Politics & Policy

Obama Unbound

The paradoxes of presidential politics give him complete freedom abroad.

Richard Nixon went to Red China with political impunity. Had a Democrat tried that, he would have been branded a Commie appeaser.

To this day, liberals cannot conceive that during the two world wars, progressives like Woodrow Wilson, Earl Warren, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt trampled on civil liberties in a way unimagined by Dick Cheney.

#ad#Ronald Reagan signed the most liberal illegal-immigration-amnesty bill in history, and ran larger yearly deficits than Jimmy Carter had. “Read my lips” George H. W. Bush agreed to huge tax increases. And George W. Bush ran up the largest debt of any eight-year president, outspending Bill Clinton more than fivefold. The latter, remember, bombed Belgrade without either congressional or United Nations approval — and without anti-war protests. Without an opposition, almost anything goes.

In other words, right-wing presidents can sometimes act left-wing, and left-wing presidents can act right-wing — to the embarrassed silence of their respective bases, but to the private delight of their greenlighting opponents. 

We have no better examples of that irony than our two most recent presidents. George W. Bush was still damned as an uncaring reactionary by the Left even as he pushed for big-government programs such as No Child Left Behind and unfunded entitlements such as Medicare prescription-drug coverage. Barack Obama was alleged to be squishy about hunting down terrorists, even as he increased targeted assassinations tenfold and found plenty of opportunistic former legal critics of Bush’s national-security protocols to write justifications for them.

In terms of the Obama presidency, there is now no anti-war movement. It simply vanished in January 2009. Former outrages like Guantanamo, renditions, and Predator-drone assassinations almost magically became A-okay. The left-wing base dared not continue its old Bush slurs, given its support for Obama’s liberal domestic agenda. Quiet conservatives were perplexed over whether to be outraged that Predator-in-Chief Obama proved to be such an abject hypocrite, or relieved that, better late than never, he had morphed into a Bush-Cheney national-security disciple.

The result is that for the next year or so, Obama can more or less do whatever he wishes abroad. If he chooses to bomb a country that poses no direct threat to the U.S. without congressional authority, like Libya, or to assassinate a U.S. citizen-terrorist, like Anwar al-Awlaki, the Left will keep mum. And the Right, for different reasons, probably will, too.

What, then, should we expect abroad in the waning months of Obama’s four-year term, with continuing economic bad news at home?

Suddenly, intelligence agencies at the U.N., and in the U.S. and Europe — after once denying, during the supposedly trigger-happy Bush administration, that Iran was close to getting a bomb — now warn us that Tehran may actually test a nuclear weapon after all. Iran poses an existential threat not only to Israel, but to the entire notion of nuclear nonproliferation in the key oil-exporting Gulf. Its missiles could reach southern Europe.

#page#If we get to the scary point of Iran’s going nuclear in 2012, expect the Obama administration — up for reelection and without much of a domestic record to run on in these hard times — to consider a preemptive strike. Be assured that if it does, there will be no outrage in the Democrat-controlled Senate, no campuses on fire, no ad hominem Moveon.org ads in the New York Times — all the sorts of anti-war hysteria that once sought to turn a moderate like George W. Bush into a caricature of some trigger-happy yokel from shoot-’em-up Texas. 

And conservatives? Again, they would mumble that an Obama “wag the dog” strike would cynically be all about the president’s reelection. Or they would at least note the irony, given the Nobel Laureate–in–Chief’s prior demonization of Bush’s use of military force. Nonetheless, Republicans would largely grow silent if — a big if — a strike were successful and ended Iran’s nuclear threat.

#ad#The truth is that the more the Obama administration floats silly symbolic trial balloons such as supporting a Ground Zero mosque, trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a Manhattan civilian court, and employing inane euphemisms such as “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters” in the context of radical Islamic terrorism, the more it will try to assassinate foes such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, sidekick of the late Osama bin Laden, or consider, as in Libya, giving a greater push to Syrian rebels.

I am not suggesting that bombing Iran is imminent or even wise, only that it is now far more likely than during the tenure of the Bush administration.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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