It just seems like few weeks ago — it was come to think of it — that President Obama was telling us a decade of war had ended and we were going to spend money and efforts on anti-gun laws, global warming, gay marriage and other “investments” (i.e. spending). He didn’t mention Iran or those pesky deficit and jobs numbers. But that was a speech, and now we have seen reality.
On Thursday Leon Panetta and John Brennan told us that we can’t slash defense, that drones save lives and that Brennan goes to bed each night worried he is not doing enough to keep America safe. Hillary Clinton goes out the door warning us to wake up to the reality off jihadist-infested North Africa. Meanwhile, the administration rushes forth (well, hands its defense secretary a note) to tell us the administration policy is not containment. It sure sounds like the world is dangerous. Maybe the president should have said something more in his inauguration. For now, it seems the United States is pledged to force Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program and to keep killing terrorists without too many legal niceties. President Obama is even obliged to go to Israel.
Since the inauguration, the liberal vision has given way to domestic reality as well. Republicans have decided to hold firm on sequester — those cuts will go into effect or some other cuts will in their place, but no more tax increases on top of the ones Obama got at the beginning of January. Republicans may not be able to force comprehensive entitlement reform, but they’re done growing government and done collecting more taxes to grow government.
Gun legislation might, at most, come down to broader gun registration. Most of the wish list is going nowhere. Immigration discussion is all on the right. And environmental legislation that would hike energy costs in all likelihood won’t get a vote in the House and would fail in the Senate (Democrats from energy-producing states plus Republicans can block grandiose plans.)
So yes, Obama is a left-wing ideologue domestically and internationally. Sometimes he gets his way. He’s so far to the left and so enamored of retrenchment that he was alone in rejecting more robust action in Syria. Former deputy national security director Elliott Abrams observes:
So, every senior member of the national security agencies–the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the CIA Director, and the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff–favored action. And the president rejected this unanimous recommendation.
That is his prerogative, of course. One cannot escape the conclusion that electoral politics played a role, as The New York Times’s phrasing suggests. That should be remembered, as should the fact of this unanimous recommendation, when next we hear White House explanations of why the United States cannot and should not act. “It’s too risky; we don’t know who to whom to give the training or arms; it might backfire; they don’t need the arms;” the excuses go on and on. But rather a different light is thrown on those excuses when we learn that if the president believed them, none of his top advisers did.
So losing an election, dear conservatives, is not good, especially when it comes to international affairs.
But it’s not the end of America or the end of center-right politics or even the end of conservative reform, especially when there is a GOP House majority and a Senate with no filibuster-proof majority and plenty of skittish red-state Democrats. Reality — Iran, debt, al-Qaeda, popular opinion — counts for something, too, serving to restrain the most extreme impulses of the president. The president isn’t going to get his way on many things, even if the Republicans can hope for only minor wins of their own ($1.2 trillion in sequester cuts isn’t so minor, actually).
Obama is unlikely to act when he should (in Syria, in Iran, if need be), but his agenda-less campaign did not in fact produce a mandate for more and more government. He might want to end fighting, but the wars and threats are not ending.
Liberals despair that we have gridlock. This is precisely what the Framers had in mind — checks and balances that restrain rash action. For that, Republicans can be very grateful. They will, I suspect, see the president pulled into an agenda he doesn’t want (national security) and frustrated in his ability to continue his leftward march domestically. They should use the time wisely, to promote capable candidates and construct an appealing agenda.