By Victor Davis Hanson
Often, crazy things seem normal for a time because logical catastrophes do not immediately follow.
A deeply suspicious Richard Nixon systematically and without pushback for years undermined and politicized almost every institution of the federal government, from the CIA and the FBI to the IRS and the attorney general’s office. Nixon seemed to get away with it — until his second term. Once the public woke up, however, the eventual accounting proved devastating: resignation of a sitting president, prison sentences for his top aides, collapse of the Republican party, government stasis, a ruined economy, the destruction of the Vietnam peace accords that had led to a viable South Vietnam, the end of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic breakthroughs, and a generation of abject cynicism about government. Did Nixon ever grasp that such destruction was the natural wage of his own paranoia?
In the post-Watergate climate of reform, for nearly three years a naïve Jimmy Carter gave utopian speeches about how American forbearance would end the Cold War and create a new world order based on human rights — until America’s abdication started to erode the preexisting global order. Scary things followed, such as the fall of the shah of Iran, the rise of Iranian theocracy, the taking of American hostages in Tehran, revolutions and insurrection throughout Central America, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, radical Islamists taking over Mecca, more gas lines, continued stagflation, and China invading Vietnam. Did the puritanical Carter ever understand what might be the consequences of his own self-righteousness in an imperfect world?
Barack Obama likewise has done some crazy things that seemed for years to have no ramifications. Unfortunately, typical of the ways of Nemesis (a bitter goddess who waits until the opportune moment to demand payment for past hubris), suddenly the bills for Obama’s six years of folly are coming due for the American people.
When a president occasionally fails to tell the truth, you get a scandal like the monitoring of the Associated Press reporters. When a president serially fails to tell the truth, you get that plus the scandals involving the IRS, the NSA, the VA, Benghazi, and too many others to mention.
The same is true abroad. The American public hardly noticed when Obama recklessly withdrew every peacekeeper from Iraq. Did he not boast of “ending the Iraq War”? It did not mind when the U.S. posted dates for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trashing all the Bush–Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, from Guantanamo to renditions, did not make much sense, when such policies had worked and, in fact, were of use to Obama himself. But again, most Americans took no note. Apparently the terrorists did, however, and they regrouped even as the president declared them “on the run.”
Lecturing Israel while praising Islamist Turkey was likewise ignored. America snoozed as its president insidiously redefined its role in the Middle East as secondary to the supposed pivot to Asia. Each new correction in and of itself was comparatively minor; but in aggregate they began to unravel the U.S.-inspired postwar global order.
At first, who cared whether Iran serially violated every Obama deadline on halting nuclear enrichment? Did we worry that Libya, where Obama was proud of having led from behind, was descending into Somalia? Few Americans were all that bothered over Obama’s empty order to Syrian president Bashar Assad to step down, or over Obama’s later vacuous red-line threats that bombs would follow any use by Assad of chemical weapons.
Few noted that Obama lied to the nation that a video had caused the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, that Obama had known who the real terrorist perpetrators were but had ordered no immediate action to kill or capture them, and that Americans had been engaged in mysterious and still unexplained covert activities in Benghazi. After all that, we still shrugged when the president traded five top terrorist leaders for an alleged American deserter.
Trashing George W. Bush’s policy toward Vladimir Putin while promising a new reset approach (illustrated with a plastic red button) to an aggressive dictator raised few eyebrows at the time. Nor did many Americans worry that our Pacific allies were upset over Chinese and North Korean aggression that seemed to ignore traditional U.S. deterrence.
We were told that only Obama-haters at home had catalogued the president’s apologies abroad, his weird multicultural bowing to authoritarians, his ahistorical speeches about mythical Islamic achievements, his surreal euphemisms for radical Islam, terrorism, and jihadism, his shrill insistence about civilian trials for terrorists and closing Guantanamo, or the radical cutbacks at the Pentagon, coupled with the vast increase in entitlement spending.
But after six years of all that, our allies have got the message that they are on their own, our enemies that there are few consequences to aggression, and neutrals that joining with America does not mean ending up on the winning side. The result is that the Middle East we have known since the end of World War II has now vanished.
Supposedly crackpot fantasies about a worldwide “caliphate” are becoming reified. What were once dismissed as conspiracy theories about an “Iranian arc” — from a nuclear Tehran through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon to the borders of Israel to the Shiite minorities in the Gulf kingdoms — do not seem so crazy.
The idea of visiting the Egyptian pyramids or hoping to reengage with a reforming Libya is absurd. The best of the Middle East — Israel, Jordan, Kurdistan — no longer count on us. The worst — ISIS, Iran, Syria — count on us to remain irrelevant or worse. Old allies in the Gulf would probably trust Israel or Russia more than the Obama administration. In the next two years, if Obama continues on his present course, we are going to see things that we could not have imagined six years ago in the Middle East, as it reverts to premodern Islamic tribalism.
The same trajectory has been followed on the home front. Americans at first were amused that the great conciliator — and greatest political recipient on record of Wall Street cash — went after the rich with an array of hokey epithets and slurs (fat cats, corporate-jet owners, Vegas junketeers, limb-lopping and tonsil-pulling doctors, business owners who should not profit, or should know when they have made enough money, or should admit they didn’t build their own businesses). Few connected the dots when the polarizing attorney general — the John Mitchell of our time — referred to African-Americans as “my people” and all the rest of the nation as “cowards.” Did we worry that the craziest things seem to come out of the president’s own mouth — the Trayvon-like son he never had, the stereotyping police, the absence of a “smidgen” of corruption in the Lois Lerner IRS scandal, or the mean Republicans who “messed” with him?
The president before the 2012 elections lamented to Latino groups that he did not have dictatorial powers to grant amnesty but urged them in the meantime to “punish our enemies” — a sort of follow-up to his 2008 “typical white person” incitement. Who was bothered that with “a pen and a phone” Obama for the first time in American history emasculated the U.S. Border Patrol, as part of a larger agenda of picking and choosing which federal laws the executive branch would enforce?
Those choices seemed to be predicated on two extralegal criteria: Did a law contribute to Obama’s concept of social justice, and did it further the progressive political cause? If the answer was no to either, the statute was largely unenforced. No president since World War II has done more to harm the U.S. Constitution — by ordering the executive branch not to enforce particular laws, by creating by fiat laws never enacted by Congress, by monitoring the communications of journalists and average Americans, by making appointments contrary to law — to the apparent yawns of the people.
Too few also seemed to care that almost everything the president had promised about Obamacare — keep your health plan, retain your doctor, save money on your premiums, sign up easily online, while we were lowering the annual deficit and reducing medical expenditures — was an abject lie. In such a climate, Obama felt no need to issue accurate data about how many Americans had lost their health plans, how many had simply transferred to Obamacare from Medicaid, how many had actually paid their premiums, or how many were still uninsured. The media ignored the serial $1 trillion deficits, the chronic high unemployment and low growth, the nonexistence of the long-promised “summer of recovery,” and the nonappearance of “millions of shovel-ready and green jobs.” The fact that electrical-power rates, gasoline prices, and food costs have soared under Obama as wages have stagnated has never really been noticed. Nor have the record numbers of Americans on food stamps and disability insurance.
Meanwhile, as Obama has refused to enforce immigration law, the result is chaos. Tens of thousands of children are flooding across our border illegally, on the scent of Obama’s executive-order amnesties. Advocates of open borders, such as progressive grandees Mark Zuckerberg and Nancy Pelosi, assume that these impoverished Third World children will not enroll in the private academies attended by their children or grandchildren, or need housing in one of their vacation estates, or crowd their specialists’ waiting rooms. They do not worry about the effects of illegal immigration on the wages of low-income Americans. Dealing first-hand with the ramifications of open borders is for unenlightened, illiberal little people.
Obama’s economic legacy is rarely appreciated. He has institutionalized the idea that unemployment between 6 and 7 percent is normal, that annual deficits over $500 billion reflect frugality, that soaring power, food, and fuel costs are not proof of inflation, that zero interest rates are the reward for thrift, that higher taxes are always a beginning, never an end, and that there is no contradiction when elite progressives — the Obamas, the Clintons, the Warrens — trash the 1-percenters, while doing everything in their power to live just like them.
We are the roost and, to paraphrase the president’s former spiritual adviser, Obama’s chickens are now coming home to us.