Entry from September 11, 2015

Or else what? It’s hard to believe that President Obama has never heard these words or felt the cold, hard grip of fear upon the heart that they induce in normal people when their bluff is called by a bigger, stronger, meaner adversary whom they have had the temerity or foolishness to challenge or reprove. Or else what? What are you going to do about it? Put up or shut up. Most of us — at least most of us who have had normal childhoods involving run-ins with playground bullies — recognize in those words a challenge that cannot be ducked without a devastating sense of shame at our own cowardice. It’s the kind of shame that can only be wiped away by fighting back, even at the risk of losing the fight, since the shame of losing, though bad enough, is not so bad as that shame.

On the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11, we cannot but reflect that our President belongs to that small but ever-growing minority among us who have educated themselves out of this shame. They have done so with the help of an essentially pacifist ideology that now appears to be the all-but unbreachable orthodoxy of the Democratic party. Such people have persuaded themselves, or allowed themselves to be persuaded, that fights — including wars between nations — only happen because people are too quick to fight back (the "cycle of violence") and that "negotiation" or accommodation of a bully’s demands will eventually appease him and make him honor their own desire for peace. In fact, something close to the opposite of this is true. At any rate, as most people must still recognize, an obvious readiness to fight back has stopped many more fights than a reluctance to do so.

A few months ago, in an interview with Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times the President showed how little he understood this most basic dynamic of international relations when he defined what he called the Obama Doctrine as follows: "we will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities" — where by "engage" he meant "negotiate" and by "negotiate" he meant "negotiate away," since the negotiation away of Iranian sanctions was what he was referring to at the time, as he has been defending it ever since. But of course once you "engage" in this sense you have already drastically diminished your capabilities, the chief of which, and the one most likely to preserve the peace, is the credibility to a potential enemy of your willingness to use force if necessary.

But the Obama Doctrine wasn’t original with him. The same mistake was made by Bill Clinton, as I wrote some years ago in The New Criterion. "Anytime somebody said in my presidency,‘If you don’t do this, people will think you’re weak,’" — so the husband of Hillary once insisted — "I always asked the same question for eight years: ‘Can we kill ‘em tomorrow?’ If we can kill ‘em tomorrow, then we’re not weak." Oh yes, you are. Because if you don’t kill ‘em today, everybody will know that you’re not going to kill ‘em tomorrow either — as, indeed, Mr Clinton never did in response to numerous Islamicist provocations during the 1990s. Is it possible to believe that this non-response by America to terrorist acts during the previous eight years had nothing to do with the attacks of fourteen years ago? I don’t think so. And yet President Obama clearly takes the same view as President Clinton. Do you suppose it could have something to do with their both being Democrats?

Only the other day we read that "U.S. Warns Russia Over Military Support for Assad." Secretary of State Kerry told the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that Russia was risking "confrontation" with the US if reports of a big increase in Russian aid to the Syrian government were true. Somehow I doubt if Mr Lavrov was quaking in his boots. Wasn’t the time to issue such warnings two years ago when the Russians persuaded Mr Kerry and President Obama to join in supporting Mr Assad by ignoring the President’s own "red line" warning of the previous year? Doesn’t Mr Obama understand that, in yielding to Mr Putin then, he deprived himself of all credibility to make such a warning today? Couldn’t he anticipate Mr Putin’s contemptuous, Or else what?

Sure enough, it was reported on Tuesday that the Foreign Minister didn’t even reply to Secretary Kerry in person but delegated an underling to issue a public statement: "We have always supplied equipment to them [the Syrians] for their struggle against terrorists,’" said Maria V. Zakharova of the Foreign Ministry according to The New York Times. "We are supporting them, we were supporting them and we will be supporting them." As an interesting sidelight, the Times quoted the "independent political analyst" Konstantin Von Eggert as observing of the Russian intervention: "It is basically a chance to play on Obama’s checkerboard" — as if Mr. Putin were saying: "You want to fight the Islamic State. I am there. I am ready. Ah, sorry, you don’t really want to fight." But would anyone now believe our leaders if they said we did?

These are things which anyone with any experience of how the world works must have learned as a child — things which it takes an ideology even more blind to reality than most ideologies are if you want to unlearn them, as all but a few Democrats seem to have wanted to do since they allowed themselves to be shamed by the media over their vote in favor of the Iraq war. By successfully persuading themselves that the old rules no longer apply in the era of "hope and change," they have opened up a gap between themselves and large numbers of Americans who do not share their ideology and who therefore get the impression, gleefully exploited by Donald Trump, that, these days, "We lose to everyone." Whatever you think of Mr Trump, you can’t deny that his words have struck a chord — or that even Mr Putin might hesitate before saying Or else what? to him.

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