Politics & Policy

Obama & Co., Growing Up Fast

Obama and his EU counterparts are learning that high-minded adolescence makes for bad governance. But it’s an expensive lesson.

Old laws predicated on human nature cannot so easily be discarded — even by utopians who think they have the power to cool the planet and stop the rising seas. Borrowed money really has to be paid back. Governments cannot operate without confidentiality. Nations perish if they cannot protect themselves from existential threats. Watching a therapeutic Barack Obama grow up and learn these tragic lessons is as enlightening as it is sometimes scary.

When they are out of power, modern leftists advocate massive government spending and large deficits. They applaud when Republicans and conservatives sometimes prove as profligate as any big-government liberal. But when invested with the responsibility of governance, they come to understand that Keynesian “stimulus” must eventually cede to the same unhappy logic as the private household’s indebtedness.

Maxing out credit cards does not exempt one from having to pay off the balance. Low or nonexistent interest on debt does not mean the principal vanishes. We are reminded that debt is real with the ongoing meltdown of the European Union, as a bloated public sector from the Atlantic to the Aegean demands that someone, somewhere cover its debts.

Here in America the same fiscal rules have not disappeared. In California, Governor-elect Jerry Brown will have few choices in January 2011. Since he cannot raise taxes much in a state that already has the nation’s highest income and sales taxes, he can only find a way to cut expenditures. He must then either finesse such reductions with a sort of green philosophy of “small is better” or plead that his reactionary predecessor gave him, a compassionate liberal, no choice. Either way, the creditors and bondholders must be paid. Even Barack Obama, after spending $1.3 trillion more this year than the government took in, now seeks to save a few billion dollars by freezing federal wages. 

In short, from Sacramento to Athens the world is reminded that obligations, despite in-vogue euphemisms like “stimulus” and “Keynesian,” really do have to be met. There is an iron law that transcends politics and limits the application of fiscal liberalism: Print more money and money becomes less valuable; default just once and all future credit is lost or intolerably expensive.

In a similar way, the WikiLeaks mess reminds us of the adolescence of crusading freelance leakers and their enablers. This time the disclosures are not morality tales about Vietnam or Guantanamo. They concern a tough Hillary Clinton urging her State Department subordinates to spy on United Nations personnel. Barack Obama is not seen calling for the planet to cool, but is shown as so desperate to keep his promise to shut down Guantanamo that he is reduced, in tawdry fashion, to horse-trading photo-ops with the leader of any small country willing to take a detainee or two off his hands. In other words, those who once sermonized about the morality of leaking the Pentagon Papers and details of U.S. policy in the war on terror are now seeing that a let-it-all-hang-out transparency can be nihilistic rather than liberating. Will Hollywood now follow Rendition, Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah with a hagiographic treatment of WikiLeaks?

Likewise, the notion that “civil liberties” were sacrificed in the effort to stop Islamist terrorism increasingly is shown to be a liberal talking point, not a serious criticism of responsible wartime government. Barack Obama conceded that argument when he flipped on every pre-presidential critique he had made of George W. Bush’s protocols. At one time or another, Obama, as law professor, state legislator, senator, and presidential candidate, had ridiculed the Patriot Act, wiretaps, renditions, military tribunals, the Iraq War, Predator strikes, and Guantanamo.

He ended up as president embracing them all, and even expanding some. I think he was quite confident that his liberal base, outraged by Bush’s supposed trashing of constitutional protections, would not much mind his own, inasmuch as civil-libertarian nitpicking was privately acknowledged as being as much of an advantage for outsiders as it was a liability for insiders. We live in an era, after all, where principled lawyer Howard Koh went from berating the U.S. for its use of renditions to now writing briefs empowering the U.S. government, for national-security reasons, to obliterate suspected terrorists in foreign countries by remote control. Surely one lesson is that when out of power one is not responsible for Americans’ being murdered, and thus has the leeway to call for a sort of cosmic justice in a way one cannot when in power.

We have also come full circle with radical Islam. Critics found it easy to charge that the U.S. had unduly polarized the Islamic world. We know that narrative: Both past and recent sins of American foreign policy had tragically radicalized some Muslims. And because the United States was culpable for much of the hatred shown us by Islamists, so too that antipathy could be mitigated by unilateral outreach, reset diplomacy, and atonement through both the pathos of grand apology and the bathos of bowing and kowtowing.

So under a new charismatic, postnational President Obama, we tried the Al-Arabiya interview, the Cairo speech, the embarrassing euphemisms like “overseas contingency operations” and “man-made disasters,” the description of Mr. Abdulmutallab as “allegedly” a terrorist, the promises to shut down Guantanamo and try KSM in a civilian court, the Ground Zero–mosque chest-thumping, the embarrassing NASA Islamic-outreach mission, the John Brennan outbursts against the Bush administration, the General Casey remorse over the fact that Major Hasan’s mass murdering might imperil army diversity programs — and all the other nostrums that did little to convince the would-be Christmas bomber, the would-be Times Square bomber, the would-be subway bombers, and the would-be Portland bomber to pause, appreciate our good intentions, and so desist.

The WikiLeaks disclosures suggest that the Pakistanis in 2009 did not warm to such outreach. The Saudis did not suddenly clamp down on their funding of al-Qaeda. Syria was not won over. Iran did not think a new friend in Washington made the acquisition of nuclear weapons superfluous. The Arab world is more eager that we should show reckless abandon in taking out Iranian nukes than it is pleased when we calmly pressure Israel into granting concessions  to the Palestinians. At best, these suspect nations were indifferent to our new magnanimity; at worst they interpreted it as waffling to be exploited rather than good intentions to be appreciated.

Finally, when we strip off the thin veneer of good-times talk about the European Union’s being a cohesive community, and about a European continent of soft-power caring, we are left in the present recession with ancient squabbling nations, nationalist zeal, divisive cultures, differing religions, and antithetical customs — and, soon, the old remedies of diplomacy and alliances. Europeans chafe far more when their elites berate them as Neanderthals who were not up to their utopian dream than they do when their regional and national differences are honestly acknowledged and their disagreements recognized and dealt with diplomatically by sovereign nations with sovereign agendas.

What are we to make of this great history lesson of the last two years? 

Behind the recent news of massive debt, looming defaults, WikiLeaks, the administration’s about-face in the war on terror, and the implosion of the European Union is a reminder that progressivism, at least as it operates today, is a sort of high-minded adolescence, as sophisticated in faculty-lounge repartee as it is near-suicidal in its actual implementation.

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.

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