Chal­leng­ing Obama on Amer­ica’s ex­cep­tion­al­ism

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By John R. Bolton

From my com­pletely un­bi­ased per­spec­tive, Dick and Liz Cheney have writ­ten an im­por­tant book on Amer­ica’s most crit­i­cal na­tional-se­cu­rity is­sues. Grounded in what Henry Luce called “the Amer­i­can Cen­tury,” they are de­ter­mined to thwart Pres­i­dent Obama’s seem­ing ef­forts to ter­mi­nate that cen­tury pre­ma­turely. By ti­tling their work “Ex­cep­tional,” they di­rectly chal­lenge a pres­i­dent who says he be­lieves in Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, but hardly acts like it.

“Ex­cep­tional” is well-timed, un­for­tu­nately, ar­riv­ing just as Mr. Obama has tri­umphed against re­al­ity by push­ing through his Vi­enna agree­ment re­gard­ing Iran’s nu­clear-weapons pro­gram. And make no mis­take, this deal is en­tirely Mr. Obama’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, hav­ing made con­ces­sion af­ter con­ces­sion seem­ingly heed­less of the con­se­quences, and leav­ing an ash heap where Amer­ica’s coun­ter­pro­lif­er­a­tion poli­cies once stood. Out­side his ad­min­is­tra­tion, no cred­i­ble U.S. ob­server ar­gues that Vi­enna is a good bar­gain; even its nom­i­nal con­gres­sional sup­port­ers — all mem­bers of his party — caveat their sup­port by long recita­tions of the agree­ment’s man­i­fold de­fects.

So the Cheneys’ his­tor­i­cal tour is well worth tak­ing. Re-ex­am­in­ing and re­stat­ing what we al­ways know to be true about Amer­ica’s proper place in the world is crit­i­cal, pre­cisely be­cause Mr. Obama’s grow­ing list of fail­ures, re­treats and lack of in­ter­est in the wider world still es­capes his ador­ing do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal com­men­tariat.

Dur­ing the re­cent de­bate over Vi­enna, Dick Cheney did not es­cape the sov­er­eign’s at­ten­tion. It was al­most cer­tainly Mr. Cheney (and oth­ers, among whom I cer­tainly hope I was one) that Mr. Obama had in mind when he com­plained, “many of the same peo­ple who ar­gued for the war in Iraq are now mak­ing the case against the Iran deal.”

Be­cause the Iraq war’s op­po­nents have tried to rel­e­gate it to the cat­e­gory of un­pop­u­lar un­men­tion­ables, bring­ing up Pres­i­dent Bush’s de­ci­sion to over­throw Sad­dam Hus­sein is, for al­most ev­ery­one on the left, and even some on the right, thought to be an ar­gu­ment stop­per. They be­lieve that those who still ad­mit to sup­port­ing it have noth­ing else to say, hence the ques­tion: “Know­ing ev­ery­thing we know now, would you still have in­vaded Iraq?” Of course, that ques­tion is akin to be­ing asked, “Crimean War: yes or no?”

As Columbia pro­fes­sor Phil Bob­bitt re­cently ex­plained, Mr. Obama’s ar­gu­ment is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of the ar­gu­men­tum ad hominem cir­cum­stan­tial fal­lacy, one where a per­son’s pre­vi­ous views are used to ig­nore or dis­count that per­son’s views in a dif­fer­ent de­bate. Re­sort to the fal­lacy is com­mon, and may win points for snark, but it does not ad­dress the mer­its of the case ac­tu­ally un­der de­bate in the lat­ter con­text. Whether Al­bert Ein­stein or Grou­cho Marx makes the ar­gu­ment for (or against) the Vi­enna agree­ment is ir­rel­e­vant to the va­lid­ity of the ar­gu­ment it­self. But, as Mr. Obama has proven time and again, it is far eas­ier to “con­tex­tu­al­ize” your op­po­nents’ ar­gu­ments than ad­dress them sub­stan­tively. Mr. Bob­bitt points out as­tutely that Mr. Obama’s ap­proach nec­es­sar­ily also dis­counts the views of those, like Mr. Bob­bitt him­self, who sup­ported the 2003 Iraq war but now also sup­port Vi­enna.

As the Cheneys stress (and it is hardly the only is­sue in their mul­ti­fac­eted anal­y­sis), Iraq is far more com­pli­cated than Amer­ica’s iso­la­tion­ist lib­er­als ad­mit, or that sound-bite-length anal­y­sis on tele­vi­sion per­mits. “Iraq” was not one dis­creet, iso­lated de­ci­sion point. It cov­ers a broad swathe of history, re­flect­ing a com­plex se­ries of de­ci­sions, the most im­por­tant of which the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion got right; many it did not. The ac­tual in­va­sion and over­throw of Sad­dam was a mas­ter­ful suc­cess. Pe­riod. Sub­se­quent de­ci­sions were more prob­lem­atic, and some were badly wrong, but Mr. Bush’s fi­nal key de­ci­sion, the 2006-08 surge, was as decisive as the ini­tial in­va­sion. When Mr. Bush left of­fice, Iraq was em­barked on a new course.

How­ever dif­fi­cult its prospects were, Mr. Obama de­stroyed them in 2011 by with­draw­ing all U.S. forces, thus al­low­ing Tehran’s ay­a­tol­lahs to dom­i­nate Bagh­dad’s af­fairs with no coun­ter­bal­anc­ing U.S. pres­ence. That crit­i­cal mis­take turned Iraq into a vac­uum that Iran ex­ploited, and threw away the dearly bought vic­to­ries of 2003 and there­after. Mr. Obama’s 2011 de­ci­sion is where the “know­ing ev­ery­thing you know now” ques­tion should truly be di­rected.

It is con­trary to his­tor­i­cal cau­sa­tion to as­sert that ev­ery­thing that hap­pened sub­se­quently in the Mid­dle East flowed solely, in­evitably and un­al­ter­ably from the 2003 de­ci­sion to over­throw Sad­dam. Nei­ther the rise of rad­i­cal Is­lam­i­cism, nor the Arab Spring’s fail­ure, nor the vac­uum cre­ated by Mr. Obama’s dis­in­ter­est in Libya af­ter Moam­mar Gad­hafi’s over­throw stem in any re­spect from the 2003 at­tack. The real dif­fer­ence be­tween Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama re­gard­ing the Mid­dle East is that Mr. Bush paid heed to Amer­ica’s in­ter­ests in this vi­tal re­gion, while Mr. Obama has not. The con­se­quences are plain to see.

To Dick Cheney’s credit, he has not re­tired from the field of po­lit­i­cal com­bat, and Liz Cheney still has sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to make to our be­lea­guered coun­try. Like the ti­tle of their book, they are both “ex­cep­tional.”


John R. Bolton is a se­nior fel­low at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions. He is the au­thor of “Sur­ren­der Is Not an Op­tion: De­fend­ing Amer­ica at the United Na­tions and Abroad” (Thresh­old Edi­tions).

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