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Victor Davis Hanson on Barack Obama’s forming cabinet, what kind of president he might make, and the Indian-Pakistani cauldron that is bubbling away

Tuesday, December 2, 2008
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HH: We take a look at old problems with one of the most provocative sentences written about the new President-elect is this – “I think in response (to events), what we will see is that insidiously, bit by bit, Obama and the Obama brand press will begin to drop the shrill rhetoric about destroying Constitutional liberties and replace it with vocabulary of ambiguity. For example, complex, no easy answers, problematic…” The who wrote that, Victor Davis Hanson, joins me now. Professor Hanson, welcome, it’s always good to have you back.

VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.

HH: I just read your posting over at National Review, and I think you’re right. How long do you think before Team Obama makes the transition to dealing with the reality of the messiness of international terrorism?

VDH: I think it’s already happened, and he hasn’t even spent a day in office. I think that that’s the message that we’re starting to get. You’re not getting any more shrill denunciation of Constitution shredding by Bush, you’re starting to see that Iraq has been outsourced to Petraeus and the Iraqi government. I really don’t think they’re going to close down Guantanamo right away. I don’t think David Axelrod, as I wrote, wants Sheik Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, to be on a show trial in New York where some Johnny Something lawyer tries to get him off on a technicality, or tries to go for jury nullification.

HH: Now in one respect, I find this very cheering, Victor Davis Hanson, that the reality of American security will be top of shelf for the Obama administration. On the other hand, boy, that’s breathtaking in its cynicism.

VDH: Yeah, I don’t mean it to be cynicism.

HH: Not you, I mean them.

VDH: Yeah, I had exactly the same feel. I think that’s why everybody on the more conservative side is just bewildered, because of course we don’t know what happens, there’s a lot of varieties of things that can happen, but I think most people are kind of regretful and are saying this is what the campaign was about? We took you at your word, Mr. Obama. We really took you that FISA was bad, that Guantanamo had to be shut down, that Iraq and the surge was hopeless, and we thought you were going to get hope and change. And now as I wrote, it’s sort of like sprinkling a few green crystals in the old Tide, putting it in a new box, and instead of writing hope and change on the cover, say new and improved, and then telling the consumer this is a brand new product.

HH: Now let me ask you, how much do you think we are justified in hoping that he will be an American exceptionalist when it comes to the war on terror? You know, economics aside, domestic economic policy and environmental policy, it’s going to be whacked out. But what about national security?

VDH: Yeah, I am a little encouraged, because I think he understands that for all their campaign rhetoric, Bush will go out with, the subtext was he kept us safe for seven years. And just as Bush gets blamed I think wrongly so for Wall Street, and Obama perhaps gets the credit if it turns around, by the same token, if there’s one 9/11-like attack, Obama gets blamed whether it was in the making before he came in office or not, and he knows that. And I think once one has the reins of governance, there’s a different mentality that ensues.

HH: Now Victor Davis Hanson, in terms of how soon al Qaeda will want to hit the United States, if you’re counsel, if you’re listening into their counsels, what do you think they’re saying right now?

VDH: Oh, I think they would do it quite quickly. I think they would think, given the rhetoric on the campaign, their defenses are going to be lax, people in the bureaucracies will be less than eager to tap phones, they won’t quite think that we’re really a threat, this guy’s untested, he’s backed off Iran, how he described Iran, how he described Iraq, how he described going into Pakistan, so let’s just hit him right now and see what happens. So I think there’s going to be a challenge. And as a person who wants to support my president, I hope he understands that, and I hope that these Gates appointments, national security advisor, even Hillary at Secretary of State is a recognition of that fact.

HH: What do you expect out of Hillary Clinton at the State Department?

VDH: That’s a gamble, isn’t it, because on the one hand, for the country we’re getting somebody who’s sober, experienced, but as a price for that, we’re getting Bill Clinton’s private morality back into the public arena, and we’re getting a problem that we have another Clinton who has a problem, we have the Clintonian, I should say, problem with telling the truth. And then for Obama, he covers his middle flank, but on the other hand, he’s got a machinating rival right under his nose. So I’m hopeful, because I think she could be a lot better than Bill Richardson or other people that were floated.

HH: A lot of people have written about the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, Team Of Rivals, reflecting on perhaps President-Elect Obama read that very, very closely, and decided to surround himself with a team of excellently qualified but also potential rivals. What do you put into that theory?

VDH: Well, I think he probably is influenced by that notion, but it assumes that A) he has the stature and the natural abilities of Lincoln, and I haven’t seen anybody since who did. And so even Lincoln had a problem with riding herd, so what he’s really done is he’s had these independent entrepreneurs, and he’s brought them all together and said you know, you’re all pragmatists, you all have your own agendas, you all have political interests, and you don’t really gibe with my campaign rhetoric, but you’re all going to, I’m going to be the hope and change guy and monitor you. And I really don’t think anything in his background, he’s voted present too many times in these situations. So he’s created a situation where we’re going to see a lot of freelancing, and that may be good. I don’t know, because I surely did not want…let me put it this way. Who was he going to bring in, Hugh? It wasn’t going to be like Carter and the Georgia mafia, or Clinton and the Arkansas mafia, or the Bushes with the Texas mafia. There was no group of Chicagoans that had any executive experience. He was never a governor, he was never an executive, and you’re not going to bring in the people he associated with as a community organizer, the Khalidis and Ayers. So he really had to come in, and there hadn’t been a Democratic administration in a while, and the Carterites were all in the rest home, so to speak. So these Clintonites were really the only thing he had to work with, and Bushites.

HH: And given that he’s going to much against typecast in his first month as President-elect, if you’re the mullahs of Iran, do you fear a reverse Nixon to China here, that he’ll be tougher than any Republican dared to be, perhaps even to the point of force in their nuclear ambitions?

VDH: If I were them, I think they’re going to try something, but I’d be very careful, because they should go back and look at Bill Clinton and Milosevic. Finally, Bill Clinton bombed. He did not go to the United Nations. He did not go to the Senate. He did not go to the House. He just bombed, just bombed because he said Milosevic was bad. And a person on the left is exempt from all of those worries. Nobody on the left is going to say to Obama you didn’t go to the Congress, you didn’t go to the U.N. They’re going to say you know what, he’s a liberal, utopian humanitarian, and people like that, and their infinite wisdoms have to make adjustments for the greater good. And so he might do that.

HH: Of course, when Clinton did that, there wasn’t a new media. He was protected behind his MSM screen. I don’t know that Barack Obama, though deeply assisted by it as you note in your note at Nationalreview.com, I don’t know if he can count on that protecting him from sort of fierce blowback from any mess he gets us into.

VDH: But he’s very, I think he has a very keen sense of politics, and he knows that if Iran threatens us or gets a bomb, and he has to act unilaterally, that people like yourself or me will think of the nation’s interest, and give him the benefit of the doubt, and support him in a way that maybe some of the fringe on the left won’t, and the numbers will be greater in the center and right. He can move, he’s got all of that territory, and he doesn’t have the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, PBS, NPR, CBS, all that group after him all the time. They’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt because he represents a change in power, and he’s really saying to them, I’m the only guy you’ve got.

HH: Yeah, very shrewd.

VDH: I’m the only guy who’s figured out to get elected, and nobody else could figure out how to get and maintain power. I did it.

HH: He doesn’t have to worry about a two front media war.

VDH: I don’t think he does.

HH: That’s fascinating. Okay, a quick point. Coming up next hour, Robert Kaplan’s going to talk with me about India and Pakistan where he’s just back from. How deep a concern have you got, Victor Davis Hanson, that this is one of those situations that could spiral quickly in a matter of 24, 48 hours?

VDH: I’m not too worried, because I think that finally Pakistanis, for all the braggadocio about Islamic this and Islamic that, and fundamentalist this, realized that they’ve got 70 or 80 bombs, and India has 350, and that India’s got a billion people, and that the last time they collided in 2002, the Indian public was furious not because their government was saber rattling, but because they didn’t act. So I think that ultimately, Pakistan, for all the talk about paradise and suicide bombing and Waziristan’s beyond our control, they’ll find a way not to get India angry at them, because that’s a war they’ll lose.

HH: All right, last question, I lied. The Saudi Arabians are having their oil seized by pirates. Do we hang back until they begin to pay the cost of patrolling the ocean to keep their lifeline going?

VDH: (laughing) Hugh, that’s asking if there’s justice in the world in the Middle East. I don’t know if I have an answer for that.

HH: (laughing)

VDH: That relationship with the House of Saud and the 7,000 first cousins, and their I don’t know what, with their trillion dollars in overseas banks, I don’t understand it. I never have.

HH: I’m just wondering whether or not we say sure we can help you, but there’s a big bill there. Victor Davis Hanson, always a pleasure, www.victorhanson.com, America, if you want any of Victor Davis Hanson’s many fine books, www.victorhanson.com.

End of interview.

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