Capitol Ideas

Perilous Path for Obama

By From the July 2009 - August 2009 issue

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Last month I pointed out the ways in which Obama’s policies could threaten the country’s future. Here I look at the issue from the other direction: the extent to which his agenda, or what seems to be his agenda, could threaten his own political future. An incumbent president faces conspicuous hazards in two broad fields. The first is no-win military entanglements which the public feels have gone on for too long; the second is a poorly functioning economy.

Culture war issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and family breakdown that often preoccupy conservatives are rarely decisive. It seems that neither side can win on these issues if the economy or foreign quagmires are working against them. They are not game-changers on their own. First a few words on Obama’s ideas about the wars that he inherited. Then I’ll say something about the ways the U.S. economy may affect his chances. Obama’s war policies are becoming difficult to distinguish from those of George W. Bush. In 2008, Obama promised to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by March 2009. More recently he said he would leave as many as 50,000 troops there and wait until 2011 before all are withdrawn. He has also deployed an additional 17,000 U.S. military personnel to Afghanistan.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted that domestic support for the Afghan war will dissipate in less than a year unless the Obama administration achieves “a perceptible shift in momentum.” At the moment, Gates added, the Taliban is gaining in strength and inflicting heavy casualties. A recent article in the Washington Post brought Vietnam to mind. Insurgents in the region find that they can “easily melt into the populace,” the paper reported. In modern-day wars, remember, enemy forces don’t wear uniforms. It’s hard to win any war when your scruples oblige you to distinguish between civilians and combatants before pulling the trigger. Meanwhile our guys wear distinctive clothing and never resemble Afghan tribesmen. Perhaps it would be better for the U.S. not to get into such wars in the first place—effete wars, Ralph Peters calls them. American forces in Afghanistan will no doubt be kinder and gentler than the Russians were before them and the British were before that. So maybe we will win the hearts and minds of the local tribesmen. But I have my doubts. The fact is that Obama is venturing into quagmire territory, as his advisers may well be telling him.

Embarking on “regime change” and an unnecessary war with Iraq was Bush’s great error, I believe. Opposing that war was a winning campaign issue for Obama. To be sure, Bush escaped backlash on the issue in the 2004 election, but even then, with the Iraq misadventure less than 18 months old, his race against the unappealing John Kerry was a close-run thing. By 2008, the GOP was in serious trouble, and that was true well before the economic nosedive that began late last summer.

Iraq was the big unresolved issue, with Afghanistan headed in the same direction. Now Obama “owns” those wars. America’s fortunes in them may become the defining issues of his presidency, as they did for Bush. President Eisenhower, it is said, warned against getting mired in a “land war in Asia,” * and last time I checked Iraq and Afghanistan were in Asia.

As for Iran, and the possibility that the Obama administration will take steps to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon, the consequences are incalculable. At the moment no one can say how this will play out, so perhaps it’s best not to speculate. But here’s a related point. Why, exactly, did the Carter administration collaborate in the ouster of the shah of Iran in 1979? Here’s a 30th anniversary that we have not celebrated. We also aided the Ayatollah Khomeini’s takeover in Iran. Would anyone care to explain why the U.S. government encouraged these follies?

The shah had perpetrated “human rights violations,” we are told. How absurd that seems today; as though Persia had never heard of such things. Within the State Department, I wonder if there have been any second thoughts. All along, the real objection to the shah was that he was pro-American. The episode should remind us that modern liberalism is a half-crazed thing—perhaps best defined as anti- Americanism across the board. Iranians, incidentally, showed their gratitude by seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran, in November 1979, thereby hurting Carter’s reelection bid. Obama, beware of your allies! They will land you in trouble if you give them half a chance.

Obama did show an instinct for self-preservation in opposing the ACLU on the release of new photographs of “abused” prisoners. He put his own future (and the country’s) ahead of the liberals’ wishes, but they will turn on him if he continues in that vein.

Domestically, obama has embraced the traditional liberal agenda. He has saddled the country with trillions of dollars of new spending and he imagines that budget problems can be solved by tax increases. It may not have occurred to him that fanatics on his staff such as Carol Browner will put their green agenda ahead of his political welfare; perhaps more accurately, their ideology will prevent them from seeing that there is any conflict between their agenda and his welfare.

The economy may pose fewer hazards than his foreign wars, but only because it was in such a perilous state when he was sworn in. So the electorate may cut him some slack. In outline if not in the details, his stimulus package was defensible at the time. But it’s easy to foresee that the new spending will not create the 3 million new jobs that Obama predicted and that he is counting on. If increased government spending could create real jobs, full employment would have been achieved long ago. It’s hard to believe that Obama has put himself in the hands of such inept counselors as Larry Summers, whose understanding of economics strikes me as rudimentary. None of the people around Obama seem to understand the hazards that tax increases will pose to his administration. Nor (outside Forbes and the Wall Street Journal editorial page) will the press corps bring the subject up.

Obama says he wants to be pragmatic. But when it was pointed out to him that Bush’s lower capital gains tax rates had brought in higher tax revenues, he replied that raising the rates was the right thing to do anyway. If he thinks that punishing the rich will help him politically he should think again. It will help him with the New York Times, but that is not the same thing.

Liberal economic policies are always counterproductive, and that word should be taken literally. They aim to counter the forces of production. They try to stop things from happening—things that market forces would encourage. Don’t cut down those trees, don’t develop that land, don’t open that factory, don’t build those houses, don’t drill for oil, don’t dig up that coal, don’t let the wealthy keep the money they have earned, tax what people have managed to save, take their money away before they pass it on to their own children. Someone should warn Obama of the self-imposed hazards ahead.

As for the global warming insanity and the alleged CO2 threat, if he takes them seriously and tries to tax coal and oil production and get us to drive government-subsidized GM mini-cars, and meanwhile remains enmeshed in a no-win war in Afghanistan, and all these things take effect before 2012, we may have to write him off as a one-term president.

*This “land war” comment has long been attributed to Eisenhower but I cannot find a documented reference to it. It is not among the quotes listed by the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. Did he really say it? Can anyone in Abilene help?

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).