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Justified Nostalgia for George W. Bush

Bill McGurn, who is a gentle soul, published a brief piece yesterday in The New York Post that deserves attention from those of us at Ricochet who have long admired his work. Its focus is a comparison of Barack Obama’s conduct of American foreign policy with that of his predecessor, and in it he makes a number of telling points.

The first of these is that Bush’s policy was coherent. Bill readily acknowledges that his former employer made some mistakes: “Most prominently, these include underestimating what it would take to prevail in Iraq, as well as the way the long war there constrained his ability to maneuver on fronts such as Iran. And yes, there are legitimate arguments that can be advanced against basing a foreign policy on a freedom agenda.”

But, he insists, at least there was a policy, and to make his point, he quotes the following summary from Bush’s book Decision Points:

First, make no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbor them — and hold both to account. Second, take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us here at home again. Third, confront threats before they fully materialize. And fourth, advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

Moreover, Bill adds, Bush actually pursued this policy with great vigor and some success. Where Truman left Eisenhower with a mess in Korea, Bush left Obama with a war won in Iraq, and he put in place the infrastructure needed to keep Al Q’aeda at bay. “Obama,” Bill notes, “has taken full advantage of some of this infrastructure when he felt the need, e.g., the National Security Agency’s terrorist-surveillance program. But even when he talks tough, it’s seldom tied to any purpose larger than domestic expediency. We’re seeing it again right now, with the president denying he set a red line in Syria as he tries to pass the buck to Congress.”

This is foreign policy for the faculty lounge. It’s being advanced by a national-security team made up of men — John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and Joe Biden — who spent their Senate careers indulging the idea that the use of American force is almost always a bad thing for the world. And now they wonder why they are having a hard time selling a strike on Syria.

By contrast, President Bush gave us a foreign policy that was coherent, that met the challenge of the time and that left his successor with vital tools — including drones — that are responsible for the few things Barack Obama has managed to get right in his engagement with our enemies.

Regarding Bush’s policy, he concludes, “You might not agree with it. But it had purpose. And friend and foe alike had no doubt where he stood.”

No on really knows where Obama stands. He seems to want to make an empty gesture vis-a-vis Syria. He disclaims any desire to tip the military balance. All that he wants to do is posture — which is why I suggested on Tuesday and again on Wednesday that the Republicans vote present on the resolution to authorize the use of force against Assad. If all that the President wants is a photo-op, then let him have it — and let his party take responsibility for the consequences of his fecklessness. If, on the other hand, he cannot garner the support of a majority of Democratic Senators and of Democratic Congressmen for such a gesture, that, too, will say something.

Incidentally, on his radio show, Michael Medved brought up my suggestion and asked Paul Wolfowitz what he thought of it. Here is a link. The discussion begins at 8:58.

  1. CuriousKevmo
    Colin B Lane

    But a present vote is on principle. Obama has not made the case that military action will be effective. In fact, he’s made the case that it will be specifically designed not to be effective.  

    Obama’s incoherence and nasty cynicism justify the Rs in throwing this right back into the Empty Chair’s court (how’s that for a shameless promotion of my own post??). · 13 minutes ago

    Fair points to be sure Colin, but I still feel that a Yes or No is required here.  You make a compelling case for a vote of “Present” but it still feels insufficient to me.  Making the case should be the point of the debate leading up to the vote.  Once the debate has finished, you are either for it or against it.  If one doesn’t feel the case has been made, then a no vote seems appropriate.

    (No disagreement on your point about the media however)

  2. RobGen
    Plus, a “present” vote says (at least to me) the following: We are not opposed to intervening to stop bad people from gassing their own citizens. But you have not effectively made the case that military action will be effective. So we will neither oppose nor support you on this. · 35 minutes ago

    Also, as much as I might like them turning the tables on Obama, this is too important an issue to vote present.  They should be voting on principle, regardless of what they think of Obama. · 21 minutes ago

    Voting “present” could be done in principle if Republicans can explain why they are sitting on the sidelines for a decision that, if chosen poorly, could lead to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent civilian deaths.  I’m not saying that there isn’t a way to ethically justify this, but it’ll have to thought through. Doing nothing, for the U.S., might just save, even better, the most amount of lives in the long run. I’m not sure what ‘s best and would hate to have that responsibility in my hands.

  3. Western Chauvinist

    Just heard Arthur Brooks in Medved’s show this afternoon. He says, the Left wins by “naming” the victim first (war on women vs. aggression against people of religious conscience, e.g.). And by having asserted a purpose (helping people) versus just being against things (opposition to Obamacare). 

    It’s a mistake to vote “no” because it makes a victim of Obama (“those racist Republicans oppose me because I’m black”). It’s also a mistake to vote “no” because Republicans do believe, on some level, that a President Romney would handle intervention (or at least projection of power) effectively. 

    It’s a mistake to vote “yes” because the risks of escalation (as we see happening already — Russian warships, threats from Tehran) will be blamed on us (particularly Republicans).

    “Present” is a principled vote. Obama will flub whatever he does (and is likely to do what he wants in any case). We honestly believe a competent CinC might exercise American power effectively in this case. But we don’t believe this CinC is competent. Therefore, “present.”

  4. tabula rasa

    I miss the fundamental decency of W.  He wasn’t a great president, but he is a good man.

    Obama is an abysmal president, and nothing I’ve seen from him suggests he’s a good man other than apparently being a good father and husband. As president, he’s vindictive, arrogant, and clueless of nature of America.

    I agree with others that members of Congress should vote based on principle and not out of dislike for Obama:  Obama’s actions (or lack thereof) make that very hard. 

  5. RobGen
    Western Chauvinist: Just heard Arthur Brooks in Medved’s show this afternoon. He says, the Left wins by “naming” the victim first (war on women vs. aggression against people of religious conscience, e.g.). And by having asserted a purpose (helping people) versus just being against things (opposition to Obamacare). 

    It’s a mistake to vote “no” because it makes a victim of Obama (“those racist Republicans oppose me because I’m black”). It’s also a mistake to vote “no” because Republicans do believe, on some level, that a President Romney would handle intervention (or at least projection of power) effectively. 

    It’s a mistake to vote “yes” because the risks of escalation (as we see happening already — Russian warships, threats from Tehran) will be blamed on us (particularly Republicans).

    “Present” is a principled vote. Obama will flub whatever he does (and is likely to do what he wants in any case). We honestly believe a competent CinC might exercise American power effectively in this case. But we don’t believe this CinC is competent. Therefore, “present.” · 4 minutes ago

    This is very well said, but can it be canned for general media consumption? :)

  6. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    I think that it would be fairly easy to cast voting present as a principled vote. Those who did so could issue a state explaining their vote, saying, “We do not want to stand in the President’s way. But what he has proposed doing strikes us as an empty gesture, and we cannot lend fecklessness our endorsement. If our Democratic colleagues wish to embrace half-measures, they are welcome to do so.”

    This would put the onus on the executive where it belongs, and there would be more than a hint of mockery involved. It would force the press to mention the 129 times that Barack Obama voted present in the Illinois State Senate.

  7. Valiuth

    I don’t know. Voting present to me sounds wrong. It seems like too cute by half if you know what I mean and I think could be more easily be spun as a naked political move. Democrats will say Republican’s have abdicated any foreign policy credibility…

    Frankly in our raging discussions of this topic here on Ricochet I think there are only two principled positions on the Syria question.

    The first is to say that Obama was mistaken for not backing the Free Syrian Army when it started and helped it to topple Assad back in 2011. That the proper policy with respect to Assad was then and is now regime change. 

    The second position is to have consistently been against any kind of American involvement in Syria, both back when it started and now. 

    Obama is straddling these two views and making a mess of everything. Frankly I wish he would pick one and stick with it. If you can’t be right you should at least be consistent. This is why I respect John McCain a lot more. You can think him a fool for his hawkishness but at least you know what he wants.  

  8. Standfast
    “Present” is a principled vote. Obama will flub whatever he does (and is likely to do what he wants in any case). We honestly believe a competent CinC might exercise American power effectively in this case. But we don’t believe this CinC is competent. Therefore, “present.” · 1 hour ago

    I believe this is the reason Parliament in the U.K. voted no.   Who wants to go to war with Obama covering your six.  Just ask the Poles and the Czechs what it is like depending on him for support.

    And great insights, once again, Mr. Rahe.  I always enjoy your posts.

  9. WI Con

    The British may be saving their stockpiles in order to defend ‘The Maldives’ thanks to Mr. Redline.

  10. Koblog

    “No on really knows where Obama stands.”Yes, we do. Obama stands against America, and with America’s enemies. How else can you explain the fact we are about to defend Al Qaeda in Syria?

  11. RushBabe49

    Ah, but he IS consistent, and has a policy.  His policy is “Promote Myself”. Everything he does should be seen through the lens of “Me, Myself, and I”.  Nothing in the world is more important to Obama than himself.  The Press licks his boots, and covers for him, and will not see his dithering as harmful.  Unfortunately, the entire nation has suffered through nearly 5 years of this, and will have to endure another 3.

  12. Scott R
    Paul A. Rahe: I think that it would be fairly easy to cast voting present as a principled vote. Those who did so could issue a state explaining their vote, saying, “We do not want to stand in the President’s way. But what he has proposed doing strikes us as an empty gesture, and we cannot lend fecklessness our endorsement. If our Democratic colleagues wish to embrace half-measures, they are welcome to do so.”

    This would put the onus on the executive where it belongs, and there would be more than a hint of mockery involved. It would force the press to mention the 129 times that Barack Obama voted present in the Illinois State Senate. · 5 hours ago

    One problem however is that so many Republican congressmen are on record insisting Obama take the matter to Congress. Voting present might look like the dog catching the car.

    But it’s definitely an option for those who never thought such a strike demanded Congressional approval in the first place. (And they were correct, imo. Can anyone imagine Reagan going through this dance? Inconceivable. See Libya, Grenada.)

  13. Colin B Lane

    Actually, Western Chauvinist had the idea of voting present several days ago.  I like it a lot — no one can accuse the Rs of doing anything against the interests of the US or of opposing Obama. They are merely registering a vote that he found great comfort in during his days in the Senate. 

    Plus, a “present” vote says (at least to me) the following: We are not opposed to intervening to stop bad people from gassing their own citizens. But you have not effectively made the case that military action will be effective. So we will neither oppose nor support you on this.

  14. CuriousKevmo

    I like the idea as well, but they would of course get destroyed in the media.  In fact, they’d get criticized for equivocating and being indecisive, the very things that Obama has shown over and over.

    Also, as much as I might like them turning the tables on Obama, this is too important an issue to vote present.  They should be voting on principle, regardless of what they think of Obama.

  15. Colin B Lane
    CuriousKevmo: I like the idea as well, but they would of course get destroyed in the media.  In fact, they’d get criticized for equivocating and being indecisive, the very things that Obama has shown over and over.

    Also, as much as I might like them turning the tables on Obama, this is too important an issue to vote present.  They should be voting on principle, regardless of what they think of Obama.

    But a present vote is on principle. Obama has not made the case that military action will be effective. In fact, he’s made the case that it will be specifically designed not to be effective. 

    You suggest that a present vote will get them “destroyed in the media.”  Worrying about that is the essence of not voting on principle.  And let’s be clear: there is nothing — not one single thing — Republicans can do to avoid being destroyed in the media, short of kneeling and chanting “All Hail the One.”  

    Obama’s incoherence and nasty cynicism justify the Rs in throwing this right back into the Empty Chair’s court (how’s that for a shameless promotion of my own post??).

  16. flownover

    In any number of other countries in the world we would be voting to change the government right now.

    Wonder how long this kind of behaviour will lead us to being one of those countries in the future.

  17. BastiatJunior

    Well said, Paul.  Iraq was a success by the end of the Bush administration.  It was up to Obama to lose it, and he probably has.

    The amateur psychologist in me thinks that if the economy were in better shape in the final years of the Bush administration, people would be looking at the Iraq war in a much better light.