Pete Wehner served in President Bush’s White House in senior positions and as a senior advisor. He is no stranger to the complexities of the world we are living in or to the difficulties of war. His comments on the president’s absurdist speech today came in the third hour of today’s show:
HH: Joined now by Pete Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, contributor to Commentary Magazine, www.commentarymagazine.com, and former senior White House official and speehifier for President Bush. Pete Wehner, welcome, thank you for joining me.
PW: It’s always a joy to be with you, Hugh. Thanks.
HH: What is your reaction to the President’s address at West Point today? That’s the subject of this hour. I’ve talked with Tom Cotton and Bill Kristol about this.
PW: Oh, it was discouraging but predictable on several levels. I mean, one, it was predictable in the sense that it was Obama pulling out straw man after straw man after straw man and setting them ablaze. This is the most intellectually dishonest president that I think we’ve ever had, certainly in our lifetime, and that’s saying a great deal. But beyond that, I mean, it was just a continuation of a series of speeches and actions that signal weakness to both our enemies and our adversaries. This is a person who is very, very confused. He thinks that winding down wars are synonymous with winning wars, and they’re not. He’s actually, anybody can wind down a war by losing it, and that’s really what he’s doing. He did it in Iraq. What he doesn’t tell you, but what is the reality of things is that when he took over at the end of the Bush administration, Iraq was actually in pretty good shape. Not great shape, but it was an ally, it was a functioning democracy, violence was down, the surge worked, and he kicked that away for no reason other than ideological reasons. Now he’s trying to do in Afghanistan what he did in Iraq. And the other thing I’d say is it was a speech, it was highly defensive and very partisan, unusual for a West Point speech where you try and transcend that kind of thing. But you know, Barack Obama is a very prickly guy, and I think that he understands that he’s getting hammered for good reason on foreign policy, and he tried to use this speech to answer his critics. I don’t think he did a very persuasive job. Events are crushing this man.
HH: Events are crushing this man, and I believe this speech will actually mark a low point. You can always dig a cellar underneath the floor, but this is a low point. Let me play, Pete Wehner, the most astonishing of statements. I began this hour playing this for Bill Kristol, I’ll play it for you, cut number 19 please.
BO: In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise, that suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away, are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics. Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War.
HH: Pete Wehner, this is an almost incoherent set of propositions, but beginning with by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world, that’s simply and absolutely not true, 1989 being the measure.
PW: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, you see what he’s doing, right? He’s going back to the Cold War in terms of trying to say that this, our threats are lower now than then. Well of course, but what he is missing that under his leadership, American strength and influence has gone down dramatically. It doesn’t mean that we’re weaker than any other country, it means relative to other countries, we’re weaker than we were. And I think the thing to underscore here is that this is not an accidental result of his policies. I think it’s an intentional thing. I think Barack Obama is a product of a particular intellectual and social milieu. He’s a product of Columbia University, Harvard, the Ivy League. He is a liberal deep in his bones, and he feels that America has been a problem, an agitation in much of the world. And so he’s really with pulling back American strength both in terms of the military budget and in terms of our posture. And so we’re going down, and I must say, you’re quite right. I mean, this man is living in a fantasy world. He’s a kind of deconstructionist as a president, which we’ve really never had before. That is, words don’t seem to have any objective meaning for him.
PW: He simply invents things.
PW: And he believes that if words can serve his purposes, whether they are moored to reality, it doesn’t matter. And so he goes out and makes these day after day after day. I mean, you cover this, you’re a radio talk show host. You can run out of energy trying to correct just the blatant falsehoods and factual errors that he makes, and he just keeps producing them.
HH: I spent the whole show except the first half hour on this speech, because it’s so astonishing. But when he says our military has no peer, and you look at the Crimea, which is flying the Russian flag, or you look at Syria, which is in chaos after he threatened a red line, or you see that Iran is close to going critical, you could argue of course no one is our peer, but neither is our military less relevant to the world than any time before. I mean, no one worries that it will be used.
PW: Well, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. I man, no one, our adversaries are mocking us, and our allies are increasingly alarmed, because they feel like that we can’t be trusted. And you’ve got Americans evacuating Libya now. You’ve had, as you said, the Crimea and the Russian reset which was awful, you had the Syrian red line, the Iranian march to nuclear weapons, we’ve got Iraq descending into civil war, Afghanistan will soon follow, you’ve got the destabilization of Jordan, Saudi Arabia is upset. I will also say that relations with virtually every country in the world are worse now than when Obama inherited them. And this was supposed to be his strong suit, his strong point. And this is very precarious situation for us to be in. And no president could completely ruin America or undercut our military, but the fact is, as you say, he’s not willing to deploy strength or force. His words carry no weight, no threat, and so we’re being pushed around in virtually every corner of the globe. It’s very, you know, if you’re somebody who loves this country, this is a bad and discouraging period.
HH: Pete, I hate to say this, but I think his speech today, and much of what he is doing, is motivated by one and only one worry on his part, which is that George W. Bush will be thought not only a better president, but a much better president than he has been, and in the not very distant, if indeed future at all. I think that’s what’s driving him.
PW: Yeah, I think that’s partly what’s driving him. Look, I think his place in history, he’s securing, I mean, I’ve said before that he’s Jimmy Carter without Camp David on foreign policy. I mean, I think he is worse than Jimmy Carter now by almost every metric, including in the sphere of international relations.
HH: Hey, Pete, hold on one second, if I can hold you for three more minutes.
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HH: Pete, I was talking before we went to break about what motivates the President, and I think it’s a fear of being recognized widely as a wild failure. And so it leads him to say reckless, incoherent things. And I also go back to a meeting I think you had a hand in arranging when President Bush welcomed a few talkers to the Oval Office, and the President said something like he never made a speech or a comment without thinking about its impact on the men and women of the United States Military. What do you think this speech’s impact on their morale and sense of purpose is?
PW: I think it’s going to be discouraging, but I think that this is just the latest in a whole string of words and actions that have discouraged them. This is not a person who believes in some respects, in some deep respects, in what America’s men and women in uniform believe in and want to fight for. They have a certain view of America that I think is just at odds with the President. It doesn’t mean that he’s anti-American or unpatriotic. I just think he brings to this office a very liberal, left-wing view of the United States which most people in our military don’t have. And I think it’s very painful for those people to be serving at a time when they have a commander-in-chief who is I think consciously weakening the strength of the United States. It’s a very, very hard position for them to be in. And I think it bothers them a great deal.
HH: How long will it take his successor, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or the Republican nominee, to rebuild military capacity, morale and purposefulness in terms of its utility on the world stage?
PW: It’s hard to tell. I mean, Ronald Reagan was able to do a lot in a relatively short period of time after Carter. You have to do several things. You have to begin to increase Defense spending. And then you have to have a series of actions, some at home, possibly, but also overseas to show that America is serious again. I think once we get somebody in place there in the Oval Office that’s a serious individual and understands, really, the purposes of America and how to conduct foreign policy, that can be a kind of circuit breaker. But you know, it takes time if you undercut and decimate an American military to rebuild it. So the successor of President Obama is going to have a lot of work to do, and he’s going to be around for two and a half more years, which is an unpleasant spot for many of us.
HH: It’s really almost loss of sleep time where you wake up in the middle of the night and just wonder what in the world will the military look like in two and a half years, and you hope that the Congress intervenes. Pete Wehner, thank you.
End of interview.