S. prefers fair to fixed elections, and freedom of speech and assembly to repression. His policy of engagement appears to have been a fiasco, as was widely predicted, but the enfeebling of the Tehran regime, or even, possibly, its collapse, could be the greatest bonanza of strategic good fortune of any U.S. leader since Konstantin Chernenko involuntarily allowed the legacy of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev to pass to Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed democracy could stimulate Communism.