Politics & Policy

Box-Checking as Leadership

President Obama speaks to the press, August 6, 2014. (Alex Wong/Getty)
Obama’s foreign-policy failures are always the fault of someone else.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (and the millionth monkey who randomly typed out an identical “news”letter on his own — except for typing “Darth Rayburn” instead of “Dear Reader” and for that weird 5,000-word stretch that just says “Banana, Banana, Banana” over and over again),

The other night Mike Barnicle tweeted “Make Dick Cheney read this.” The “this” was a link to an article in the Washington Post about the plight of the Yazidis, trapped on a mountaintop.

Now lest you take me for the sort of person who follows Mike Barnicle on Twitter, let me explain that I saw the tweet because Paul Begala thought it was sufficiently perspicacious to warrant retweeting. Now, lest you think I am the sort of person who follows Paul Begala on Twitter, let me say in my defense that I find it useful to monitor some enemy broadcasts, as it were.

Anyway, the tweet was simply part of a whole plague of prattle from an army of argle-barglers that seem to think they’re taking a bold moral stance by aiming all of their attention on people with no power to make any decisions. Trapped on a mountaintop by savages who make the Thuggees seem civilized, watching their children die of thirst, presented with the choice of renouncing their faith (and being condemned to Hell by doing so) or execution (for the men; slavery for the women), no doubt the Yazidis were deeply gratified when they got word that Mike Barnicle had taken to Twitter to hold accountable a man who can do nothing for them. Nothing takes the pain out of slow death, genocide, and seeing your wives and daughters carried off into slavery more than the firm knowledge that fingers are being pointed thousands of miles away at men who’ve been in retirement for five years.

Heaven forbid Barnicle tweet “Make Barack Obama read this” or even “Make Joe Biden read this” (which would require his drawing in the margins of the Washington Post article pictures of flying saucers shooting each other. “Pew-pew! Boom! Good article.”). After all, Obama is the actual president of the United States. He could actually do something to help the Yazidis.

Let us stipulate — at least for the sake of argument — that the First Cause of Iraq’s unraveling was the Iraq War. That doesn’t change the fact that the second, third, fourth, fifth, and nth causes of the chaos are the result, directly or indirectly, of President Obama’s decisions (or indecisions). Obama chose to pull troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible. Obama chose to dismiss ISIS as the “jayvee squad” this year. Obama chose to issue a “red line” ultimatum, then chose to say “never mind.” The guy has been president for five years. And yet to listen to him and his defenders he’s been utterly powerless to undo his predecessors’ mistakes, real or alleged. It’s like these people think the twice-elected president of the United States is still new to the job.

Life, the Movie

But all of that is irrelevant, too, at least when it comes to the question of what to do now. And bear in mind, Barnicle was tweeting this hairball when Obama had done and said nothing to indicate that the U.S. would actually do anything to help the Yazidis (just as Obama has done little to nothing to help the slaughtered Shiites and Christians of Iraq, the rebels in Syria, the sovereign government in Ukraine, et al). The vital priority for Barnicle (and Begala) was to unleash the full gale of Barnicle’s moral authority and righteous indignation (which is like talking about the raging tempest let loose upon the land by a mouse fart) against a retired guy in Wyoming. Never mind that the retired guy in Wyoming wanted to keep U.S. forces in Iraq so as to prevent anything like what we’re seeing from happening!

Now that events in Iraq have descended from “urgent” to “Hieronymus Bosch,” Obama has finally acted, and I am glad for it. Let us send as much aid as we can to the Yazidis; if in the process, we kill a lot of ISIS fighters, that’ll be a nice bonus.

But there’s a common theme to Obama’s foreign policy and Barnicle’s rodent flatulence. They both work on the assumption that global events are things that happen out there. “The world stage” used to be a platform for U.S. leadership. For Obama, the world stage is more like, well, a stage where other nations put on a show for our benefit. There are plenty of good arguments for America to be more circumspect internationally (and plenty of bad ones). But I don’t think Obama and his supporters fully recognize that when the lead actor on the world stage decides to walk off and sit in the audience, it changes the performance and the roles of the other performers.

Box-Checking as Leadership

I will confess I never really appreciated the perfidy of the phrase “leading from behind” until Wednesday’s presidential press conference.

Earlier that day, the secretary of defense, who has been kept away from the press lest the cameras remove all doubt about his incompetence, announced that 20,000 Russians were massing on the Ukrainian border in what seemed like preparation for an invasion.

(I often hear this would be the first instance of a European nation invading another since 1939. I’m not sure that’s exactly true from, say, the Georgian or Hungarian perspective. But that’s quibbling. Such a crime would be, in the parlance of international-relations scholars, a huge frick’n deal.)

At the press conference, the president made no mention of this in his prepared remarks about the Africa summit, which he read aloud with all of the passion of a DMV bureaucrat explaining the different methods of payment for a parking ticket. He then took questions. Chris Jansing of NBC asked whether the sanctions against Russia were working. With his customary logic-chopping defensiveness, the president responded that the sanctions were doing what they were intended to do, but it was unclear whether they were actually working. This is like explaining that the pepper spray did everything it was supposed to do but the bear is eating your face anyway.

It’s also perfectly Obamaesque. I did exactly what I set out to do. If it’s not working, it’s only because someone else isn’t responding the way they’re supposed to. I gave a speech telling the oceans to stop rising, damn it! I even said “let me be clear.”

The point of the sanctions isn’t to prove that sanctions can cause “economic pain.” The point is to deter Vladimir Putin. And on that score, they clearly aren’t working at all. It’s amazing to me how much Obama thinks and talks like a bureaucrat. I’ve checked my box! I did my job! I’ve fulfilled my responsibilities. If the bear is eating your face, it must be the fault of Jones in accounting. Hate that guy.

This has been Obama’s standard response to problems around the globe. He did what he was “supposed to do,” and whenever the consequences of his actions create problems, it’s because others didn’t do what they were supposed to do. I pulled troops out of Iraq. I reneged on missile defense in Eastern Europe. I “reset” with Russia. I intervened in Libya. I didn’t intervene in Syria. I told Leon Panetta to deal with Benghazi. I took the blue pill. The fact that the Iraqi pullout was destabilizing, that Putin saw his moves as weakness, that Islamists took over Libya, that Assad stayed in power, that the Matrix revealed itself anyway: These all reflect someone else’s failures.

He was then asked if the 20,000 troops massed on the Ukrainian border might lead him to “reconsider” sending lethal military aid to the Ukrainians. After prattling on about how Ukraine doesn’t need aid to beat the separatists, Obama added, “Now if you start seeing an invasion by Russia, that’s obviously a different set of questions. We’re not there yet.”

Now, I don’t want to go to war to defend Ukraine. I don’t want Obama to say we would go to war to defend Ukraine — and not because I think that such a statement would necessarily be irresponsible if it came from a different president. But I don’t think Barack Obama would go to war to defend Ukraine even if he said he would. As with his “red line” debacle, the worst thing a president can do is vow to take a hardline and then not take it. But would it be too much to ask the president of the United States to characterize a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine as outrageous?

Keep in mind that “outrageous” is safer than “unacceptable.” The problem is that his use of “unacceptable” is almost entirely ironic. He uses it like a theater critic saying a cast change is “unacceptable” when it is obvious the critics’ acceptance is irrelevant. His use of “unacceptable” has been more promiscuous than Vizzini’s use of “inconceivable” in The Princess Bride. (How long has it been since Putin’s annexation of the Crimea was “unacceptable”?)

Leading from the Sidelines

In the best sense, “leading from behind” sounds like something a football coach does. He can’t be out on the field, but he coordinates, instructs, and inspires from the sidelines. Among the myriad problems with this analogy is the simple fact that international affairs isn’t like a football game, where the coach can bench players for failing to follow instructions or execute the plays. In Obama’s version of leading from behind, he’s more like a football handicapper who has no control of events and merely watches from the virtual sidelines as events transpire, adjusting the odds as they unfold. This analogy fails, too, of course because the president of the United States isn’t an observer. Obama is open to sending lethal aid — it seems — only if Ukraine is invaded. But refusing to send lethal aid makes invasion all the more likely. I understand that the president thinks he’s very clever by seeing the guiding principle of his foreign policy as “don’t do stupid sh*t.” But the real-world consequence of that principle is to let events unfold and then whine about being neck-deep in sh*t you think you can blame on others. It’s not leading from behind, it’s failing from behind.

Cuomo vs. Christie

I’ve been getting into fights with people about the discrepancy between media coverage of Andrew Cuomo’s troubles and coverage of Chris Christie’s “bridgegate.” Let me see if I can lay out the case briefly here. Back during the feeding frenzy, I never said that the Christie story wasn’t legitimate news, just that it was being overdone by the national media. In response, hysterical liberals insisted that I just didn’t get it. Christie was an important governor with presidential ambitions from an important state. Some more sophisticated types pointed out that New Jersey is also very close to New York media centers. The allegations supported the narrative that Christie is a bully.

Um, okay. Which of those doesn’t apply to Cuomo? I’ll take my answer off the air.

Now more serious people will make some valid analytical points. Christie had become a presidential front-runner because of his Abbot and Costello routine with Obama. The allegations were easy to understand and infuriating to normal people (i.e., He messed with traffic!). These are all points with some merit. But they don’t provide a rationale for why the media should have gone crazy about the story. A bunch of people (including MSM journalists) have e-mailed or tweeted at me that the media was right to get its dress over its head because Christie was a potential Republican front-runner who could beat Hillary. And they think this is a defense against the charge of media bias! I didn’t go to J-School, but I’m pretty sure “taking the Republican down a peg,” is not a journalistic principle. And if being the front-runner — the run-away front-runner at that — is grounds for heightened journalistic scrutiny, then I am eager to see the coming media tsunami crash down on Hillary Clinton. I am also eager to see a caveman fight a ninja. I’m not holding my breath for either.

But fine. Let’s say that Christie deserved more coverage than Cuomo. I’m open to that. But how much more coverage? Twice as much? Three times? One hundred times? I’m sure if I made the effort to count hours of network time, word counts in newspapers etc., the ratio would be a lot closer to 100–1 than 2–1, and such metrics can’t account for the poorly hidden passion of the reporters. And yet, no one seems willing to at least admit that the Christie feeding frenzy was excessive.

Bullseyes for Me, But Not for Thee

Speaking of frenzies, there was a time when people who are supposed to be America’s top “thought-leaders” took seriously the idea that former Representative Gabby Giffords was shot because of a map on Sarah Palin’s Facebook showing targets on various competitive congressional districts. It was a time worth remembering because it gave at least a glimpse of what logic-bending, fact-free hysteria looks like. The notion that our elites are immune to such hysteria is an obvious fiction that serves the interests of elites. They get to decide what constitute real scandals and outrages and what are merely paranoid delusions and ginned-up panics. If word got out that the people making such decisions were just as susceptible to the mirages of the mob and the spirit of the witch-hunt, that would do them no good at all. They need to maintain the exclusive right to charge others with exhibiting the paranoid style in American politics.

It’s difficult for me to express how much contempt I had for the entire elite media-industrial complex back then (though I tried here). Anyway, I bring it up because here’s the Daily Beast — if memory serves, a torch-carrier of the old mob against martial metaphors and images — putting Rand Paul in the center of a bull’s eye. I don’t for a moment think this actually puts Rand Paul’s life in danger. But it does help illuminate the double standard.

Goodbye to All That

Honestly, I set out to write the G-File this morning on World War I. I wrote a piece earlier this week on the horrendous consequences of that vile and stupid war and I’ve gotten a lot of interesting feedback (the comments section has some excellent suggested reading).

For space reasons, I couldn’t provide any examples for this line: “In the West, the war opened a Pandora’s box, unleashing innumerable cultural and intellectual demons that we have decided to make peace with rather than defeat.”

I thought it would be a fun G-File to do a roll call of those demons. Unfortunately the morning got away from me. Maybe another time. Until then, you’ll have to make do with this worthwhile column by Peggy Noonan.

Various & Sundry

Zoë update: Her first cross-country adventure begins Sunday. The Fair Jessica and Zoë the Underdog (Still working toward Wonderdog status) will commence their drive to Washington State this Sunday. Next Friday, I will retrieve my daughter from sleep-away camp and we will fly out to meet them. At the end of August, we’ll all drive back from Friday Harbor, WA (What this means for next week’s “news”letter is unclear).

Recommendation Time: Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes. Some people say that bowling alleys all look the same. Some people say that references to Camper van Beethoven make no sense at all. But none of that matters right now. A while back I said I would start making recommendations in this “news”letter and then proceeded to not make recommendations. Well, here are a couple:

Hello, Portsmouth! A couple weeks ago, the Fair Jessica and I spent a couple nights in Portsmouth, N.H. I was stunned by what a great town it is, with truly excellent restaurants. We ate about as well there as we had in Napa on our gustatory adventure.

Speaking of gustation, these Rocco & Roxie dog treats are ridiculously expensive, but they actually do seem to be the best dog treats ever. Once word gets out at the dog park that I’m carrying them, the dogs react like convicts upon hearing that the new accountant-embezzler walking across the prison yard is carrying a brick of uncut heroin.

I really like the new album from Old Crow Medicine Show.

I found this piece on the Yazidis very informative.

Finally: Go see Guardians of the Galaxy.

And speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy. I am Groot. (Note: This podcast was entirely inspired by the G-File!)

Welcome aboard to the lovely and talented Katherine Timpf, our latest hire at NRO and the scourge of racist and xenophobic gardening.

In other news, the great thing about the Internet is it never ceases to provide cats that look like Hitler.

Sadder: Voldemort Cat in 2011

Awesomer: Cats That Look Like Ron Swanson.

Now for equal time: Cliché newborn photo shoot (with dog)

Dogs on Hogs

Hippie Pitbulls

Pitbull tickles newborn.

Police search and seize pub . . . in search of Holy Grail (They did get a warrant).

Apparently this kid is coming for James Rosen’s job.

Bad Idea of the Day: Wearing Gloves Filled with Bullet Ants.

Obedient Russian citizen destroys all things Western.

Secret Service reveals it is unprepared for attack from Baby Face Finster–style jihadists.

A Bad Case of ‘Nacho Eye’

Cutthroat Business

Can your dog sing “Ave Maria”?

Dog runs own shop.

Kim Jong-un Amused by Lubricant

So . . . you went to the Denver County Fair and expected not to get high?

Not a Great Driver


File this under “irresponsible grandparenting.”

Teacher of the Year

A Win for Coke AND Popeye’s

When Potheads Go Too Far

Elephant uses car to scratch an itch.

Five-year-old steps aside, lets others have a shot at leading town.

Debby’s Links!


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