Monday, May 11, 2009

President Barack Buchanan?

Well, there I was innocently reading a bio of our 15th president, listening to Jesus Christ Superstar when I came across a phrase that seemed familiar. "My God, are calamities never to come singly!" That whiny phrase uttered by President James Buchanan rang a bell. Ah yes now I know where I heard it. At his last news conference, current President Barack Obama said he wished crisis' came one at a time and that the average president usually didn't have so much on his plate. This woe-is-me sympathy routine was rather transparent, but I wondered who the "average" president or presidency is? Van Buren? Fillmore? Harding? You got me. That Obama should wish to channel the mediocre of presidential history seemed rather odd.

But wait, what if Barack Obama really wanted to summon the aura of another president with his one at a time comment. What if he wanted to refer to a president who was elected to heal a vicious partisan divide? What if he wanted to refer to a Democratic president that worked hand in glove with a Democratic House and Senate? What if he wanted to cite a president who was a "well intentioned public figure?" What if he wanted to shoulder the cloak of a past president who had unique personal characteristics never before seen in the White House? If so, then let's grant Obama his wish and draw the curtain back on President James Buchanan, the worst president in U.S. history.

OK, I'll own up. What little I remembered from my high school history class concerning this "abysmal failure" was that Buchanan dithered and the Union promptly broke apart liked dropped china. That hazy recollection is not only untrue, but rather charitable to Old Fuss and Feathers. Barack Obama likes to stress the importance of action over inaction. "Influenced by two strong chief executives-Jackson and Polk-"James Buchanan would have heartily agreed with Barack Obama. While Buchanan saw the presidency as limited or constrained by the Constitution, this thin veneer often covered a plan of action that deemed certain ends or action actions justified by extreme means. In this case, with the preservation of the Union as the end, the means would be the defacto adoption of slavery throughout the land.

In a risky move, he would violate the Constitution to save the country. Mere days into his term, his secret arm twisting of some on the Supreme Court resulted in a solid majority in the the vile Dred Scott decision. Prior to the decision Buchanan said he would "cheerfully" abide by the decision. This weasel job is typical of a slick lawyer. Only ask a question that you already have the answer for, goes the old lawyer saw. In this case Buchanan already knew the outcome so he feigned subservience. This have gave Buchanan the short term political gain for additional long term pain for the nation.

In his young presidency, Obama has quite openly engaged in arm twisting for political gain while sticking the nation with the pain. The auto makers and the banks are a perfect example. Obama has advanced his own political agenda by strengthening his union allies with power and cash at the expense of the legitimate creditors and taxpayers. The long term pain will be felt as tax money via the unions goes to buying elections, the banks are slower to loan and taxes inevitably rise to cover the cost of yet another government boondoggle. Nothing rises or more accurately falls to the morally repugnant depth of slavery, but Obama's blatant interference will have serious, massive and long term negative economic consequences. However, economy isn't the only area where Obama is practicing extreme means.

As said, nothing rises to slavery, though bowing to the Saudi tyrant, who keeps half his population as serfs is a step in that direction. Obama also seems to have a stubbornness, like Buchanan, of doing things, he knows will insult people. De facto branding Harry Truman a war criminal, chatting up gangster Chavez, sucking up to Iran; these acts work well if his only goal is to irritate. For Barack Obama, the cynical play at schmoozing the world allows him solace to push his agenda at little cost or so he thinks.

For Buchanan, if slavery had to be expanded to save the union, that was a price he deemed affordable. If northerners didn't like it, then they were "disloyal."To extend slavery in the territories, Buchanan had to ram through Congress recognition of the pro-slave state government in Kansas. Buchanan offered favors and threats to push the bogus plan through Congress. Obama, like other, shall we say "average" presidents, did much the same with the stimulus bill. While he had both houses of Congress on his side, like Obama, Buchanan got most of what he wanted.

However, in the election of 1858, things started to slip. The pro-slave government in Kansas appeared as such an obvious farce, that a backlash developed against Buchanan's rigged maneuver. Congressional Democrats paid the price for Buchanans pro-south attitude as Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and gained seats in the Senate. And an Illinois lawyer named Lincoln began to use Buchanan's name as a political club against his senate race opponent Stephen Douglas. Buchanan did little to help himself by ignoring the recession of 1857 and obsessively trying to buy Cuba, which northerners rightly saw as another slave state in the offing.

Only if you're Nostradamus, can you know how Obama will affect the midterm elections of 2010. Most "average" presidents lose seats in Congress. Obama may too, but it is really too early to tell. Perhaps, he'll play the race card to smear his opponents. It worked well against the Clintons and John McCain. Unfortunately for him, James Buchanan could not use his unique characteristic of being a bachelor for political advantage. While he was quite possibly gay, this trait was not a plus either when it came to politics in the 1850s. When he became president in 1857, his niece burned all correspondences with a certain southern "dandy" Said dandy's niece also torched letters received from Buchanan. In the end, Buchanan was and Obama will be, measured by actions not skin color or sexual preference.

As the secessions crisis built, Buchanan sealed his fate by negotiating with southern secessionist (talking with our enemies anyone?) which by the way is treason, flip flopping on sending supplies to Ft. Sumter (interrogation photos anyone?) and allowing southerners within his administration unchecked power until the last days of his administration (relying on mendicant Nancy Pelosi and Dumkopf Harry Reid serves a close though not identical parallel). Directly contrary to the interests of the nation, Buchanan's secretary of war was sending supplies to the south at a speedy pace. On the eve of war, Secretary of War Floyd was sending heavy canon south. When the war began, he duly resigned and picked his commission as a Confederate general.

As mentioned, the parallels aren't exact. Obviously, Nancy Pelosi isn't about to join the Taliban, though that might actually help us to have such an accomplished bungler join their side. One thing is sure: Pelosi's savaging the CIA as liars can only hinder the our war effort and aid Bin Laden. This is also why the Bush bashing is getting moronic. If we believe Pelosi and the CIA lied then perhaps they lied about weapons of mass destruction with Bush, hoodwinking him into attacking Iraq. Off the wall? certainly, but thoroughly plausible in the kooky mendacious universe of Nancy Pelosi. Obama may have confidence in himself, but the minions leave much to be desired.

Like Obama, Buchanan had much confidence in himself. Buchanans' confidence was born of being a member of the House of Representatives, a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, Ambassador to Great Britain and being offered a seat on the Supreme Court not once ,but twice. Obama is confident because . . . well . . . he's Obama. Rhetorically Obama is probably leagues above Buchanan, but then Buchanan knew the risks of rhetoric. He had been cautioned by his father "that success was often followed by misery." For Obama, electoral success has given way to the turgid pace of governing. Still, Obama rushes to cram through as many things as possible. This invites disaster. The train of events in any number of areas could fly off the track taking Obama with it because he is unable to devote proper attention to them. Once one goes down a road on an issue, there reaches a point where you cannot go back.

Buchanan never realized this and continued in folly even after leaving the presidency. He didn't support the Emancipation Proclamation and blamed all but himself for the Civil War. This wretch can serve an important lesson for neophyte Obama. Action, however well intentioned, can lead to catastrophe, not easily mended. Or as Vietnam era Democrat McGeorge Bundy "Once you get on the tiger, you don't get to choose where to get off." There are no "average" presidencies, only average presidents. With the approach he's taking, Barack Obama will be lucky if he's one of them.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Barack Obama, Warlord

Didn't think that Winston Churchill and Barack Obama had anything in common? Well, you'd be wrong there. As it happens, for both men, their first military command of troops comes very close to the same spot on our troubled globe.

Obama has committed some 22,000 new soldiers to southern Afghanistan making it his first deployment of troops as commander in chief. For Obama, Afghanistan is the "right" war, not the "distraction" that Iraq is. I doubt this distinction makes much difference to the U.S. soldiers deployed there or Al Quaeda in Iraq trying to kill them, but I digress. This new commitment of troops is supposed to stabilize a shaky regime in Kabul and give them time to organize an army, a police force, judicial system etc . . . The broad scope and large numbers of troops are much different from the deployment of a brash young Lieutenant W.L.S. Churchill. While Obama is understandably much more cautious about continuing a war by a man his followers revile, Churchill was rushing to meet his ambition. The revolt of the Mullah of Swat in, yes, the recently turbulent Swat Valley, signaled a golden opportunity for young Churchill or so he thought. War in Pakistan was a means to a very personal end: a political career.

For Obama, ambition is also extremely important. War has been a very profitable means to an end for him. His opposition to the Iraq War aided greatly his drive for the Democratic nomination. While Churchill's youthful glory seeking made obvious the downside to his ambition, the dark side of Obama's is rather more complex. Having now tied himself to this war, will he see it through? Or will he cut and run for political gain just before the election in 2012? The answer is not clear.

This is a man who denied the success of the surge in Iraq and then admitting it's success still held it was the wrong thing to do in the first place. Obama's implied message that it is better to lose a war than win it is chilling. That an officer, general or commander in chief would rather lose a conflict than win it shows a massive cynical canyon between the leader and those who must follow orders. The grunts who serve become nothing more than push pins on a map somewhere. One hopes Obama could grow to understand what is necessary in war, so lives aren't thrown away recklessly. Obama has bragged about his perseverance. That is about to be tested. As Alexander Hamilton stated, "War, like most other things is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice." The advantage here is that the force Obama will command has had much practice, as Hamilton would call it, in the last six years. The troops are tested as their commander in chief is not, much like Churchill arriving at the hot dusty HQ in the Malakand Pass.

Churchill left his unit in India to join the Malakand Field Force commanded by Sir Bindon Blood. This action during the summer of 1897 consisted of a British force of "about two thousand men, mostly Indian army troops commanded by white officers, matched against some twelve thousand Pathans." The goal of relieving forts in jeopardy and dispatching any hostiles was to lead to restoration of control by the British.

This assertion of control in Malakand started uneventfully, but duly escalated into a nineteenth century version of search and destroy. As Churchill wrote, "we proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation." Not too surprisingly, the fiercely independent tribesman (a description that applies today) struck back. As Churchill's unit became spread out over a large valley floor, a roiling Pathan assault issued from the hills. Forced to retreat and to abandon their wounded, which the Pathans promptly hacked to pieces, Churchill's unit found a defensible position to repel the attack. Churchill himself used a rifle and wrote " . . . I think I hit 4 men. At any rate they fell."

The glory seeker had a new perspective to view armed struggle. It's doubtful Barack Obama will get this view. However, with the modern communications revolution, the savagery of war may not be as far away as it once was for those who command from afar. Churchill sensed this gap in perception between those who fought and those far from the killing. Writing to his grandmother, he reflected " I wonder if people in England have any idea of the warfare that is being carried on here . . . no quarter is ever asked or given. The tribesmen torture the wounded & mutilate the dead. The troops never spare a man who falls into their hands-whether he be wounded or not . . . I wish I could come to the conclusion that all this barbarity-all these loses-all this expenditure-had resulted in a permanent settlement being obtained, I do not think however that anything has been done-that will not have to be done again."

In this light, what is the path to victory in Afghanistan? Notice how victory is not mentioned in this war. If no victory, then what is the timetable for withdrawal? What are the benchmarks of success, Mr. President?

Afghanistan is barely mentioned. You'd think with neighboring nuclear Pakistan teetering on the brink of disintegration and the deployment of 22,000 troops next door, a major speech by the President would be in the offing, to set goals, chart a course and bolster a flagging ally, but none seems forthcoming. When it comes to war, Barack Obama seems to prefer to lead in silence. He can fly to Iraq and bask in glow of security largely provide by his predecessor, Bush, but he seems to have little to offer when it comes to Afghanistan. Whether he's experienced or not, the warlord Obama must make his case or else "all these loses" will serve no purpose and may in fact have to be "done again."