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Victor Davis Hanson’s sober assessment of Barack Obama’s first year

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

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HH: For the first time in 2010, the first time this year, and the first time this decade, I’m pleased to welcome Victor Davis Hanson, historian extraordinaire. You can read all of Victor’s work at www.victorhanson.com. Hello, Professor Hanson, welcome back, good to have you on the program.

VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.

HH: It’s an interesting time, because the President made remarks about terrorism today after the first major terrorist incident of his presidency that we know about. What did you make about his response to the Christmas Day attack on Detroit that failed to kill anyone, but succeeded in getting there, and his response since then.

VDH: I didn’t understand it. Yeah, I didn’t understand why when we know beyond a reasonable doubt that this terrorist tried to kill people, Mutallab, he used the adverb allegedly. That’s like saying on December 7th, the Japanese allegedly attacked Pearl Harbor. At this part…and I don’t understand today why he’s surprised or bewildered or angry that the counterterrorism response has been, in his words, insufficient, because it’s a logical dividend of an entire year in which he said that we weren’t in a war on terror, it was an overseas contingency operations, manmade disasters was the problem, not terrorists, and that he was going to reach out to Iran, reach out to the Muslim world, reach out in the al-Arabia world, interview to the Islamic world community, and apologize. And all of that filters down to bureaucrats in the federal government, and to people in the military, and seems to me that a Major Hassan, or a Mutallab, are all sort of the natural dividends of that new landscape that he’s fashioned.

HH: I want to play for you a segment of his remarks today, Professor Hanson, because he talks about Guantanamo Bay as a causative agent for the Christmas attack, and I’ll pick up on it after we hear it.

BHO: Some have suggested that the events on Christmas Day should cause us to revisit the decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. So let me be clear. It was always our intent to transfer detainees to other countries only under conditions that provide assurances that our security is being protected. With respect to Yemen in particular, there’s an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time along with our Yemeni partner. Given the unsettled situation, I’ve spoken to the Attorney General, and we’ve agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time. But make no mistake. We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests, and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

HH: Now Victor Hanson, this seems to me to be his argument Bush made the Christmas bomber do it, the underpants bomber, because no Gitmo, no bomber. This is absurd, and it’s dangerous.

VDH: Yes, I think it’s shameful, because we…nobody listens to what the grievances are of an enemy. That’s like saying Hitler went into Poland because he had grievances from Versailles. Every aggressor always dreams up rationalizations, but anybody who’s sober and judicious doesn’t believe them. And if he doesn’t think Guantanamo serves a purpose, then he should close it. There’s no need to delay. But the very fact that it’s been open one year under his administration, shows that it has some utility, otherwise he would have closed it. But he has this very strange, schizophrenic attitude that I’m going to trash Bush on tribunals, Guantanamo, renditions, predator attacks, when I’m demagoguing as a candidate, but as a president, when I’m responsible for governance, I’m going to keep them open, and keep them useful. And it’s not sustainable. It’s going to get people very, very angry.

HH: I’m wondering, do you think he understands Wahabism, Victor Davis Hanson?

VDH: No, I don’t think he does. I think that all those issues that we discussed right after 9/11, that it was a rich or well off, upscale Islamic terrorist profile that was our problem with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or bin Laden, or Mohammed Atta, he didn’t get at all. He thought it was because of poverty, and then we get Major Hassan, and Mutallab, who just confirm the profile, that it’s not because of hunger, or illiteracy or oppression, but it’s because of envy and anger and pride. The more it one becomes Westernized and has the stark contrast between a successful West and a failed Middle East…it’s not Israel, it’s not anything that we do. It’s who we are. That was established in 2001. And then the seven years of calm has deluded us back into this period of recrimination and self-doubt, and he doesn’t get it.

HH: Do you believe that Wahabists and Salafists across the globe, those who are both in al Qaeda and affiliated with it, and those who are running their own operations, are emboldened by President Obama’s rhetorical weakness, or soothed in their anger?

VDH: Oh, I think that they’re emboldened, because after all, in 2009, we had more terrorist attempts than any year since 2001. In fact, one third of all attempts since 2001 occurred in 2009. This was a period with the al-Arabia interview, the reach out to Iran, the Cairo speech. And it sends a message that the real problem in America is the Bush-Cheney nexus and their anti-terrorism protocols, rather than radical Islam. That may be unfair, but that’s what the enemy is beginning to conclude. And they think that this present administration either isn’t up to it, or has no heart in fighting terrorism as in the past seven years.

HH: I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read Peter Baker’s Inside Obama’s War On Terrorism in the forthcoming New York Times magazine, Victor Davis Hanson. Have you yet?

VDH: No, I haven’t.

HH: You’ll take it apart. You’ll find this fascinating on a number of levels. But one of the things they talk about is that he was going to change the mood music – the rhetoric, the attitude, et cetera, and that was going to be sufficient to make it all work. Do you think they are that naïve?

VDH: Yeah, I do. I posted something to that effect in the Corner yesterday at the National Review. I think he came into office thinking that the problem was the polarization caused by Bush-Cheney, rather than radical Islam. Once he got into office, all of his dreams were shattered. The good war in Afghanistan heated up, and it heated up regardless of UN or NATO participation. The bad war in Iraq was pretty much solved by the surge. No Americans were killed during December, which he had opposed the surge. And then radical Islam had nothing to do with the excesses in the war on terror or water boarding, or all of the charges he’s made. And so like a deer in the headlights, he sort of is saying to the American people, this is not what I signed up for. I signed up to say to the world that I’m Barack Hussein Obama, a post-racial, post-national candidate that was going to wow you and incur goodwill. And suddenly, you people still want to destroy America, and I can’t figure out why, but I don’t really want to get into a war on terror. That’s pretty much where we are right now.

HH: This New York Times reporter writes, “Where Bush saw black and white, Obama sees grey. Where Bush favored swagger, Obama is searching for a more supple blend of force and intellect. Where Bush saw Islamic extremism as an existential threat equivalent to Nazism or Communism, Obama contends that that view warps the situation out of proportion, and plays into terrorist hands by elevating their stature, and allowing them, even without attacking again, to alter the nature of American society.”

VDH: Well, that’s every eloquent rhetoric, but the fact is when you’re in a war, you don’t have the option to suggest that your enemy is sort of bad, kind of good, maybe dangerous. It’s either you or him. And we’ve been in a war with radical Islam for quite some time. And as far as all this swagger, I find all of this rhetorical flourishes on the part of Barack Obama far more swaggering than Bush, especially in Bush’s second term. The person who is swaggering is Obama, with all of these platitudes, and these inflations of Islamic achievement, and all of this rhetoric. It’s quite divorced from reality.

HH: Now do you believe this will be an issue in November of this year, the President’s sort of appeasement orientation towards…

VDH: Yeah, I think it is. I don’t think, though, that you’ll see one more bow, or one more apology. I think Barack Obama is one apology away, or one bow to a Saudi royal away from completely turning off the American electorate. And I think that you’re going to start to see all sorts of summits now – summits on national security, summits on physical sobriety, summits on, you know, cutting federal spending, all the things that the American people want done, and he’s antithetical to. He’s going to wise up and say you know what? I’ve got to finesse this for the next election. But I think it’s going to be too little, too late. I think people are really disgusted.

HH: And in terms of that, do you see the Republicans articulating the problem as well as they ought to be?

VDH: I don’t think so. I think that they really need to look in the mirror and say you know what? In 2004-2005, we were big spenders, we had a culture that was a corrupt as the Democrats in the Congress. We didn’t articulate the need to cut spending. We were, had big government, big spending programs like No Child Left Behind, prescription drugs, et cetera. It needs…and it needs to get back to a very simple message. We are going to balance the budget, we’re going to cut spending, we’re going to be very strong on national security. And they don’t have to have a particular candidate at this point, because people all across the political spectrum are angry at Obama, but they have to have a message, very clear and succinct. And it can’t be the message that the Republican Congress had in 2001-2006.

HH: Can it be the message, though, that national security matters, and he’s blowing it? Should they be…

VDH: Yes, I think that’s paramount. I think that we are, 2010, it seems to me, will be like 1979. That’s when all of Jimmy Carter’s chickens came home to roost. All of that utopian rhetoric earned us an invasion of the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage, radical Islam, Communism in South and Central America. And I think that all of this bowing, and all of this apology, and all of this trying to finagle with the Russians and Chavez and Assad, and Ahmadinejad, in 2010, is very likely to get us an Iranian bomb, Russian aggression in the former Soviet Union sphere, and some problems in Central America and Latin America.

HH: Victor Davis Hanson, a Happy New Year to you, and thank you for joining us. www.victorhanson.com, America, for all of Victor’s writings.

End of interview.

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