Editors’ note: This is a transcript of a speech delivered by Victor Davis Hanson at the recent David Horowitz Freedom Center’s Santa Barbara Retreat. It was given without a prepared text. To watch the video of the speech, click here.
Victor Hanson: As for that reference in the introduction to being a student of Greek and Latin: I would think about being a classicist a lot when I came home to farm at 26. I just got my Ph.D., and my father and a brother (who was really a cynic) talked at length. And at one point, I said, “Well, I passed my exam; my thesis is finished.”
And one said, “What can you do with it?” And I replied, “I think I can translate the San Francisco Chronicle into Greek now.” And one replied — he was quoting, I think Johnson or someone, “You know, that’s sort of like a dog that can walk on two legs; it’s impressive, but what’s the use?” So that’s that—I have an ambiguous relationship with classics.
This afternoon, I thought I would just walk through for 25, 30 minutes, very informally, the highlights of the Obama foreign policy— and then open it up for questions. And one has to be very careful in criticism, because I think with Obama too often critique becomes an emotional response in that we sometimes lose concentration of the nature of the transformation that he’s actually doing. And I know no one wishes to fall into that fallacy of Pavlovian opposition. Sometimes it’s health care “reform” or the apology tour can become so aggravating that one doesn’t look at each issue empirically. That is always a danger, because there really is something called Obama derangement syndrome, and I would not wish to suffer from it. We would not wish want to become the mirror-image of the Bush haters.
Anyway, what is the general philosophy that guides this President abroad? I think there are four or five elements, and I’d like to just go briefly through them and then apply them to specific policies and countries—and see if we can spot their presence. One, of course, is that he’s a post-modern President. That’s a fancy word for saying a culture that arose after the modern period, the so-called the post- modern period. And within it is a belief system that incorporates things like utopian pacifism. He seems to believe that as a child of the Enlightenment that if very brilliant, smart, educated, technocratic people get together, they can adjudicate differences rationally and without rancor, and that we can leave our Neanderthal past of emotions behind—especially to the degree that we are led and enthused by people like himself that were properly educated, properly cool, properly charismatic with the less fortunate who sometimes cause trouble and are misunderstood.
Mr. Obama believes in a sort of moral equivalency; that is, morality cynically is to be adjudicated only by those who have power. And just as there’s sort of a Mason-Dixon Line economically in the United States between those of, say, 200,000 in income and above and those below (and above at that divide, you become “them”), so too that applies to the world at large. The United States is the $200,000 income winner, and all the other countries are, as is true in the U.S., in need of Obama’s sympathy and redistributive attention. So we have an obligation to help the other countries because somehow we became wealthy at their expense.
And, of course, he’s a multiculturalist. All of Europe, we in America, we are all burdened with an imperialistic, colonial past; in contrast, people of color, the downtrodden, the other are in need of special consideration by virtue of their poverty or lack of access to global power. (Compare our respective attention toward a Syria and Israel, and one learns that consensual government and freedom does not enter into the equation.) That’s part of his ideological background that he brings into his foreign policy.
Second, Obama does seem to like George Bush. He believes that most problems abroad did not pre-date George Bush, and they didn’t post- date pre-George Bush—instead, they were exclusive to George Bush. And that’s an important distinction because Obama will sometimes adopt Bush’s anti-terrorism policies, but he won’t dare say that he’s doing that, because to do so would, of course, give some credit to George Bush. That ambiguity makes clear a lot of things that seem contradictory, as we’ll get to in a minute.
Yet a third element in his foreign policy is omnipotent debt. If you are going to borrow in the first 14 months three trillion dollars, and increase the aggregate US debt burden from 11 to 14 trillion dollars, and if you submit a long-term budget process that’s going to get us to 20 trillion in eight years, then you’re going to have less options abroad, in reference to defense, a sort of the weakening the sinews of war as Cicero talked about in the relationship of Roman preparedness to finance.
We simply are not going to have the capital to fund present defense and aid outlays, and people are already anticipating that overseas. Obama is going to have to make cuts and we know where he won’t make cuts and where he will—another air squadron, yes to cuts; another health care addendum, no. China pays attention more than we do to that reality.
And then the fourth element in his foreign policy; it’s sort of made up as he goes along, because, after all, if we had this present discussion in 2002, nobody in this room would know who Barack Obama is. So he’s a late arriving phenomenon without a lot of foreign policy experience. Indeed, we almost know nothing about his past. We know nothing about his education at Columbia. We don’t really know what he did at Harvard. We don’t know much about him at all in the Senate. Much of what he promised in the campaign simply did not happen. In reference to his past intimacy with a Bill Ayers or Rev. Wright, he simply was not wholly truthful.
Well, let’s look at how these principles are presently guiding the U.S. We had a very stimulating talk last night by Senator Kyl concerning Obama’s ideas about nuclear weapons. None of us—in regard to Obama’s non-proliferation summit—none of us lose any sleep tonight that France or England is a nuclear power. We understand that it’s not nuclear weapons, per se, but who owns them that is the problem.
Nobody loses sleep that Israel is going to preempt and nuke Pakistan. To the degree that a country is invested in the world, even an autocratic China (they don’t necessarily have to be consensual), is not an imminent nuclear threat.
There were two nuclear threats in the world when that summit took place, and they were North Korea and soon to be Iraq—and they were not there. It reminds me of the old adage about bureaucrats; they always go after the misdemeanor of the law-abiding citizen, and neglect the felonies of the criminal, because the latter takes moral courage and effort, and the former is easy and trivial. So you bring all these leaders together to D.C. that aren’t threats, and you ignore for the most part the two things that would make you either not liked in the world or require a bad/worse choice scenario; that is, confronting Iran or North Korea.
The second thing to remember about nuclear weapons is that it’s always nice to say that we should have a world without nuclear weapons. Yet more people have been killed by machetes since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We lost a million people in Rwanda. Did we want to outlaw machetes? If people wish to kill on a mass scale, there is always a mechanism to do it. Nuclear weapons are one, one especially scary tool, but not the only one So how have we dealt with dangerous, brave new weapons in the history of civilization? The Greeks were horrified by missile weapons. Strabo records an inscription to the effect, “Thou shalt not use missile weapons.” Spartans were horrified by artillery. Agisilaos, the King of Sparta, wept when he saw artillery. He said in effect, “Manhood is gone.”
I could say something of the same thing about arquebuses, fiery weapons, poison gas—all of them. Each time we have a frightening new weapon, there has been a righteous international effort to outlaw them. Even poison gas was not outlawed in World War II, contrary to what we think; it lack of use on the battlefield was due only to deterrence. In other words, all global prohibitions have all failed— not surprising without a global enforcer of utopian edicts.
Well then, what stops a dangerous new weapon from killing large numbers of people? Two things: one is deterrence: one side usually— hopefully, a constitutional state or consensual society—has a greater stock of dangerous weapons and tells a would-be adventurous bad actor, “don’t do it or else!” That’s worked pretty well in the post- Hiroshima age. Or they’ve counted on technology for a defensive response—bigger walls, thicker armor, anti-missiles defense. There’s no reason—given that human nature is constant throughout the ages— that won’t be true with nuclear weapons. We have both deterred their use and are working on counter-weapons, antiballistic missile systems to encounter a bad actor’s arsenal who might use them.
Obama seems rather clueless to that, especially the truism that countries that wouldn’t use a bomb would probably abide by an agreement and countries who would use it, would not.
If we look at terrorism, or I should say the War on Terrorism, it’s very interesting Obama is mimicking George Bush. If we went back to Obama-2002 as a legislator, as a senator in 2006 and from 2007 onward, as a candidate, I could give you the locale and the date in which he serially did the following: he criticized the Patriotic Act; he criticized tribunals; he criticized renditions; he criticized predator drone attacks; he criticized Iraq; he criticized the war in Afghanistan; he criticized Guantanamo Bay, and on and on.
But that outrage was all predicated on just two considerations — excuse me, I think three truths. One, by 2006, these critiques resonated with the American people, and they were very, very important to waging a winning campaign, and, therefore, Obama would wholeheartedly embrace them. Two, Obama sensed that the Bush protocols were of some utility to keep us safe (we hadn’t been attacked since 2001). And, three he was utterly cynical in that he knew that both he and others on the Left had no real intrinsic objections about any of these protocols— other than the fact that they were connected with George Bush.
If you doubt such cynicism on my part, look what happened after January 20th, 2009. Obama embraced almost every single protocol. The Bush-Petraeus Plan now is in operation in Iraq. He escalated in Afghanistan. He has allowed as many renditions as Bush did. He’s accepted the principle of tribunals. Guantanamo is “virtually” closed. In other words, it’s not closed, it’s just “virtually” closed. There have been more predator assassinations in Afghanistan in one year than Bush approved in eight. Think of that strange logic. We’re going to beat our breast over three detained terrorists— mass murderers—because they were waterboarded; but we’re going to blow up a suspected terrorist, his wife, children, grandparents, and everybody around him as collateral damage—and that is defensible.
In other words, Barack Obama knew, A, that when he became President, these were necessary protocols that had kept us safe, and, B, that as soon as he became the author and his signature was upon them, Cindy Sheehan would be a distant memory, Michael Moore would be quite forgotten. There would be no more Hollywood movies like Rendition. There would be no films like Redacted. There would be no more Toronto
Film Festival award-winning docu-dramas about killing a President. Alfred Knopf would not publish a novel about how to kill the President. All that would vanish. And that’s pretty much where we are on the War on Terror. It was quite brilliant in some sense, this cynical appraisal that the outraged Left was merely partisan not principled.
If we were to look at Iran, there was always only really one nonviolent way to stop Iran from becoming nuclear. The only real way to do it without great tumult was to encourage the grassroots demonstrations of last spring and summer that might have led to some type of real rebellion against the Republican Guard. Obama did not do that; he voted “present”. Why? Because such an idea of supporting grassroots, egalitarian, consensual reform perhaps is connected in his mind with an imposition of democracy in the Middle East, the so-called despised neo-con view: who are we, after all, as good multiculturalists, good moral equivalency proponents, to suggest that we know that our democracy, that Greek-based, Western word, would be any better or any worse than any other indigenous form of governance? So suddenly when the president sees people embracing Western democracy in an almost pro-American fashion, it causes Obama to pause.
Any country that was suspicious of America, and did not like the United States during the era of Bush, was apparently right, and anyone that did, was suspect. So Colombia, Israel, Britain—something’s wrong with those nations. Unlike Obama himself, they liked the United States under George Bush. Iranians demonstrating are somewhat suspicious.
So we voted “present” on the demonstrations, as Obama is well equipped to deal with an anti-American strongman, but not so with pro-American, pro-Democratic reformers.
Remember in the Al Arabiya interview, the first one he gave, Obama said in effect that a charismatic person of nontraditional ancestry like himself—and he mentioned his middle name, Hussein—something had been absolutely taboo during the campaign—would resonate with people in the Middle East. In his way of thinking, only a non-traditional, charismatic, rhetorician of African-American ancestry could deal with a revolutionary figure like an Ahmadinejad .So there was no utility, no singularity in supporting pro-American reformers; anyone could do that. But a Chavez? An Assad? Only an Obama is up to the task.
And again, Obama didn’t understand the danger of Iran. (When you see administration flaks writing articles suggesting that we can deter Iran, you know that it’s pretty much a done deal that Iran is going to become nuclear.) Yet the problem isn’t whether we can deter them or not (you can argue about whether the theocrats really want to find the missing imam and have paradise and thus are not subject to the laws of deterrence.)
No, the problem is that if they are nuclear, they will cause a collective, continual, non-stop sense of dread in Israel. People will never know whether they can be deterred or not. They’ll never know from one day to another what a theocrat will say. All that will have a cumulative effect, as we heard last night, quite presciently by the Senator—that more people will want to emigrate out of Israel, that more people live tense and unhappy lives. It’s sort of putting a gun to somebody’s head, and saying, “I’m going to turn the six-bullet chamber and see whether the one bullet fires—maybe or maybe not. It’s a form of nuclear Russian roulette, and it will have an emotional toll on Israel. Obama doesn’t seem to get that.
Secondly, he doesn’t understand the historical role of the United States toward Israel. The rules of the game were pretty much the same for the last 40 to 50 years, at least since the 1967 war. The Arab world had oil. The Arab world embraced terrorism. The Arab world had numbers. Therefore, most countries abroad made the necessary calculations and favored Israel’s opponents. That included everybody from France to Germany to Turkey to the entire Middle East to the Russians.
The United States alone—being an exceptionally moral place— felt, given the Holocaust and given the propensities of some nations in the world, and given the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish community after the 1967 war from the major Arab capitals, that there was no one else to protect this tiny, quite special country. Therefore, we, alone, will do something that, in terms of realpolik may or may not be in our national interests, but it surely reflects our values. And, therefore, we won’t nominate partisans like Charles Freeman or Samantha Power to posts of key importance in the Middle East. We don’t quibble over settlements in Jerusalem, since we know that in any two-state solution, that Arabs will be free to live in Israel while any Israeli who wants to become a citizen of Palestine and reside in the West Bank’s may have to have his head examined, because he’ll reside in mortal danger.
In short, an asymmetrical situation—we of good sense and good will, we all knew that. Mr. Obama either does not know that or does not care, or believes there is a moral equivalence between a PA or Hamas strongman and an elected Israeli government.
So we witness the first time, I think since Harry Truman’s initial support, that we have an Administration that not only doesn’t appreciate the role of Israel, but pretty much has leaned toward its opponents. And so far this is all academic. We can quibble about settlements, or, who was snubbed today or that Biden blew his temper. All that is trivial and doesn’t matter, because none of these fissures will become apparent until the next war takes place.
But, but, when the next war takes place, watch out—and there will be another war. There’s always a war more likely when the United States distances itself a bit from Israel because it gives the green light to bad actors, whether they’re in Lebanon or Syria or on the West Bank or in the Arab world in general. So, there will be another war, and then we will see Obama’s true attitude when questions come up like, “Are you going to immediately supply F16 replacement parts or delay a bit?” “Are you going to give bunker busters now or next year?” Are you going to supply patriot missile battery replacements or hold out for a concession?” And that will be the make-or-break moment. There will be 1973 hysterics over whether we should/should not supply quickly/slowly/not at all key points to an Israel at war.
Let us turn to the larger powers of the world, especially three—India, China, and Russia. These same four or five principles in his foreign policy stand out once again. Take India, for example. It saw over 60 percent of Indians express a positive view of the United States during the Bush Administration, which, after all, was supportive of free trade; India expanded its exports. It did have a colonial past, but it’s a confident nation that wishes to take on anyone in a global free market. It’s an English-speaking, pro-American ally—and therefore, it’s sort of now suspect, especially due to its rivalry with Islamic Pakistan. So if you look at Indian-U.S. relations, they’re not as good as they were, as if we are troubled that Bush was once popular there.
In opposition to that, look at Russia. Anybody in this room senses that it still has a 19th-Century sense of self, albeit empowered by oil. If it is not to recapture, at least it seeks to reestablish, a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Republics and perhaps even in Eastern Europe.
Again, Obama’s way of thinking seems to be that since Russia was recently anti-American, and anti-Bush, therefore, it’s somebody to reach out to, given their shared, mutual suspicion of the last eight Bush years. So we’re reaching out; that means that if you were in the Ukraine or if you’re in Georgia or if you’re in Poland or Czechoslovakia, you are a de facto neutral now. We’re not interested in you as much as we are with the Russians. Please do not find yourself in a crisis, because we will not adjudicate it on the basis of shared democratic values, but rather realpolitik reach-out to Russia.
And then there is China, and here’s where we grasp the importance of the spiraling debt. We don’t really know what Obama feels about pressuring China on Tibet or human rights. On the one hand, they pose still a supposedly revolutionary regime. Anita Dunn, after all, said a hero of hers was Mao.
But the Dali Lama, human rights, Tibet—all these questions play second fiddle to the one sword over our heads, and that’s U.S. debt. When China holds over a trillion dollars of US bank notes, and, more importantly, anticipates very quickly to own another trillion, then America really has lost a lot of leverage or foreign policy options with China. I think it’s very telling that this administration is essentially saying to the Chinese, “I know that 400 million Chinese, of a billion person population, have no access at all to health care, and have never gone to a Westernized doctor, but we would still like to borrow another trillion dollars from you so we can have a socialized medical system for our own.” That’s an untenable foreign policy—asking a rival to finance what we demand for ourselves, and what they would not consider for their own.
Among the first things the Chinese inquired about on their recent visit to Washington was about healthcare, because they’re starting to see that their citizens are supposed to work 12 hours a day and accumulate cash to lend us at low interest and to expand the entitlements that they themselves don’t have and have no plan on extending for their own population. Again, I cannot stress enough that’s untenable.
If we look at Europe, it’s very fascinating what’s happened—summed up by “Be careful what you wish for.” We all know that the Europeans, especially the proverbial European Street, are still in love with Obama, especially his efforts to adopt a European paradigm. At least, they felt that he is now a partner in statism, and they the model. He has become a Christian Democrat or a socialist Democrat, so all is wonderful.
Not quite. Note that the European leadership itself is very skeptical. Karen mentioned that we went on a trip two years ago, and had a reception at a garden residence in Versailles. It was there a French officer said to me, “Hey, everybody loves Obama, no problem. But remember, we’re the Obama; there’s not room for two of us!” And what he meant by that was that European leaders had understood the rules of the game, and they were essentially and cynically that the United States runs a raucous, wide-open, free-spending, capitalist, free-trading economy and that sucks in European goods, is very innovative, remains the fountainhead for western technology and innovation, western finance, and is also the key to the trans-Atlantic alliance. It’s really an American-dominated alliance, and we subsidize the defense of Europe. And then in exchange for that somewhat embarrassing situation, out of envy the Europeans ankle-bite us in Der Spiegel or in Le Monde.
So this same French general went on to the effect, “Don’t you guys understand the relationship? You’re supposed to take care of Iran, and we’re supposed to make fun of you the next day in Le Monde, and everybody’s happy. And then we don’t get nuked. That’s the story. Does this Obama understand that?” And this was before Obama was elected.
What we see now is that Obama didn’t understand that relationship, and the Europeans are getting their worst nightmarish dream come true. In other words, we’re going to have more of a static, controlled-economy that will not buy as much European goods; it will start to entertain something like the state-aided Toyota, Citroen, or Mercedes-like auto industries—part government/part state—that will try to demonize companies like a rival Toyota. We in America at last will start acting like European and Japanese state-subsidized partnerships between government and industry, and that’s not in the European’s interest.
We will also start, as these deficits start to climb, we will also start to question, why in the world, as true-blue statists and socialists, do we embrace so much military expenditure protecting Europe. That inevitably will come up. As a corollary there is no more special trans-Atlantic relationship in general as it pertains to Britain. A member of the Obama team put it something like this, “We don’t think there’s anything special in it.” And that can be seen from the trivial—to the snubbing of Mr. Brown or sending back the bust of Churchill—to the profound.
But the Europeans really did get what they wanted, and they’ve now got somebody who does not believe that the Western tradition, in general, and the European role in it, in particular, are anything exceptional, other than we both have a questionable past plagued by racism and colonialism. And so I think that we are going to have real divides between Europe and ourselves.
We could go on and on and on like this in tracing how the assumptions of the last thirty years in the academia and on the left have now been reified in the foreign policy of President Obama. But let me just finish by suggesting that we’ve been here before. I’ve been reading a great deal again about the administration of Jimmy Carter. And what I was struck was this: while everybody tends to make fun of Jimmy Carter’s outreach and therapeutic foreign policy, that was not so, at least in the beginning. Go back and read what people were saying, not in 1979, but during 1977 and ’78. Many were infatuated with Jimmy Carter. His polls on foreign policy were running 55 to 60 in the positive percentiles. He gave a heralded Notre Dame speech about the no “inordinate fear” of Communism. He had warned the Argentines about human rights. He had shown distance from the Shah. I think it was UN Ambassador Andrew Young had said flattering things about Khomeini. After Nixon, all that meant we were to be liked again abroad.
Indeed, everybody, except our enemies, thought that the world was coming together and that there was no downside from all this ecumenicalism. There wasn’t—at least for a while.
But what we didn’t realize in 1977 and 1978, was that the bad actors in the world were watching very carefully, and in effect saying, “Who is going to test this utopian fool first?” Then suddenly, 1979 came along, and the Chinese decided they were just going to invade Vietnam and punish them as they saw fit. And then we saw that the Russians had no fear of backing insurrections throughout Central America. And then we saw how brashly they invaded Afghanistan. And then we saw there was something called Radical Islam. And then we saw that there was going to be hostages taken in Teheran, and we couldn’t really do something about this terrible year 1979— other than ration gasoline and boycott the Olympics. And within about six to seven months, the entire world became chaotic.
I think that’s what the lesson is. Most adventurers in the world today are in a holding pattern. They’re watching very carefully the US policy on nuclear weapons, disarmament, our attitudes toward traditional alliances like NATO, our attitude toward Venezuela vs. Colombia, our attitudes toward domestic terrorist attempts by radical Islamists. What will we do about the South Koreans’ worries? The changing scenarios that we see with Japan? And they’re coming to the conclusion that if one were a North Korea or a China, vis-à-vis, Taiwan, or a Russia, vis-à-vis, the Ukraine, or you’re Mr. Chavez, vis-à-vis, Colombia, or you’re Turkey, vis-a-via, Greece and Cypress—in any of these traditional hotspots—gone now is the old fear that George Bush or his predecessors might be a little crazy and you never knew what they were going to do—except that aggression might earn you a firm and potentially catastrophic response.
And so we’re in a waiting game, for we have sowed a very dangerous crop, and now we’re waiting for a bitter harvest, in a fashion like the year 1979. I fear it is going to just take one gambler to call Mr. Obama’s bluff and in essence, call our hand, and say what you’re going to do about it? And that choice will determine whether that’s the end of such a dangerous gambit or an invitation to many, many more.
Thank you very much. I think if anybody has a question or two, I’ll be happy to answer them.
Audience Member: We have an alliance with non-Communist China. We are supposed to go to war with them and defend them if mainland China attacks them. What do you think Obama will do in the case there is an attack by China? Do you think we should get out of that alliance we have with Taiwan? What is your advice on that?
Victor Hanson: I think Obama would say to China, “this doesn’t make sense.” Taiwan is heavily invested in China. It’s counterproductive in theory. And that argument is absolutely sound; it would make no sense, such aggression. But it would be the same argument once made to Hitler of “you shouldn’t go into Poland. There’s no need to go into Poland. You have plenty of lebensraum.” Look at, today— Germany’s got a larger population, and smaller territory. They didn’t need then—and they do not need now, living room—as if reason had anything to do with September 1939.
But in Obama’s way of thinking, states go to war for logical purposes, they don’t go to war for the irrational, for age-old honor and fear and sense of stature and pride. Yet so often that’s what they actually do go to war for. So in his rational world view, there’s no mechanism to account for the irrational other than the appeal to soaring rhetoric and legal logic. So I think he would say to China, “This absolutely doesn’t make sense.” And they would say, “Maybe it doesn’t, but we’re going to do it anyway for the pleasure of it, if we please.”
And I don’t think we have prepared the American people to say, “Are you willing to lose an American life to protect Taiwan,” because, to do that, Obama would have to make this argument: if you do not support Taiwan, then you probably won’t support the Philippines, and you probably won’t support South Korea, and you probably won’t support Japan. And what’s going to happen is that you’re going to turn a Democratic and capitalist sphere of prosperity and freedom into a Communist China sphere of influence. And that is just one scenario.
The other is that Japan— which, if we don’t ensure deterrence, I predict could make 4,000 nukes tomorrow and they would work like Hondas, they would not work like North Korea’s. So you would have a nuclear Japan, a nuclear Taiwan, and a nuclear South Korea. That could be good or bad, but that’s what you would have—a far more volatile region.
So every one of those places has enormous symbolic importance. I think what Bush did was let people know not to do rash things, because we’re unpredictable and we might do something harsh if you try something stupid. Obama in essence signals in advance, “The world is a logical place, we’re rational fellows, I’m going to talk to you the way I did my Harvard Law dean.” And, unfortunately, so many people in the world that cause trouble simply think with their reptilian brains. They don’t have a therapeutic view of the world or Obama’s refined sense of self.
Manny Klausner: When you cataloged a lot of the things that Obama has done since he came in and when you focused on his antipathy to Bush, but his pursuit of Bush policies. . . .
Victor Hanson: Yes.
Manny Klausner: I’d like to ask if you could amplify a little bit your thoughts as to whether Obama is cynical, rather he’s ruthlessly devious and manipulative, how much does he exemplify of the Salinski approach to using the words of the other side that you don’t believe in, but you just try to seduce people or mislead them, and you lie through your teeth because the end justifies the means?
Victor Hanson: I think he’s mostly cynical in terms of the War Against Terror. I think he understood once he was President, at least, or maybe even in the campaign when he was briefed, that the reasons that we had not been attacked from September 11th onward, were due to things like tribunals and renditions and predators and elements of the Patriot Act. We inflicted a crushing defeat on Al Qaeda in Anbar Province. We killed, off the record the military will tell you, we killed thousands of people in Iraq who had bad intent, not just in Iraq, but elsewhere.
So this policy of anti-terrorism, however it was character by the left, was actually working as we see. So Obama came into office and informed people came to him and said, “You know what? These predators are killing a lot of suspects who need to be killed. And, you know what? I don’t know what to do with Guantanamo. Where are we going to put these guys? All the people overseas who want it closed don’t want to take their own citizens. They’re telling us off the record they don’t want them. And you know what? We’re doing renditions all over the world. And you know what? This Petraeus-Bush Plan in Iraq seems to be working. There was almost nobody killed in December. Can you imagine that? There was lots of Americans killed in Chicago, but almost no Americans in Iraq.”
And so they came to him, and Obama said, no problem, that he would adjust the narrative. I’m not saying he said this. But he was thinking, no problem, I didn’t really mean all this stump shrillness anyway. All I have to do is just adopt these protocols—never give anybody credit who created them, and then in some cases “virtually” close things. I’ll virtually close Guantanamo. I’ll virtually try KSM in New York. And I will change the relevant names to overseas contingency operations against man-made disasters, and I’ll outlaw the term Islamic extremism. And, he thought, the left is so bankrupt that they won’t say a thing. And Hollywood will never make another Rendition or Redacted or Rendition. And Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan will be ancient history. And they will not dare criticize me for doing what Bush did because they don’t want to lose universal healthcare, amnesty, or cap and trade or question my godhead. So he sized up the left perfectly. He absolutely did. I think that’s cynical. Yet in some sense I’m glad he did.
And by the way, there’s a corollary for Republicans and conservatives— they’re bewildered. They don’t know on the one hand, whether to get angry at him because he tarred and feathered George Bush on really key issues of national security. We had over 200,000 people fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, while that opportunist ran around the country declaring the surge was lost. He droned on before Petraeus in the hearings. He in essence made fun of all these things. But on the other hand, he now as president has kept them and they’re working. That’s amazing.
So conservatives are really in a quandary. I think that was cynical.
Audience Member: Do you foresee any consequences to Obama announcing that he will not use nuclear weapons even if we’re attacked with chemical and biological weapons?
Victor Hanson: Yes, I think it’s unfortunate. And what I mean by that is, if I could reduce or distill the logic to, say an Iran, it seems to be something like: ‘there’s no need to get a nuclear weapon. Even if you let some anthrax off or use nerve gas agents in an attack, we’re still not going to nuke you. So why would you want a nuclear weapon?’
I think the problem with that logic is that if you start saying all that in advance when Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, Iran, rather than thinking, “Wow, these are really magnanimous people that are trying to reach out to us”, their attitude instead will probably be, “If he’s going to reach out and give us all this assurance before we have a nuclear weapon, just think what he’ll do after we have one.”
And that’s the danger.
So some of this is symbolic, rather than changing radically US policy. But symbolic gestures are what can cause war so often. Any other questions?
Audience Member: Towards the end of your talk, you were mentioning how we’d been here before and you were talking about Jimmy Carter. And I was just wondering, do you think it’s the same? Because it seems to me it’s much worse this time, you know.
Victor Hanson: The same what?
Audience Member: Well, do you think we’re facing the same level of danger or chaos in the world? It seems like it’s much worse this time than what happened when Jimmy Carter let everything fall apart.
Victor Hanson: Well, for all the talk about the end of the Cold War, what was dangerous about Jimmy Carter was he failed to grasp the rise of Radical Islam. And you can talk about Lebanon. You can talk about the East Africa bombings. You can talk about the USS Cole, the first World Trade Center. But all of those incidents in a strange sense go back to one incident. Radical Islam came on the scene with the storming of the US Embassy and the rise of Khomeinism.
Had Jimmy Carter said privately to the Khomeini regime, “You’re going to release the hostages, and if you don’t do it, you’re not going to have a military, an Air Force, a Navy, or the Republican Guard in the next 15 days,” then I think the regime would have balked. We could have taken out their entire air force in a matter of hours in 1979.
But even if such defiance did not save the hostages (and I think it would have earned their release), it would have saved more lives than were lost in the subsequent three decades. So most of our problems with Radical Islam came from the bad example of the Iranian hostage crisis—as the hostage-taker Mr. Ahmadinejad knew from the start.
There were other things that were stupid, the Iran Contra and all that. But, nevertheless, that was a key moment.
And if you look Russia—Russia’s not supposedly Soviet-like in intent anymore—but if you look again, it still has nuclear weapons, it still has territorial ambitions, it still frightens Eastern Europe. And you add China into the equation with all its capital and financial clout, and I think the world is just as dangerous as it was in 1979, if not more so, given U.S debt and tentativeness.
And there’s one other thing—I am not a big fan of Jimmy Carter, in fact, I think he perhaps proved to be one of the worst of American Presidents that we’ve ever had. But, compared to Barack Obama, he came into office with executive experience. He was in the Navy. He was a one-term governor of Georgia. Mr. Obama has no similar executive experience whatsoever. We knew a little bit about Carter. We know in comparison nothing about Barack Obama. It’s one of the most stealthy Presidencies I’ve ever seen.
If we asked John McCain, during the campaign, for information, he released his entire US Naval Academy transcript. He released thousands of pages of his medical records, and on and on. We got one paragraph of summation of the Obama medical records. We got no transcript from Occidental, none from Columbia. We don’t know anything about his undergraduate record. He could be much smarter or much slower than we suspect, but we wouldn’t know and we’re not going to know. We’re never going to know. We do know that with Mr. Ayers and Rev. Wright what we don’t know was far greater than what we did know. Yes?
Audience Member: Victor, I’m ashamed to say this. But you write a lot faster than I read, and I haven’t, most especially, read the piece that Karen mentioned that might touch on this. But one of the things you didn’t address, and I would really invite you to explore with us is one aspect of the threats that you have very well described otherwise that is, I think unique in history, though you would be able to better judge than I, is the internal threat in this country arising from the so-called stealth Jihad or civilization Jihad Dawal.
And to the extent that what we’re seeing in terms of the suppression of our understanding or even our ability to discuss this enemy of, I call it Sharia I think the best term, is, in part, at least, a function of the agenda of those promoting this kind of program. Have we seen something like this before in history?
Victor Hanson: I don’t think so.
Audience Member: And what do you think we should best be doing about it?
Victor Hanson: No, I don’t think so. In 2009, as you know, there were more terrorist attempts, plots uncovered, in any year since 9/11. So we do know that all of the Al Arabiya interview, the myth making in Cairo in June where an Islamic pedigree was adduced for everything from the Enlightenment to the Renaissance, a General Casey saying that his big fear was that diversity would be a casualty of the Major Hasan assault—all of that stuff, the report from the former Secretary of the Army that Islamic terrorism was equivalent to other sorts of extremism. All of that proved of no utility because we still had a plot uncovered to blow up a subway, the so-called panty bomber Christmas Day, the Ft. Hood killing, and more still to come.
Raymond Ibrahim was here yesterday, and if you look at his Al Qaeda Reader, what’s fascinating about Bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri is that they list all the reasons that caused 9/11. I counted them. There were 19. Yet they include things like the lack of campaign finance reform and the failure to sign Kyoto Treaty. (Laughter)
So what I’m saying is that these people really do monitor what they think our response will be. And whether it’s fair or not, a lot of them think that Obama is more than usual sympathetic to front-line states against Israel, that he bought into the argument that Israel weakens American security elsewhere. That he bought into the idea that Islam was a catalyst for western achievement. He bought into the idea that he wants to close Guantanamo. All that is very dangerous because it suggests to the unhinged that if you do something, you may not face the same kind of consequences that you otherwise would. The fact that you probably will, doesn’t matter; it’s the perception. That’s what scares me.
Audience Member: Dr. Hanson, I think on a practical level, the issue I’d be most curious to hear you synthesize is your observation that Obama’s sort of multicultural narcissism rejection of Europe as an Anglo-Colonial type of system, how you reconcile that with his seeming infatuation with Europe economically, the growing welfare state collectivist continent. How those things fit together.
Victor Hanson: Well, it actually is not a dichotomy, or a polarity as we might think, and here’s why. He does not embrace Europe, Churchill, the Anglo-American alliance that saved civilization in World War II, the uniquely European Enlightenment, the Renaissance, all the things that made Europe so singular today and in the past.
What he instead embraces is a generation of 1968 in Europe, who themselves have rejected their own past; the Schroder-type statists, the Green Party Movement in Germany, the hard left in Britain, the anti-American French elite. What he sees is that there is a western elite that has rejected the western tradition. And, therefore, he can be like them. He can be a state-socialist like them. He can be an anti-American like them, and he doesn’t have to like them.
So yes, there is a contradiction, he’s pro-new Europe as anti-old Europe, and yet he rejects Europe as a historical force, he rejects the old Europe and he likes the socialist, anti-Europe new Europe. Odder still, he flies around in this jet and he promises a hundred billion here and a hundred billion there. and he talks about this summit and everybody’s coming to him for advice, in all of that, he never makes the obvious connection: Why is it that I, Barack Obama, have the most influence in the world? Why is it that I get to make the decisions? Why is it that I have the most sophisticated military? Why is it that my economy is what everybody’s looking to?
He never succeeds to make the connection that the reason is that we have a singular, exceptional Constitution. The capitalist system produces goods and services like none other. We have a civil society. We solved the multiracial problem. This is the most amazing contribution. And all that has translated into all these prerogatives— wealth, leisure, opportunities—that Obama enjoys, both before and as President. And, therefore, every time we go by a grave, we want to thank God for those people who died in Okinawa or thank God at for those who fell Shiloh. And he doesn’t get that—that he is a beneficiary of a most generous successful tradition whose logic result is his own privilege.
So all that he does comes on the fumes of all these generations who did this. And our president of all people doesn’t have enough character or insight to at least acknowledge that he is a beneficiary of all this. And I think that’s the most shameless thing about it, a sense of indifference to the very protocols and traditions that allow a U.S. president to have power and influence unrivaled in the word—all impossible if much of Mr. Obama own agenda had been enacted in the past. Thank you.