Challenging Obama on America’s exceptionalism
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.”
EXCEPTIONAL: WHY THE WORLD NEEDS A POWERFUL AMERICA By Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney
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).