The phenomenon of politicians looking for deliverance from untoward political situations is as old as politics itself. I was going to say it was first mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it surely goes back much farther than that. Foreign diversion – especially war – is often the chosen tool of such deliverance because it can usually be manufactured by a nation’s leaders in some relatively harmless way (except for those being bombed, etc.). The risk is that a manufactured crisis can morph into a real crisis, spin out of control, and descend into serious war against an adversary who doesn’t see the situation as a political game. In a personal confrontation, if one party pulls out a gun and waves it around for effect, real harm can result when the other person is also armed and ready to engage. Just so, national leaders must take care that their posturing does not push an adversary into real shooting.
I mention all this because I see indications that the president might be tempted to involve us in a foreign war to deliver him (and his party) from deep political trouble at home. In the following paragraphs I’ll describe those danger signs briefly:
- Political weakness. Since his re-election in 2012, Barack Obama’s administration has been rocked by a series of scandals, including the Benghazi massacre, political corruption in the IRS, government eavesdropping on citizens’ electronic communications, a grossly incompetent rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act (i.e., Obamacare), revelation of presidential lies about the AHCA’s effects, and repeated modification of the law via executive orders of questionable legality. The American economy is mired in a sluggish, multi-year “recovery” that hardly deserves that name. Mr. Obama has also shown uncertainty and weakness in dealing with foreign crises in Iran, Egypt, Syria and (lately) the Ukraine. His approval ratings have fallen below 40% – the lowest levels of his presidency. Politicians of the president’s own party are fleeing from him in anticipation of the fall elections, hoping that voters will not remember those pols’ support of Mr. Obama and his signature legislation. This is only a cursory listing of the president’s political difficulties. Clearly, he and the Democrats are in deep, deep trouble.
- Quest for a lasting diversion. It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Obama’s fourth and fifth years in office have been characterized by one diversion after another – each one intended to drive undesirable news off the front pages and down the Memory Hole. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s entire re-election campaign was a masterpiece of diversion designed to distract voters from his first term’s disastrous economic performance, not to mention the Benghazi fiasco that killed our Libyan ambassador and three other staff. The president’s strategy was to smear his decent and highly successful opponent, Mitt Romney, as a hater of women, a bully, a mistreater of animals, and a vicious malefactor of wealth who killed people by denying them health care. After Mr. Obama’s re-election, with the Benghazi scandal still bedeviling him and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the IRS scandal suddenly burst on the scene. Then the NSA metadata-scandal was revealed, followed by the sensational defection of Edward Snowden. Finally, the seizure of Fox Reporter James Rosen’s e-mails alarmed the entire media, which saw a serious threat to their livelihood. None of these diversions had staying power, however.
- Untenable commitments (I). The Syrian crisis, created by the Assad government’s possible use of chemical/biological weapons against its own people, demonstrated that President Obama had made commitments which he could not keep. In earlier statements, Mr. Obama ominously warned that the movement or use of chemical weapons by the Assad government would represent a “red line” for him and the USA. He also stated that President Assad “…would have to go.” But when it became obvious that such weapons had been used during fighting between Syrian troops and rebel forces, Mr. Obama found that he could not act in any meaningful way. Although he and Secretary of State Kerry threatened military action, the president saw that he lacked the political support necessary for war. He darkly vowed to take military action without Congressional authorization, but that threat came to nothing. Nor could he follow through on his vow to oust President Assad. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin bailed him out by offering to oversee the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Most of the Mainstream Media pretended not to notice that Putin’s action had revealed President Obama’s embarrassing inability to make good on his international promises. Mr. Putin was well aware of it, however.
- Untenable commitments (II). Having lavishly bragged that our relationship with Russia had been “reset,” Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton roundly mocked Candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign for claiming that Russia was the USA’s “greatest geopolitical foe.” Notwithstanding that supposed “reset,” Mr. Putin shocked the president and his administration by boldly moving Russian troops into the Crimea in recent weeks. This week he formally annexed that part of Ukraine. Mr. Obama could do little in response except impose financial sanctions on seven Russian citizens who appeared to be major players in world economic markets. Russia has also been expelled from the G8 economic coalition (which has now become the G7). Russian forces appear poised to move into the eastern Ukraine on Mr. Putin’s order, but Mr. Obama has given no indication of what he is prepared to do in response to such a move. No one can predict how far Mr. Putin will go, or who will try to stop him. He is on a roll.
- An administration out of its depth. Winston Churchill famously said, “Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.” Certainly Mr. Obama has acted on that premise repeatedly – convinced, as he evidently is, that his words have a unique power to control people who see war as a useful tool when an enemy appears weak. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama forgot to have engraved above his War Room another famous dictum: “Always negotiate from strength.” That came from Ronald Reagan, who declined to scrap the Strategic Defense Initiative (i.e., Star Wars) when Soviet Chairman Gorbachev demanded that he do so as the price of cutting a deal at the 1986 summit in Rekjavik, Iceland. Mr. Reagan saw no lasting value in making a deal that would leave America weaker, just so he could be praised in the media for a “successful” summit with the Russkies. Mr. Obama and his advisors, on the other hand, have consistently acted as though negotiating from weakness will somehow favorably impress various international leaders – some of them obviously untrustworthy and downright dangerous. Naiveté reigns in the Oval Office.
- Humiliation by a well prepared adversary. Russian President Putin has now humiliated President Obama twice. This is never good, but it is particularly risky when it involves a man as proud (and unpredictable) as Barack Obama. In the summer of 1961, Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev met President Kennedy in Vienna, Austria. Khrushchev, who made his bones as the ruthless Political Commissar of Stalingrad during the 1942 German occupation and defeat, took the measure of the youthful, almost boyish, JFK and decided that he could be had. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 resulted. JFK was a mite tougher than Khrushchev expected, and luckily the Soviets blinked at the last minute. Shooting was averted, but it was (as the Duke of Wellington once said), “a damned close-run thing.” Various insiders related how close we came to war when the pride of the USA was at stake. There is no telling how Mr. Obama might react if another blow to his pride is struck by his old “pal,” Vladimir. The Vlad would be wise not to tempt fate. But who knows how wise he really is.
- Temptation to raise the stakes. War-scares are a nice political diversion, but they don’t really have staying power. On the other hand, a serious war with a dangerous adversary (e.g., Russia) would keep the media’s attention for months – certainly long enough to let the president slide past the November elections with the country united behind him and his party safely in control of at least the Senate. One imagines that all this has crossed his mind, as well as the minds of his advisors. The peril of such an adventure can hardly be overstated. Russia is a dangerous adversary – heavily armed with nuclear weapons and led by a ruthless, ex-KGB operative who seems to believe that his karma is to rebuild the former Soviet empire. On our side, Mr. Obama has publicly bragged about reducing our military strength. What will a man like Vladimir Putin think of such a statement? Won’t he believe a president with the weak hand Mr. Obama is showing is just bluffing about war? Quite probably. If so, that will be the point of greatest danger: a proud, wounded president, desperate to regain his stature, standing up to a ruthless despot who thinks he holds the high cards and can do what he wants. Let’s pray that it never comes to that.
- Vox populi. The wild card in the temptation for the president to wage war to save his political skin is the voice of the people. Sometimes the hoi polloi speak through their elected representatives in the Congress, and sometimes they bypass them to address the president and his government directly. During the Vietnam War we saw a good deal of the latter. Arguably, the anti-war demonstrations of the late 1960s discouraged President Lyndon Johnson from seeking a second full term. And many historians believe Richard Nixon’s escalation of the war damaged him so severely that he lacked support – even from his own party – when the Watergate incident arose. It was that lack of political support that actually drove him from office. History teaches many things, but one of its sternest lessons is that the American people have only so much patience with war. Since 9/11/2001 they have countenanced the expenditure of a mountain of treasure and the lives of thousands of good young men – ostensibly to “pacify” a violent segment of the world – only to see that sacrifice wasted, as we pull out and let those wretched places revert to their former lawless states. As I read it, Americans are heartily sick of war. It would take a stupendous attack on the country to overcome that aversion and send us into the field again. That, of course, is the truly scary part. Those who might want to push us into war know this, too. Will they allow the unthinkable to happen in order to achieve their ends?