Conservatives have rightly applauded President Obama for the successful operation that finally ended the murderous ambitions of Osama bin Laden. How could we not? Any American with any misgiving about Osama’s status as Public Enemy #1 probably needs to find a more arid residential zone.
But there’s “rightly applauded” — and there’s “Rightly applauded, with carping.” President Obama’s speech announcing the successful operation, according to some commentators, was entirely too self-aggrandizing, taking too much personal credit, making fat with the first-person singular.
Victor Davis Hanson at National Review Online, in a well-written carp about Senator and candidate Obama’s (then) opposition to all the policies that made the final operation against Osama possible, catalogued all of the president’s first-person references:
“Tonight, I can report … And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta … I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden … I met repeatedly with my national security team … I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action. … Today, at my direction … I’ve made clear … Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear … Tonight, I called President Zardari … and my team has also spoken. … These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief . … Finally, let me say to the families … I know that it has, at times, frayed…”
Other commentators take it a step further and contrast President Obama’s speech with President Bush’s speech upon the capture of Saddam Hussein. The speech was a gem. “All Iraqis who take the side of freedom have taken the winning side. The goals of our coalition are the same as your goals — sovereignty for your country, dignity for your great culture, and for every Iraqi citizen, the opportunity for a better life.” The president was gracious in his praise of others, sparing in the first-person singular.
But the contrast is unfair.
Republicans and Democrats have different things to prove to the American people. As to their military bona fides, their commitment to American security, their willingness to take controversial measures to save American lives, Democrats have much to prove — and naturally trumpet every initiative assisting that proof.
The corollary, the great maxim of world politics: liberals can do great conservative things, and conservatives can do great liberal things. Conservative Likudnik Menachim Begin could give away half of what was then Israel in exchange for peace with Egypt. No Labor prime minister could have done that. Labor prime minister Tony Blair could make a case for cleaning out the Middle Eastern cesspools of tyranny and oppression. No Tory prime minister could have done that.
That is why American wars have historically been prosecuted by Democrats. (Who can forget vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole’s snarling reference to “Democrat wars” in the 1976 vice presidential debate?) George W. Bush was a 21st-century Republican exception because of the shock of 9-11 and the seriousness with which America finally took its enemy. But Bush had no bona fides to prove. He could well afford to be (indeed, was well-advised to be) gracious and self-effacing at the moments of triumph.
But President Obama, being a Democrat who did in fact vocally embrace an ideological “humanist”/pacifist line in opposition to tribunals, renditions, Guantanamo, preventive detention, Predator-drone attacks, the Iraq War, wiretaps, and intercepts, yes, he had something to prove to Americans. And, wow, did he. One number: 180. And for gravy, on his own, without the advice or consent of Congress, he launched a military assault on Libya, with a NATO directive to kill the Qaddafi family. Now this is a president who timely figured out “whose ass to kick.”
The left isn’t calling him Hitler, as they did with the frankly kinder, gentler Bush, and the right is obliged to harrumph and say, okay, um, yes, well done. Most excellent 2012 plan.
So was there a bit of gloating, a tad too much self-aggrandizement in the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death? Yes, but that’s because a liberal was doing a great conservative thing.
Remember the shocker of the early 70s — President Nixon’s outreach to the Communist enemy China, still then governed tyrannically by the butcher Mao? The conservative Nixon was doing a great liberal thing. He was pretty proud of it.
Here’s how he announced it on July 15, 1971 — and if ever a thing spoke for itself, side-by-side with President Obama’s Osama speech, this Nixon speech surely does:
I have requested this television time tonight to announce a major development in our efforts to build a lasting peace in the world.
As I have pointed out on a number of occasions over the past three years, there can be no stable and enduring peace without the participation of the People’s Republic of China and its 750 million people.
That is why I have undertaken initiatives in several areas to open the door for more normal relations between our two countries.
In pursuance of that goal, I sent Dr. Kissinger, my Assistant for National Security Affairs, to Peking during his recent world trip for the purpose of having talks with Premier Chou En-lai.
The announcement I shall now read is being issued simultaneously in Peking and in the United States:
Premier Chou En-lai and Dr. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, held talks in Peking from July 9 to 11, 1971.
Knowing of President Nixon’s expressed desire to visit the People’s Republic of China, Premier Chou En-lai, on behalf of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, has extended an invitation to President Nixon to visit China at an appropriate date before May 1972. President Nixon has accepted the invitation with pleasure.
The meeting between the leaders of China and the United States is to seek the normalization of relations between the two countries and also to exchange views on questions of concern to the two sides.
In anticipation of the inevitable speculation which will follow this announcement, I want to put our policy in the clearest possible context.
Our action in seeking a new relationship with the People’s Republic of China will not be at the expense of our old friends.
It is not directed against any other nation. We seek friendly relations with all nations. Any nation can be our friend without being any other nation’s enemy.
I have taken this action because of my profound conviction that all nations will gain from a reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
It is in this spirit that I will undertake what I deeply hope will become a journey for peace, not just for our generation but for future generations on this earth we share together.
Of course, there are huge teams behind the “I” of presidential politics — but the “I” is nowhere more conspicuous than when presidents do things that should please their most virulent opposition.