February 17, 2009, 4:00 a.m.
The Audacity of Irony
“Hope and change” meet reality. The ironies bring us back to the unlamented days of Jimmy Carter.
By Victor Davis Hanson
We have seen irony before, when the moralist Jimmy Carter chastised us with sermons about our paranoid, inordinate fear of Communism and our amoral unconcern with human rights, even as the dividends of his policies were the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran — and even greater global misery than before.
For the last 24 months a youthful Barack Obama has daily offered unspecified “hope and change” idealism — all set against the supposed cynical wrongdoing of the tired Bush administration. In the unhinged manner in which his supporters turned a center-right president like George Bush into some sort of sinister reactionary, so too they deified a rookie senator as the long-awaited liberal messiah.
How could irony not follow from all that?
For the past seven years the United States has seen no repeat of 9/11, although plots were uncovered and threats from radical Islam were leveled in serial fashion. The ability to intercept and hold terrorists overseas, to tap into cell-phone calls abroad, to detain terrorists caught on the field of battle, and to ensure that intelligence agencies freely swapped information was critical to our unexpected salvation.
Like Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and other wartime presidents (though none of the above witnessed 3,000 Americans butchered on the soil of the United States by foreign agents), George Bush, with strong bipartisan support, enacted new wartime protocols in the effort to protect the security of the United States. Only a fool would suggest that these homeland-security efforts were unnecessary, or that, in unprecedented fashion, they shredded the Constitution.
But such foolish criticism was exactly the sort leveled against the Bush security protocols by candidate Obama. And so almost at the minute he assumed governance, the now President Obama discovered that his Bush the Constitution-shredder had been a clumsy caricature of Bush the sober commander-in-chief. For Obama on the stump, the choices were endless; in the Oval Office suddenly only bad and worse. So the new president, the favorite of the ACLU, is now in the ironic position of maintaining the hated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reforms, keeping the repugnant Patriot Act, retaining “extraordinary renditions,” and continuing — task forces and promises aside — operation of the Gulag at Guantanamo.
There were many legitimate critiques of the Iraq war. But insisting, as Barack Obama did, that we invaded recklessly and in haste was not one of them. From the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Bush administration deliberately and in public fashion sought debate in the Congress for over a year, received bipartisan authorization, and tried for months to win sanction from the United Nations.
In contrast, Barack Obama immediately upon entering office demanded the largest government expansion in the history of the nation. The staggering debt program will require nearly a trillion dollars in borrowing to fund all sorts of entitlements and redistributive efforts, and in revolutionary fashion redefine the role of government itself. Obama pronounced the current economic crisis the moral equivalent of war, and he wanted a national mobilization to meet it — pronto.
But unlike the Bush administration, which took 15 months to prepare the country for a real war in Iraq, the Obama administration gave the public only a few hours to read the final draft of the legislation before it was made into law. Where the polarizing partisan George Bush managed to obtain the vote of majorities in both parties to remove Saddam Hussein, the healing bipartisan Barack Obama lacked the support of even a single Republican in the House and won over a mere three Republicans in the Senate.
Liberals who once screamed that congressional opponents of the Iraq war were being unfairly tagged as unpatriotic by the Bush administration now yelled louder that the opponents of the Obama debt program were, in fact, unpatriotic.
Bush was pilloried for supposedly hyping al-Qaeda in order to create a security state. Obama trumped that by proclaiming that the present recession is a catastrophe, a disaster, a Great Depression. He ceased his scare-mongering only when he had exhausted the vocabulary of doom. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” bragged Rahm Emanuel, reminding us that the envisioned Obama socialism could take root only if a climate of fear was created.
In foreign policy the irony is more telling still.
Obama on the campaign trail either did not grasp that Bush’s second-term foreign policy was largely centrist — or found it politically advantageous to ignore that fact. Either way, irony followed. The problem with Europe’s failing to get tough with Iran, or failing to fight in Afghanistan, or appeasing Russia, was not George Bush, but the nature of Europe. Bush inherited, he did not create, Osama bin Laden, Putin’s authoritarianism, Ahmadinejad’s Iran, Chávez’s Venezuela, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, Qaddafi’s Libya, or the Dr. A. Q. Khan laboratory.
More often, Bush ameliorated, rather than exacerbated, these problems, by being both tough and, yes, multilateral — as friendly governments in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and India attested. Yet by demonizing George Bush — and that is how Team Obama prefaces each announcement of a new initiative — Obama has only set himself up for more irony. He can continue his first few weeks of damning Bush and emulating Jimmy Carter. But if he does, he will soon see another 9/11-like strike, more Russian pressure on Europe, more North Korean missiles, a bomb in Iran, the restarting of Dr. Khan’s nuclear franchise and its appendages in Libya and Syria, and a theocratic nuclear Pakistan.
One can make many criticisms of the Bush administration — occasional hubris, an inability to communicate its ideas, excessive federal spending, unnecessary bellicose rhetoric not matched always by commensurate action — but corruption is not really one of them. While the Republican Congress gave us Duke Cunningham, Larry Craig, and Mark Foley, the Bush administration itself was one of the most corruption-free in recent memory — no Monicas, no serial Clintongates, no pay-to-play presidential pardons, no shaking down donors for a library and a spousal Senate campaign.
So when Barack Obama of Chicago lineage — with former associates like Tony Rezko, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Mayor Richard Daley, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — began offering moral platitudes about his soon-to-be-enacted revolutionary ethics, we expected the irony that always follows such hubris and brings in its wake nemesis.
Now we are witnessing one of the most scandal-plagued incipient administrations of the last half-century. And these ethical embarrassments are doubly ironic. The Treasury secretary and nominal head of the IRS is a tax dodger. The egalitarian liberal Tom Daschle, who was going to make health care accessible for the masses, was caught hiding from the tax man tens of thousands of dollars in free limousine service. Reformist cabinet nominees like Bill Richardson (who has already withdrawn) and Hilda Solis cannot themselves follow the laws they were asked to enforce. The would-be performance czar, Nancy Killefer, did not perform on her taxes. We are now awaiting a third try for commerce secretary. The more Obama railed about his new no-lobbyist policies, the more he issued exemptions for the dozen or more insider lobbyists he hired.
The list of ironies could be expanded. Reps. Maxine Waters, Barney Frank, and Gregory Meeks — infamous for their Fannie Mae laxity — now interrogate supposedly incompetent or greedy bank CEOs. Nancy Pelosi, who demanded that the Speaker of the House in novel fashion receive a government-financed private jet, rails against government-enabled private jets. Bush supposedly politicized the White House, so in reaction Obama moves control of the census — the very linchpin of the American political system — for the first time into the White House. Big Brother comes not through tapping a terrorist’s phone, but, perhaps soon, through having the state collect and centralize everyone’s medical records or monitor the content of talk radio.
Why again the audacious irony of Barack Obama?
First, George Bush was not Judas Iscariot nor was Obama Jesus Christ. In the vast abyss between those two caricatures was plenty of room for hypocrisy. The more Obama claimed moral culpability on the part of the sober Bush, the more he proved his own — either by ratifying in hypocritical fashion many of the Bush policies or by reminding the public that if Texas perennially gives us spurs, six-guns, and bring-’em-on lingo, Chicago entertains us with the likes of Tony Rezko, the Daley machine, Rahm Emanuel, and Blago.
Second, Obama did not duly appreciate the sort of pernicious culture that permeates Washington in general, and the Democratic Congress in particular. While it was easy to say that Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham typified a culture of Republican corruption, the truth was always that they were just the flip side to Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank taking cash from Fannie Mae as it exploded, or Rep. Charles Rangel overseeing the tax code that he serially ignored, or Rep. William Jefferson stashing payoff cash in his fridge. A true messiah would have lamented the bipartisan rot in Washington, and then in Lincolnesque fashion figured out a way to clean up his own party first, and the opposition second.
The truth is that Americans don’t take well to self-appointed holy men like Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter. Yes, we’ve had our rare saints, but they were reluctant moralists like Washington and Lincoln, who were recognized as such only after they had saved the nation and stoically endured slander by enemies in war and at home.
Obama can end his irony only when he accepts that he and his supporters were never saints, and his predecessor not a notable sinner, and then accepts that history will judge him on what he does rather than what he says he might do.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.
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