Inspector, Inspect Thyself

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on September 14, 2015

Inspector, Inspect Thyself

(from FrontPage Mag)

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.

Inspector, Inspect Thyself (from the Aug. 20 BOTW archives)
“Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms, operating under a secret agreement with the U.N. agency that normally carries out such work, according to a document seen by The Associated Press,” the wire service reports:

The revelation on Wednesday newly riled Republican lawmakers in the U.S. who have been severely critical of a broader agreement to limit Iran’s future nuclear programs, signed by the Obama administration, Iran and five world powers in July. Those critics have complained that the wider deal is unwisely built on trust of the Iranians, while the administration has insisted it depends on reliable inspections. . . .

But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi shrugged off the revelation, saying, “I truly believe in this agreement.”  …..

Me, Myself and Iran (from the May 22 BOTW archives)
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has a new interview out with President Obama, and here is how his write-up opens:

On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.

“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”

In the next two paragraphs, Goldberg restates the argument in his own (considerably more numerous) words. Clearly he finds it persuasive, or at least he wants to. By contrast, we find it rather terrifying.

The question at hand involves the proliferation of nuclear weapons by a regime that not only is anti-Semitic but also describes America as “the great Satan.” And the president of the United States wants to talk about . . . himself—his reputation, or, to use the political-class buzzword, his “legacy.”

This isn’t the only time of late that Obama has engaged in this sort of politics of narcissism. Last month, as Politico noted, he gave a similar answer to a question about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s opposition to his trade agenda:

“I love Elizabeth. We’re allies on a whole host of issues. But she’s wrong on this,” Obama said in an interview with Chris Matthews to air Tuesday night on “Hardball.”

Obama bristled at the suggestion that his trade agenda would hurt the middle class, a criticism he has faced from key union allies as well as Warren.

“Think about it. I’ve spent the last six and half years yanking this economy out of the worst recession since the great depression. Every single thing I’ve done from the Affordable Care Act to pushing to raise the minimum wage to making sure that young people are able to go to college and get good job training to what we’re pushing now in terms of sick pay leave,” Obama said. “Everything I do has been focused on how do we make sure the middle class is getting a fair deal.”

“Now I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class. And when you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts they are wrong,” Obama said.

That argument, like the one he makes in the Goldberg interview, evades completely the substance of the dispute. It is a pure appeal to personal authority—not to Obama’s authority as president but to his ideological credibility as one who is “focused on how do we make sure the middle class is getting a fair deal,” that is, a liberal. In this context, the argument can be reduced to this: I’m a liberal, therefore liberals should trust me.

The logic is faulty—Warren is also a liberal, and Obama has offered no reason why liberals shouldn’t trust her—but at least the premise is true: Obama is a liberal, which is to say that he has been largely (albeit not completely) consistent in supporting liberal priorities.

The Iran argument, also an appeal to personal authority, is even less convincing than the trade one. It can be reduced to this: I am concerned about my legacy, therefore Americans should trust me.(In our mind, Goldberg’s awkwardly particularistic formulation, “many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews,” amounts to “many Americans.”)

Obama’s argument here rests not on his ideology—he doesn’t mean to appeal only to liberals—or on his record. Rather, his claim is that he is trustworthy because as a future ex-president with a perhaps unusual preoccupation with his own legacy, he will spend his old age living with the consequences of his decisions—and thus he has an incentive to make wise ones.

One obvious objection is that making wise decisions requires more than incentives. It requires wisdom. Even assuming for the sake of argument that Obama is capable of making wise decisions, there is no reason to think his fixation on his legacy militates in favor of doing so. A president who takes a dramatic risk that pays off will stand out far more in history than one who prudently preserves the status quo. Thus Obama’s legacy-mindedness gives him an incentive to put America in peril and hope for the best.

Note further that the president frames his argument not in terms of how “history” will view him but how his future self will (“20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing”). In other words, the putative incentive depends crucially on the expectation that Obama will acknowledge error or failure. To say the least, that is not his strong suit, on the evidence of his presidency—and of the Goldberg interview:

Goldberg: There’s this interesting conversation going on in Republican circles right now, debating a question that you answered for yourself 13 years ago, about whether it was right or wrong to go into Iraq. What is this conversation actually about? . . .

Obama: As you said, I’m very clear on the lessons of Iraq. I think it was a mistake for us to go in in the first place, despite the incredible efforts that were made by our men and women in uniform. Despite that error, those sacrifices allowed the Iraqis to take back their country. That opportunity was squandered by Prime Minister Maliki and the unwillingness to reach out effectively to the Sunni and Kurdish populations. . . .

It is important to have a clear idea of the past because we don’t want to repeat mistakes. I know that there are some in Republican quarters who have suggested that I’ve overlearned the mistake of Iraq, and that, in fact, just because the 2003 invasion did not go well doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t go back in. And one lesson that I think is important to draw from what happened is that if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.

It’s fair enough for Obama to claim vindication for opposing the intervention in 2003. But note how he acknowledges no mistake of his own. The chaos in Iraq after Obama became president and withdrew all troops? Blame George W. Maliki.

Note too that Goldberg doesn’t think to ask the president if the 2011 withdrawal was a mistake. That’s a small example of a big problem that affects Obama’s argument about his legacy and the incentives it entails. He’s used to ideologically sympathetic journalists making it easy for him to feel good about bad decisions. …..

For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”