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 (including our new partners in peace in Tehran),
I’m writing this from sunny southern California. Though if I had my druthers, I wouldn’t be writing it at all. It’s just that I took last Friday off and if I skip two Fridays in a row, I’m afraid Jack Fowler (National Review’s publisher) will start cutting himself again.
#ad#The great thing about my job — save for the TV part of it — is I can pretty much do it from anywhere. Conversely, the terrible thing about my job is I can do it from anywhere. So, it’s both liberating and constricting — which sounds a bit like the tagline for an S&M bondage retreat: “Set Yourself Free in Our All Leather Dungeon!”
Anyway, like the Senate under Harry Reid, I’ve been trying to keep my workload to a bear minimum. Or is it bare minimum? I can never keep those straight. A bear minimum seems like what they try to maintain around the picnic tables at Yellowstone, while a bare minimum sounds like the new FCC standard for Superbowl halftime shows in the wake of the Janet Jackson and Miley Cyrus fiascos.
The point of all this throat-clearing is that I haven’t been following the news too closely because I’ve been on vacation. Unfortunately, the first half of my trip was a long-planned ski trip in Northern California, but given my grievous back injury I couldn’t ski. This sounds a bit like a twist on the old vaudeville joke about the guy who goes to the doctor with a banged-up elbow and asks, “Will I be able to play the violin?” The doctor says “of course.” The guy responds, “Funny, I couldn’t play the violin before.”
• John Fund: Hillary: The Democrats’ Nixon
• Jonah Goldberg: L’Affaire Bergdahl Is the Quintessential Obama Fiasco
• NR Editorial: Liberals Against Religious Liberty in Indiana
• Josh Blackman: Is Indiana Protecting Discrimination?
Speaking of old jokes, you ever hear the old Borscht Belt routine about the old Jewish man who gets hit by a car? The paramedic arrives on the scene, props his head up, and asks, “Are you comfortable?”
The elderly man replies, “I make a living.”
Thanks, you’ve been a great audience. Try the veal.
Anatomy of an Obama Failure
I did catch the news that the Army is going to prosecute Bowe Bergdahl for desertion. Given what we already knew, it’s no surprise that Bergdahl was up to no good. But given the politics, the fact that the Army is prosecuting him suggests that the evidence is pretty overwhelming.
What I find interesting about the Bergdahl story is that it is the quintessential Obama fiasco. If you were compiling a checklist of all the things that drive conservatives crazy — and by conservatives I basically mean people who are (a) paying attention and (b) not enthralled in the Obama cult of personality — the Bergdahl story would achieve a near-perfect score.
The Obama M.O. remains remarkably consistent. He announces some initiative, policy, or presidential action. The public rationale for the move is always rhetorically grounded in some deep, universally shared principle, even if the real agenda is something far more ideological or partisan. The facts driving the decision are never as the White House presents them. Indeed, the more confident the White House appears to be about the facts, the more likely it is they’re playing games with them.
Sometimes the facts are simply made up. There are millions of “shovel ready jobs” right around the corner! “You can keep your doctor!” The Benghazi attack was “about a video!” “One in five women are raped!” “The Islamic State isn’t Islamic!” “These exclamation points are totally necessary!” At other times, the facts are selectively deployed. “Something something tax breaks for corporate jets mumble mumble poor Warren Buffet’s secretary’s tax bill blah blah Spain is winning the future with solar panels” and, course, “core al-Qaeda has been decimated” (in which “core al-Qaeda” is defined as “the bits of al-Qaeda that have been decimated”).
The Obama response to all opposition is to either attack the motives of his critics or to dismiss the objections as mere politics or ideology. When Obama met with congressional leaders back in 2009, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan made substantive critiques of Obamacare, and Obama responded by waving away their objections as mere “talking points” — as if any facts written on a sheet of paper suddenly become untrue if you can call them “talking points.”
Republican 1: “It is unsafe to smoke cigarettes around the propane tank.”
Republican 2: “Mass collectivization of agriculture has not worked well in the past.”
Republican 3: “You should not feed salmon to grizzly bears using your lap as a plate.”
Obama: “Those are just talking points…..Ahhhhh! Get this bear off of me!”
When Senate Democrats, led by Bob Menendez (now conveniently under the Department of Justice’s thumb), expressed concerns about Obama’s overtures to Iran, Obama reportedly sympathized, saying he understood their plight, what with the pressure from “donors.” The insinuation, obviously, is that Obama is doing the right thing, while those opposed were motivated by fear of nefarious unnamed “donors” cracking their whips (between servings of lox and bagels, no doubt). Only Obama’s motivations are pure, noble, and fact-driven. Only his opponents are ideologues incapable of “putting politics aside for the good of the American people,” as he likes to say.
There are other anatomical features of an Obama outrage. A few come to mind:
‐He has a tendency to frame issues in such a way that America is the villain and America’s enemies have a point.
‐He has an outsized faith — fueled equally by ego and the media’s eagerness to take his side — in his ability to persuade the public not to believe their lying eyes.
‐Since Obama sees himself as the People’s Tribune and the sole champion of what is right and good, he has little to no use for Congress or legal or constitutional requirements to work with it.
‐And, of course, there’s the incompetence factor — amplified by groupthink in the White House bunker. They may think Obama is the smartest guy in the room, but they also all think they’re geniuses who just happen to agree with each other. This creates a near total blindness to facts, data, and opinions that don’t line up with their worldview.
Using the above criteria, the Bergdahl story is quintessential Obama.
Invoking high-minded principle? Check!
Really motivated by partisan and ideological agenda? Check!
Made-up facts? Check!
Critics denounced as partisan ideologues opposed to high-minded principle? Check!
Group-think-driven White House’s failure to anticipate the political downsides? Check!
Flagrant contempt for Congress and its laws? Check!
Václav Havel? Czech!
The high-minded-principle part is obvious. We leave no one behind. Who can disagree with that?
But it was obvious long ago that Obama had other priorities in mind. “It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home,” a senior administration official told Rolling Stone in a 2012 piece on Bergdahl. “Especially in an election year, if it’s handled properly.”
The other major priority was to use the marching band and fireworks celebration of Bergdahl’s return to hasten the shuttering of Gitmo. Dump the worst of the worst anywhere you can and the political rationale for keeping the place open evaporates. So trading five hardened Taliban commanders for one deserter was a win-win.
Then there’s the thumbless grasp of political reality. Maybe the president didn’t think going AWOL was that big a deal. Maybe he thought it was understandable. Maybe he assumed everyone shared his take on things. Maybe he thought he could just bluster through because the American people are idiots. Who knows?
The fact remains they knew Bergdahl had been AWOL and yet still thought this would be a clear-cut “huge win,” particularly in the context of winding down the War in Afghanistan. They had no idea this fiasco would blow up in their faces, though I like to think some of the savvier political operatives on the Obama team had at least a moment of doubt when they saw Bergdahl’s dad show up with his Johnny Taliban beard. When the elder Bergdahl started speaking Arabic and Pashto in the Rose Garden, I like to imagine that David Axelrod’s bowels stewed just a little bit. (Every political pro I know who watched that announcement responded pretty much the same way you or I would if we saw a polar bear pooping a live hamster on a bus made of graham crackers; “What the Hell am I looking at?”)
Caught off guard by their own incompetence and arrogance, they immediately responded by attacking the motives of the critics. This is a very human reaction. If you think you’ve thought through all of the legitimate responses to your actions, it’s natural to assume the critical responses you didn’t anticipate are illegitimate.
On background they started claiming that Bergdahl was being “swiftboated.” This spin was a pas de deux of asininity since “swiftboating” itself is a b.s. term for telling embarrassing and inconvenient truths. Much like John Kerry’s old comrades, it was members of Bergdahl’s own unit who blew the whistle on him. Blindsided by this utterly predictable reaction, the White House doubled down by marrying arrogant invocation of principle to made-up facts, which is pretty much Susan Rice’s métier. So they sent her out to the Sunday shows to insist that Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction” — words that actually have quite a bit of meaning to people who, you know, served with honor and distinction.
On Twitter, Iowahawk had the pithiest summation of the Obama team’s assault:
“What kind of scum would slander this fine brave patriotic US soldier!”
“His platoon mates.”
“And you actually believe those baby killers?”
Jen Psaki, bless her heart, is sticking with the party line. Asked by Megyn Kelly whether the trade was worth it, Psaki responded: “We have a commitment to our men and women serving overseas, or in our military, defending our national security every day, that we will do everything we can to bring them home, and that’s what we did in this case.”
I agree with that entirely, in principle. But the key phrase there is “everything we can.” It implies that there is a limiting principle to what we can do. It’s a bit like the ten-guilty-men fallacy. What if the Taliban asked for ten, 20 or 100 Gitmo detainees in exchange for Bergdahl? Would Obama have agreed to that? What if the Taliban demanded all of the detainees, the state of Ohio, and the left thumbs of the starting line-up of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Without a limiting principle, our answer would have to be “Yes.” But once sweet reason tags into the ring, we understand that such demands are ridiculous even if Bergdahl were the greatest and most patriotic soldier who ever lived.
I was just about to get all various and sundry on your ass when my friend Shannen Coffin — recently catapulted by National Review and Megyn Kelly into the role of America’s foremost expert on State Department paperwork — forwarded me this spectacularly depressing piece by Politico’s Michael Crowley. The whole thing is worth reading, but I have a couple quick observations.
“If there’s one lesson this administration has learned, from President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech through the Arab Spring, it’s that when it comes to this region, nothing happens in a linear way — and precious little is actually about us, which is a hard reality to accept,” said a senior State Department official.
Not everyone is so forgiving. “We’re in a goddamn free fall here,” said James Jeffrey, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Iraq and was a top national security aide in the George W. Bush White House.
First, free fall sounds like a perfect term for the mess we’re in.
Second, it’s hard to make out exactly what this senior State Department official is trying to say with his head so far past his sphincter. In the abstract, I’m fine with the notion that nothing happens in the region in a linear way. I’m also fine with the idea that not everything that happens in the Middle East is about us. But taken in the context of the last SIX years, the takeaway is that Obama simply never had any idea what he was doing, and as a result he rationalizes doing little to nothing as hard-won wisdom. It’s not him, it’s them.
Here’s the thing to remember: Beyond ending the Iraq War by any means necessary and closing Gitmo, Obama’s Cairo speech was Obama’s Middle East foreign policy. He thought his middle name, a few apologies, and not being George W. Bush, combined with the awesome awesomeness of his awesomosity, would be enough to transform the region.
Then there’s this:
For years, members of the Obama team have grappled with the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring. But of late they have been repeatedly caught off-guard, raising new questions about America’s ability to manage the dangerous region.
What the what? Again, I think the piece on the whole is good. But did you catch the sudden change in subject here? The Obama team has been grappling and was caught off guard, and this raises new questions about America’s ability to manage the region? Why America’s? These are Team Obama’s foul-ups. Shouldn’t they raise new questions about Team Obama’s abilities? Maybe I’m still high on airplane glue, but I’m pretty sure that when the Bush team was grappling and getting caught off guard, it “raised questions” about Bush, not America.
This is a microscopic example of one of my longstanding beefs. Whenever things are going bad for liberalism, the blame falls on either America or conservatives, never on liberals. As I wrote in Liberal Fascism:
In the liberal telling of America’s story, there are only two perpetrators of official misdeeds: conservatives and “America” writ large. Progressives, or modern liberals, are never bigots or tyrants, but conservatives often are. For example, one will virtually never hear that the Palmer Raids, Prohibition, or American eugenics were thoroughly progressive phenomena. These are sins America itself must atone for. Meanwhile, real or alleged “conservative” misdeeds — say, McCarthyism — are always the exclusive fault of conservatives and a sign of the policies they would repeat if given power. The only culpable mistake that liberals make is failing to fight “hard enough” for their principles. Liberals are never responsible for historic misdeeds, because they feel no compulsion to defend the inherent goodness of America. Conservatives, meanwhile, not only take the blame for events not of their own making that they often worked the most assiduously against, but find themselves defending liberal misdeeds in order to defend America herself.
Then there’s this:
Obama officials were surprised earlier this month, for instance, when the Iraqi government joined with Iranian-backed militias to mount a sudden offensive aimed at freeing the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Nor did they foresee the swift rise of the Iranian-backed rebels who toppled Yemen’s U.S.-friendly government and disrupted a crucial U.S. counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda there.
Wait a second. I was with you on the whole “the Middle East isn’t linear” thing. But if this White House was caught off guard by Iran’s backing of Houthi (and blowfish) militias and coziness with the Shiite government in Baghdad, that’s not proof of the region’s non-linear inscrutability, it’s further proof that the Obama foreign-policy team drives to work in a clown car. It’s like the s*** has been hitting the fan for so long over there, they think that’s just the best way to paint the walls of the situation room an earthy brown.
All Is Dwell
Finally, there’s the final paragraph, which is a quote from the same State Department official who wears his own ass like a hat:
“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.
Sigh. Where to begin?
Remember all that stuff earlier about groupthink and the inability to anticipate or even recognize inconvenient data and facts? Well, here’s this guy saying: Don’t dwell on Yemen’s disintegration or on America’s hasty withdrawal from it. Don’t dwell on the fact this administration touted it — and continues to tout it! — as a model of a successful counter-terror strategy. Don’t dwell on the fact that it is now the frontline of a regional sectarian war between Arab Sunnis and Iran and Iranian client Shiites. Don’t dwell on the fact that Yemen is in fact just the latest piece of concrete evidence that the whole region is going tits-up, with total bloody chaos in Libya, Syria, and much of Iraq, thanks in large part to Iran’s decades-long ambition to become a regional hegemon by any means necessary — including terrorism.
No, don’t dwell on any of that stuff, because we’re going to get a piece of paper that will probably put Iran on a path to getting a bomb rather than prevent it. But even if the terms are exactly as the White House will spin them, the agreement will still depend entirely on the good faith and trustworthiness of Iran’s rulers, who’ve been violating every international law you can think of and who chant, every week, “death to America.” I mean, what could go wrong?
Various & Sundry
So, first of all, no Zoë update because she’s back in D.C. with the dog-sitter.
However, one of my Twitter friends alerted me to the news that the late, great, Cosmo the Wonderdog had a cameo, or at least a relative, in Beastmaster.
Second, in case you missed it, here’s my conversation with Bill Bennett on his new book, Going to Pot.
Third, also in case you missed it, here’s the most recent GLoP podcast.
Fourth, here’s a minor disagreement I had with Charlie Cooke over “McCarthyism.”
My first column of the week, written entirely on the drive from Tahoe to LA (By the way, never take I-5 when you can drive 395 and 14 — so much prettier!), was on Obama the Superhero with the incredible power to ignore whatever he wants to ignore.
My second column this week is on liberal American Jews.
Oh, I’ll be on Special Report on Monday and Thursday, which probably means Steve Hayes was arrested for mopery again.
I want to apologize for the excessive bawdiness of today’s “news”letter. Sometimes, it’s worth using colorful language when it carries the freight of mirth or substance. And sometimes, it’s just a sign of laziness and low character. I leave it to you to decide which explanation is more at work in today’s missive. I was writing this out of protest. Perhaps when I return home I can live up to the standards set by Jack Fowler who, I am told, is the East Coast’s greatest expert on WeatherDong sleuthing.