The first year of the Obama administration has been a vertiginous pile of confusions and contradictions. In hunting for a theme to its decision making, we might start with Obama’s relation to his predecessor.
THE WORLD WAR II ANALOGY
George Bush, a purported conservative, ran up deficits reaching in aggregate $2.5 trillion; therefore I, Barack Obama, a liberal, can legitimately exceed that figure by a factor of three or four. That seems to be the thinking of the present administration. And its common defense of the massive new deficit is the historical analogy that it will snap us out of the recession in the same way that deficit spending during World War II lifted us out of the Great Depression.
Even many supporters of the new stimuli confess that the Depression was not cured by the New Deal, but rather by the strong demand in goods and services brought on by the war that followed. So the new mega-Keynesians describe their current remedies in terms not of 1933–39, but of 1941–45.
But even if one were to accept the questionable assumption that our current recession is anything like the downturn of the 1930s (10 percent unemployment versus 25 percent), we forget that what allowed us to manage the high levels of incurred debt was the rebound after 1945, when U.S. manufacturing, natural resources, and expertise met much of the industrialized world’s postwar demand until the wrecked economies of Europe, Russia, and Japan rebounded. Yet in the current weak recovery, we certainly will not be paying back our borrowed trillions by exporting to a needy world already well supplied by Europe, Japan, Korea, and China.
Bottom line: We have no easy means to create the wealth necessary to pay back the unprecedented trillions we now owe – and we have no accurate historical parallel to guide us through these upcoming years of unsustainable levels of indebtedness, other than perhaps a Greece or Argentina writ large.
WAR AS CRIMINALITY
The Obama administration may be right in the abstract that we can try in criminal courts individual terrorists who are apprehended here in the United States, on the assumption that they are not uniformed combatants of a declared enemy. But so far, in our post–9/11 world, the administration has offered no comprehensive exegesis concerning who the terrorist enemy is and how he is to be fought and defeated. Instead, Obama came into office with a generic mantra that “Bush did it” and therefore “it” was wrong — and apparently figured that a knee-jerk antithesis of any sort must therefore be right.
I used to think radical Islamic fundamentalists were the problem, but now I’m not quite sure whether our military is prepared for domestic guys mad at the IRS, natural disasters, anti-Muslim backlash, or poverty and hunger.
So we are not in a “war,” we’re in an “overseas contingency operation” (against whom?). Non-uniformed combatants are criminal suspects — sort of. If they try to blow up hundreds of people in our passenger jets we will arrest them, read them their Miranda rights, and try them in American civilian courts.
But because we are terrified that one rogue juror might nullify an obvious verdict, edgy high-level administration officials will assure the public beforehand that the grotesquely misnamed “suspects” will be found guilty and either executed or imprisoned for life after their show trials. So prejudicial pre-trial publicity is now as acceptable as the absence of Miranda rights once was not.
We will also investigate former officials for waterboarding three confessed mass murderers in Guantanamo, but we will not investigate current officials for ordering dozens of assassinations in Pakistan as judge, jury, and executioner of suspected terrorists — and any living thing in their immediate environs.
We adhere to the narrative that the prior War on Terror was flawed, and so either we will only very quietly embrace its protocols — tribunals, renditions, Predators, the Patriot Act, etc. — or we will embrace virtual changes, like the promise of closing Guantanamo within a year or trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York in a civilian court.
The apparent subtext is that the Left in the past really had no problems with renditions, targeted assassinations, Guantanamo, tribunals, Predators, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — only that George Bush presided over them. Take the latter away, and so too vanishes criticism of the former.
Bottom line: We have no systematic answer to whether we should try or summarily execute suspected terrorists, whether they are enemy combatants or felons, or whether it is more moral to waterboard known terrorists or to execute suspected ones.
Here is the Obama saga on Iraq: 2003: a mistaken war; 2004: “not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage”; 2005–07: voted each year to fund the war; 2007: all troops out by March 2008; 2008: the surge is not working; 2009: the status-of-forces agreement signed by Bush is adhered to; 2010: Iraq (according to Vice President Biden) might be the administration’s greatest achievement — though it was, of course, not worth the cost. Factor in Bush’s popularity rating at any one time, the relative ongoing level of violence in Iraq, and the proximity of Obama to an election, and one might predict his often-changing position on the war.
So what exactly is Iraq now? Is it a brilliant effort by the U.S. military that removed Saddam, defeated an insurrection, helped to wipe out thousands of al-Qaeda terrorists, and birthed a viable consensual government? Or is it still “Bush’s war,” which somehow morphed into Obama’s “greatest achievement” by some mysterious and yet unspoken process?
Bottom line: This administration, partly because of past declarations, partly because of its own innate confusion, cannot quite celebrate the success in Iraq and so settles on the confused notion that we nobly removed Saddam and fostered consensual government although we should never have tried to do either.
Similar surreal examples could be found in matters of health care, global warming, partisan politics, and immigration. It seems reductionist to suggest that Obama came into office with little clue how to govern or to galvanize the country, but with one real assumption: He would simply advertise himself as not George Bush, and almost anything he subsequently did would be declared inspired by the enthralled media.
Keep that notion in mind, and the confusion over the last year makes a sort of sense.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.