It is my solemn pledge to readers that I have tried to give President Obama a bit of a honeymoon in my thoughts as he takes the oath for a second term, and to think kindly of Secretary Clinton, as she hands over the State Department, and of her successor-designate, John Kerry. I have tried, and, up to a point, I have succeeded, but last week’s inaugural address and Mrs. Clinton’s congressional-committee appearance severely challenged that effort. The president won the election fair and square, and he continues legitimately as the 42nd direct successor to George Washington, and deserves the respect his office commands. But his claim on more than the pro forma deference due the holder of his position must rest on his adopting a suitable post-campaign tenor for his comments, and on his being somewhat believably sincere in what he says. The license to utter pre-electoral partisan whoppers has expired.
He spoke of unity and the need for the federal government, executive and legislative and both parties, to think in terms of the whole country, even as he resurrected his coalition of racial minorities; people who believed his claptrap about a Republican war on women and on gays and lesbians; ecological militants and Goreite fear-mongers; and all those susceptible to his mantra about “the privileges of . . . a shrinking few who do very well,” especially those who suffer the inordinate burdens heaped on “the broad shoulders of the rising middle class.” Of course, the middle class has not been rising in the United States for many years. It is not this administration’s fault that its predecessors urged the people to borrow and spend and not save, maintained insanely low interest rates to spur spending and discourage savings, and ushered the nation into a housing bubble that became an economic disaster. But he can’t rail forever against the errors of previous administrations, particularly as he has continued many of them.
He has spent four years lamenting mistakes of preceding presidents, but in fiscal matters he has given no hint of what he proposes to do about them. This is in vivid contrast to his foreign-policy performance. He had been opposed at all times to the Iraq War, and he has withdrawn from it. He had warned about Pakistan and has been much less easily or profoundly swindled by the government of that shambles of a country than the George W. Bush administration was. There is room for debate about the wisdom of the Obama foreign policy, but at least the president’s criticism of former policy has been followed by the implementation of a change of course consistent with his campaign position. While the administration has been thoroughly disingenuous about the Iranian nuclear program, was very late imposing serious sanctions, and even then was much less purposeful than a unanimous Senate requested, the apparent decision to do nothing effective about Iranian nuclear military development is also at least consistent.
As commentator Jonathan Schanzer wrote last week in Foreign Policy, the American “chattering classes” were served “an all-you-can-eat buffet of crow” by the Israeli voters, who seem to have recognized in their election last week that the United States will do nothing to stop Iran, and will not support Israeli intervention to prevent a nuclear-armed Islamist regime in that country (pledged to the destruction of Israel). Israel elected a delicately balanced Knesset that will step gingerly into this new and tenebrous era in the Middle East — an era that promises to make a Swiss cheese of the nonsensical Obama arms-control policy, as Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others will probably follow the same path. And non-proliferation, which has been gradually disintegrating since before that treaty in which the nuclear powers pledged to seek disarmament was adopted, will cease even to enjoy the false lip service it has been accustomed to receive.
But the larger, overarching goal of withdrawing to or toward America’s shores and borders, while not acknowledged, is being carried out, and it is not all bad as a policy. In his inaugural address, the president made his ritualistic statement about America leading its “alliances.” But the U.S. doesn’t really have any allies any more. It was only eleven years ago that NATO unanimously voted that the entire alliance had been attacked on September 11, 2001, and Le Monde, an influential and not overly pro-American newspaper, headlined: “Today, We Are All Americans.” The Bush administration brushed that off; NATO degenerated into the flimflam of a “coalition of the willing,” and now the most successful alliance in history is barely going through the motions.
But in domestic affairs, the president spoke last week of the need for consensus on “taxes, schools, and sustainable energy sources” because “engagement can more durably lift” the spirits and welfare of the country. But there is no indication that he will pursue a course of sincere compromise any more assiduously than he did in his relentlessly confrontational first term. Again, the Republicans are frequently unreasonable, and are disorganized, and the speaker, John Boehner, has gained inadequate authority to deliver the House of Representatives to full partnership with the administration. But the president has made no effort to reach an agreement on anything and the Democratic leadership in the Senate, the horrifying triad of Reid, Schumer, and Durbin, will not allow anything to be seriously debated, much less come to a vote. The president won’t deal, the Democratic congressional delegation is devoted to preventing anything from happening, and the country has patchy, constitutionally dubious government by executive order; endless posturing and games of chicken over every fiscal issue, from sequestration to the annual humiliating bipartisan juvenilism over the debt ceiling. Yet the president spoke last week of translating “name-calling” into “reasoned debate.” As his longest-serving predecessor famously said, “The presidency is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” It is not that now.
And it is very hard to take seriously the over-frequent references the president made to God and traditional patriotic shibboleths he rather refreshingly avoided earlier in his career. The president doesn’t really take “an oath to God and country,” as the reference to God is optional; it is hard to credit that Mr. Obama really believed it when he said the U.S. “flag . . . fills our hearts with pride,” and that “immigrants regard America as the ‘land of opportunity,’” since it doesn’t really attract much net immigration now. He called upon his countrymen to observe a spirit of “solemn duty and awesome joy.” It is hard to imagine that such an exhortation is motivated by much more than an appreciation of a country that has twice elected him as its leader.
The same sort of credibility gap yawned before Secretary Clinton in Congress last Wednesday. She recounted that 65 foreign-service people had been killed in the line of duty and that she had been well aware, generally, of the dangers to State Department personnel abroad, but she sent hundreds more Marines to buttress security after the tragedy in Benghazi. If she knew generally about the dangers, why did she wait for the ambassador to Libya and others to be murdered before sending them? Her much-quoted answer was to ask, “What difference does it make?” If the State Department was negligent and its spokespeople dishonest in their responses to tragedy, it does make a difference, in America and the world. The U.S., she emphasized, “has come a long way in the last four years.” I don’t think so and she did not elaborate, but lapsed into turbo-platitudes: “The United States is the most extraordinary force for peace and progress the world has ever known . . . [is] the world’s indispensable nation . . . [and will remain] safe, strong, and exceptional.” All those assertions were true for many decades, but they are very arguable now, and this administration is partly responsible for that fact. Mrs. Clinton has spent four years declaring to be “unacceptable” things the United States then accepted.
I will also grope my way determinedly to some sort of mental honeymoon for John Kerry, who fabricated his Swift Boat history and voted to send troops to Iraq but not to fund them once they got there. But after more than 20 years in which I have not known him to utter one intelligent sentence about foreign policy, I am prepared to fear the worst.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at email@example.com.