Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Obama Must Face His Mistakes On Iraq

Obama talks a big talk about how others must admit their mistakes. This transparent campaign slogan is coming back to haunt him big time as the he is forced to face his own mistakes on the war in Iraq:
The widespread conviction among Democrats that we are destined to fail in Iraq was the key to Barack Obama's emergence as Presidential front-runner. He postured himself as the candidate who had opposed the war from the beginning. But what helped Obama in the Democratic primaries may prove his undoing in the general election. Through the months when Obama's dedication to failure was bringing him closer to the nomination, conditions in Iraq were improving, not worsening. This contradiction is now becoming acute, and Obama faces it squarely as he tries to decide whether, how and when to go to Iraq.

Obama once claimed to hold views on Iraq which were not much different than those of George Bush:
"Obama, the U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, said he believes the Bush administration has lost too much credibility in the world community to administer the policies necessary to stabilize Iraq. On Iraq, on paper, there's not as much difference, I think, between the Bush administration and a Kerry administration as there would have been a year ago,' Obama said during a luncheon meeting with editors and reporters of Tribune newspapers. "There's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who's in a position to execute.'

The execution of the war has been stupendous since General Petraeus leveraged the growing Sunni split with the barbaric al-Qaeda (The Awakening) and poured resources into the streets to help turn the tide against al-Qaeda (The Surge). Yesterday I too noted that Obama had an unavoidable date with destiny, one where he either supported America's interests or the interests of a lost minority of voters who pray for defeat in Iraq to teach Bush a lesson. How Obama handles Iraq is important because he will lose support whichever path he takes.

One choice loses the far left but makes in-roads with the centrists, who want to leave Iraq victorious. The other choice leads to losing the general election in order to appease the defeatists on the far left. Trying to split the difference will lose everybody. Whatever choice he makes Obama has a date with destiny because this is how the Iraq war issue will play out in the 2008 elections.


Barack Obama has a lot to learn

Nothing describes Barack Obama better than the cliche about a man facing good news/bad news. The good news for Obama is that he is getting a first-rate education on what it means to be commander in chief. The bad news - his teacher is John McCain. Even before he clinches the nomination, a flurry of McCain attacks over Iran, Iraq, Cuba and military leadership has exposed Obama's soft underbelly on national security. The effective barrage is a testament to how the primary battles never tested the rookie Democrat on whether he is ready to be commander in chief.

In Prof. McCain's class, Obama is slowly making progress, but remains far below grade average. It's not certain he can catch up by November's final exam, where the threshold issue is the public's confidence a candidate can and will defend America. Perceived weakness is a disqualifier.

The problem for Obama, beyond his lack of experience, is that his instincts are those of the Perfect Liberal by way of Harvard Law School. Like Bill Clinton's clumsy attempts to salute when he first won the Oval Office, Obama exhibits discomfort about things military. He is a peacenik by gut and, as critics note, drew the wrong lessons about Cold War talks JFK and Ronald Reagan had with the Soviets. That didn't matter during the primary battle, where Obama's early opposition to Iraq was a defining difference against Hillary Clinton. But doubts about his national security bona fides are already a handicap in the nascent general election.

McCain, showing it is never too early to shape the battlefield to match your strengths, has ripped into Obama on a daily basis. Truth be told, Obama has presented him with a target-rich environment. The first opening surfaced in a July 2007 debate, when Obama was asked if he would, without preconditions, meet in the first year of his administration with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Obama promptly and famously said, "I would."

Less noticed were his concluding words, which reflected a profoundly wrong view of the Mideast: "We need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses," he added. "They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region." The suggestion that we are the bad guys while Iran and Syria could be helpful is beyond goofy and would alarm our Sunni Arab allies. Yet the assumption is key to Obama's withdrawal plan.

Even as Obama scales back on his promise of unconditional meetings with Iranian madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Raul Castro, McCain has added two wrinkles. He scolded Obama for not meeting with our top Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus. And, noting Obama has not been to Iraq in two years, McCain suggested they go together. Obama rejected the joint trip, but with John Kerry acknowledging his fellow Democrat should go to Iraq, Obama has little choice. But that won't be the end of McCain's advantage. By meeting our troops and commanders, Obama will be confronted with the fact that the surge of troops he opposed has made Iraq safer. What then?

Obama also should fix another mistake. Asked by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" about evidence the U.S. had gathered on Iran's role in Iraq, Obama said "I want to ... take a look at the kind of evidence that the administration is putting forward" and mentioned Iran's "potential funding of militias inside of Iraq." Both phrases suggest he's not convinced Iran is providing training and munitions to militias killing our troops. Yet instead of seeking a Pentagon briefing on the facts, his first instinct is doubt.

There's more. When New York Times columnist David Brooks questioned Obama about Hezbollah's miniwar with our ally, the government of Lebanon, Obama said we must make sure "the disaffected have an effective outlet for their grievances, which assures them they are getting social services." He also said Hezbollah and Hamas must realize violence "weakens their legitimate claims." Obama has yet to define those "grievances" and "legitimate claims." Perhaps Prof. McCain can ask him to on the next quiz.


A Campaign Slipping Away?

By Victor Davis Hanson

I think in the last posting a few days ago, I suggested that Obama would have to leave Trinity-not because of another loudmouth racist like Pfleger at the pulpit; but because the world witnessed a standing ovation from the Trinity congregation, and an encomium from Minister Moss, as the reaction to that hate-filled diatribe. One is amazed at the poor public relations people surrounding Obama, since his statements and clarifications are slowly losing him the general election. There are three problems:

First, he can never quite come clean about his past. Obama seems to claim that the problem with Rev. Moss and Trinity is the sudden attention given these men of faith and the difficult spotlight put upon them as a result of the Obama campaign. But such public attention is NOT a problem for Trinity and Co.-only a problem for Obama. When the crowd rises to its feet to shout approval of a racist like Wright or Pfleger it is not because of sudden public attention, but because they wish to hear such racist scape-goating that apparently serves as some sort of collective catharsis. And Obama apparently, despite his much praised "candor" about race, cannot or will not address why his own congregation and new minister would applaud a nut like Pfleger. (Such an exegesis might really call for a landmark speech about race in a way in which Obama's past politically expedient attempt was not).

Two, Obama situates these scandalous incidents in terms of himself. So Wright is wrong for showing "disrespect" for Obama. Pfleger erred by "disappointing" Obama. But these reprehensible figures are not wayward disciples whose straying hurts the messiah, but rather hard-core calculating politicians who know precisely the cost-benefit ratios of their own rhetoric. They say what they say because they know of the welcome reaction to come. In contrast, Obama once again turns the venom into something about himself, when in fact the issue is far larger: how did we get to a situation in which self-acclaimed spokesmen for the black community feel they can say outrageous things about whites, women, Italians, genes and IQ and expect none of the censure that would meet any other who voiced such venom.

Third, can't Obama's advisers warn him that he is falling into a disturbing pattern? When a dubious figure of his past courts controversy, he should not, in anger and in hyper-sensitivity, counter with blanket praise (cf. his kind words about Wright and Trinity) and then slowly qualify that until he reaches the 'disowning' phase. By now all of America knows the truth: Wright, Trinity, Moss, Pfleger, et al have never changed one iota. They are intellectually honest and candid in their extremist views; the only one who changed is Obama. So the question always arises-WHY?

Is it because he didn't know the nature of his associates, OR is it because he finds their well-known messages suddenly as politically disadvantageous as he once found them essential in jump-starting his Chicago career? If the latter, voters will ask: what are the true convictions of their next president? And are his political contortions simply those of all politicians who evolve beyond their base, or reflective of a cynicism that we haven't seen in quite some time? And when Obama attacks a Limbaugh or Dobbs as intolerant for expressing worries about illegal immigration and impugns their character with suggestions of racism, by why moral standard does he offer such condemnation, given his 20-year association with and subsidy of a hate-monger like Wright, and his former legislative assistance to a racist demagogue like Pfleger?

The tragedy about Obama's race speech is that he used up his one occasion to be honest and candid about race, to save his campaign from the Wright fall-out, when he really could have discussed why a Wright finds such standing ovations-and what that says about us all?


Reporters doing Obama's work

Earlier today I participated in a conference call with Senator Jon Kyl and Randy Scheunemann of the McCain campaign. The purpose of the call was to respond to the Obama campaign's attacks on statements McCain made yesterday:
I can tell you that it [the Surge] is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr City are quiet, and it's long and it's hard and it's tough and there will be setbacks....

I've been on a lot of similar calls in the past, generally with a "blogger" group. This time, most of the journalists on the call were from the conventional media--the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, NBC News, and others. Senator Kyl and Scheunemann made what struck me as a reasonable pitch: McCain's error was a slight one, in that troops are being drawn down and they are projected to reach pre-surge levels in July; they are not yet, however, "drawn down to pre-surge levels."

Whether this is a significant error or a case of "nit-picking" over verb tenses as McCain's spokesmen characterized it is, I suppose, a judgment call. But on the most liberal judgment, McCain's error can't be one millionth as significant as this blindingly obvious fact: McCain supported the surge, predicting that it would reduce violence, while Obama opposed the surge, predicting that it would cause violence to increase. McCain was right. Understandably, Obama wants to focus on what McCain's campaign calls nit-picking in order to distract voters from the fact that he was indisputably wrong on the most important foreign policy issue that has arisen during his brief Senate tenure.

What was striking about the call was how eager the conventional reporters were to lend the Obama campaign a hand. Virtually every question they asked during the press conference dripped with hostility toward McCain. The tone can't fully be conveyed by a cold transcript, but I think you'll get the picture. Here are some of the questions the reporters asked, verbatim:
QUESTION: Randy, I'm a little confused here, because if the question is a change of -- a question over the tense of the statement, why is he not wrong?

QUESTION: Back to this point about pre-surge level, I mean, isn't this thing -- I know you're casting this as sort of this nitpicking, as Senator Kyl said, I believe. But isn't this significant, because Senator McCain's whole argument here is that he knows -- like you say, he knows the facts on the ground, he knows every detail of this, he's been to Iraq five times since Senator Obama last went?

You guys were counting the specific days since Obama's last trip. I mean, this isn't some small distinction, it seems to me.

QUESTION: Yes, first on the question of verb tenses, and it seems to be more important than you might suggest. If Bush had said, "The mission will be accomplished," and had not said, "Mission accomplished," those are two completely different things with completely different meanings.

Secondly, on McCain's points about everything being quiet in Mosul, the Obama campaign is saying that there were two suicide bombings there yesterday or in the vicinity. Do you regard that as all quiet in Mosul?

QUESTION: No, but it's not just a matter of simply verb tenses. I mean, if you say something "will be accomplished," things can change in Iraq, as we have seen. Just because a decision is made, decisions have been made all along for the past five years that have had to be postponed, revised.

We don't know what is going to happen between now and when the troop numbers are drawn down to the level that has been promised. A lot can happen. Verb tenses can be quite important. It's not just a matter for nitpicking things.

QUESTION: But the way you're trying to spin it, something "will" happen and something "has" happened are two completely different things. And that is not nitpicking to point that out.

QUESTION: Hey, sorry about the background noise here and sorry to return to verb tenses. But when he said that it is quiet in Mosul, just to follow up Michael, was that also a verb tense issue? Or is that just something that changed yesterday?

It's no secret that the press is running interference for Obama, but it was interesting to see it in action. You can read the AP's story on the controversy, including today's phone call, here. The Washington Post's story, which purports to fact-check McCain and gives him three "Pinocchios," is here. This was Obama's parting shot:
"Today, Sen. McCain refused to correct his mistake," Obama said in remarks prepared for a rally Friday in Great Falls, Mont. "Just like George Bush, when he was presented with the truth, he just dug in and refused to admit his mistake."

Really? And when has Obama admitted that he was mistaken when he said that the surge would fail and would cause an increase in violence in Iraq? Do you suppose these same reporters will ask that question when they are next on a conference call with Obama's campaign? No, I don't think so either.


Will Father Pfleger Really Hurt Obama?

It's very possible that the "sermon" preached by Father Michael Pfleger at Obama's Trinity United Church where he mocked Hillary Clinton for crying, saying that she was in tears because "white privilege" was denied her may end up doing more harm to Obama than even the revelations about his other problem minister Jeremiah Wright. IBD points out the danger:
Pfleger has had a working relationship with Obama since the late 1980s. As noted, he was one of Obama's spiritual mentors. Between 1995 and 2001, Pfleger contributed a total of $1,500 to Obama's various political campaigns. This includes a $200 donation in April 2001, three months after Obama, still an Illinois state senator, helped obtain $225,000 in grants for St. Sabina programs. In 2000, Obama secured a $100,000 earmark for the ARK Community Center, attached to St. Sabina. Render unto Caesar.

Pfleger apologized for his remarks, saying "I regret the words I chose" and the "words are inconsistent with Senator Obama's life and message." But does he regret the sentiments expressed or merely that they hurt Obama's political chances? Pfleger's remorse came only after his rant popped up on YouTube.

Pfleger, who leads a mostly black parish and has warmly embraced what is called black liberation theology, was a member of "Catholics for Obama." A glowing endorsement of the former state senator appeared on Obama's campaign Web site. Pfleger is a regular guest at Trinity.

The June-July issue of Wright's "Trumpet" magazine described him as "Afrocentric to the core." This is the same magazine that printed an op-ed by a Hamas supporter and honored Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan. Pfleger calls Farrakhan a "friend" who "is a great man who I have great respect for, who has done an awful lot for people in this country."

Obama's relationships with radicals should be setting off alarm bells in every newsroom in America. The question of how the press can continue to portray Obama as a "bridge" between the races when his closest spiritual advisors are out and out bigots is amazing - and frightening. If the press is that much in the bag for Obama, what else would they be capable of hiding for the candidate?

It isn't just Obama's radical associations. It is the fact that on several occassions in his political career he has made actual political alliances with radical groups. I detail his involvement with a Marxist "New Party" as well as the anti-capitalist group ACORN here. How many more revelations about Obama's associates can the candidate take without people turning away from him in disgust? Time will tell.


Stifling criticism and dissent is Obama's strategy

Obama's strategy has been to orient the campaign around his greatest strength and advantage -- who could deliver the best speech -- and away from his greatest weakness -- his poor ability to answer questions about how he would deliver on any of its promises.

Democrats have infamously proclaimed during the Bush administration that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Yet Obama has continuously sought to stifle any dissent aimed at him by labeling any criticism as a distraction, as divisive or as cynical. Although we are seeing a greater frequency of these claims, and more people are now noticing the breadth of issues with which Obama uses this tactic, stifling dissent was a strategy from the beginning of his campaign. In his speech to the DNC Winter Meeting in February of last year, Obama laid out some of the ground rules he wanted to impose on the campaign.
Over the next year of a primary and the next two years leading to the election of the next president, the campaigns...(APPLAUSE)... the campaigns shouldn't be about making each other look bad, they should be about figuring out how we can all do some good for this precious country of ours. (APPLAUSE)

That's our mission. And in this mission, our rivals won't be one another, and I would assert it won't even be the other party. It's going to be cynicism that we're fighting against.

Making Obama look bad is cynical. And cynicism is worse than even Republicans. Anyone criticizing Obama, and thereby engaging in cynicism would be judged as worse than Republicans. Later in the same speech, Obama expanded the ground rules:
... for every attack ad that questions the character or honesty or patriotism of somebody, there are real patriots fighting and dying in Iraq whose families deserve to know how we plan to bring them home.

Questioning Obama's character or honesty or patriotism is a distraction. Anyone questioning Obama on these grounds would be judged as lacking in their support for the troops.

Obama has not set about setting up these restraints on his opponents simply because he doesn't want to be inconvenienced with such questions and criticisms. Obama clearly understands that his history, his associations, his decisions and actions are such that such questions and criticisms would be devastating to his campaign were they undertaken in earnest and robustly discussed and vigorously debated.

Obama does not want anyone to be able to question his character as it relates to having a 20 plus year relationship with his race-baiting pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He wants to prevent anyone from questioning his honesty when he repeatedly engages in dishonest double-talk like a dissembling pol as he changes his story about his relationship with indicted friend and political backer Antonin Rezko. Obama knows he must head off any questions of his patriotism because of his long relationship with an America-hating unrepentant domestic terrorist Bill Ayers.

Obama understands that the primary means of limiting the questions for which he would otherwise be forced to answer is to create a media environment in which those questions are not asked. Liberals, including the media have repeatedly attacked President Bush for making himself unavailable to the media in press conferences and other Q&A formats. Yet as Howard Kurtz described back in January, the Obama campaign has been "unusually insulated":
One moment of absurdity came Tuesday, when reporters on the press bus were asked to dial into a conference call in which Obama announced a congressman's endorsement -- even though the candidate was nearby and just as easily could have delivered the news in person to the bus captives. Obama answered a few questions, but reporters are generally placed on mute after they speak so there can be no follow-up.

Obama learned the wisdom of this strategy, or rather the folly of its absence, when he made himself available to reporters to answer questions about his relationship with Antonin Rezko, who is currently on trial for corruption. Irritated with the questions and unable to satisfy persistent reporters, Obama cut the news conference short, walking out and proclaiming, "'Guys, I mean come on. I just answered like eight questions." Obama more recently went on a 10 day stretch in which he held no press conferences. Frustrated with the lack of availability, a reporter tried to break Obama's silence by asking a question while he was eating breakfast. Obama again deployed the "chagrin defense", this time somewhat fomously, "Why can't I just eat my waffle?"

The Obama campaign seeks to restrict media access forcing them to react to his speeches and limiting unscripted interaction with the candidate himself. Because when the media reacts to his speeches, as evidenced by his "major speech on race in America" in March, which Obama gave in response to the revelations surrounding Reverend Wright's sermons, the media cheers, and swoons and practically struggles to avoid fainting.

And after Obama's major speech on race in America, the media began putting up the wall that would protect Obama from further questions about Reverend Wright. When Lanny Davis, a Clinton supporter, sought to put Hillary's comment that Wright would not have been her pastor in context, he described several of Wright's comments, at which point he was accused of "spreading the poison". When CNN anchor John Roberts interviewed Obama, he reassured the candidate that the entire network was a "Wright-free zone". Mission accomplished.

To date, Obama's strategy has been aimed primarily at his Democratic opponents, especially Hillary Clinton. But having moved from challenger, to front-runner, to now the presumptive Democratic nominee, Obama is spending more time engaging with the Republican nominee, John McCain. And the McCain campaign recognizes Obama's strategy of stifling dissent and co-opting the media to achieve it.

In his victory speech after winning North Carolina, Obama preemptively characterized the race ahead that McCain would run as pinning names and labels on him, as trying to distract voters from real issues, as pouncing on gaffes and associations and false controversies. He predicted that McCain would play on voters' fears and exploit differences, slicing and dicing the electorate by race and income.

Also in North Carolina, the Obama campaign put McCain on notice -- even agreeing with Obama that an issue was legitimate would be subject to the Obama strategy of being called divisive and distracting. When the Obama-Wright relationship blew up, John McCain assiduously avoided the topic, even at one point taking the North Carolina state Republican Party to task for using Wright in an ad. However, after Obama claimed Wright was a "legitimate political issue", McCain agreed with Obama that many voters would share Obama's view of it as legitimate. In response, the Obama campaign quickly reacted:
"By sinking to a level that he specifically said he'd avoid, John McCain has broken his word to the American people and rendered hollow his promise of a respectful campaign," said spokesman Hari Sevugan. "With each passing day, John McCain acts more and more like someone who's spent twenty-six years learning the divisive, distracting tactics of Washington. That's not the change that the American people are looking for."

Obama recently claimed that he was smeared by John McCain when McCain reiterated that it is clear that Hamas favors Obama for President. Obama then went further, claiming that it was a sign that McCain was "losing his bearings". In response, McCain senior advisor Mark Salter sent out a memo that included this characterization of Obama's efforts:
It is important to focus on what Senator Obama is attempting to do here: He is trying desperately to delegitimize the discussion of issues that raise legitimate questions about his judgment and preparedness to be President of the United States....

Senator Obama is hopeful that the media will continue to form a protective barrier around him, declaring serious limits to the questions, discussion and debate in this race. Senator Obama has good reason to think this plan will succeed, as serious journalists have written of the need for 'de-tox' to cure 'swooning' over Senator Obama, and others have admitted to losing their objectivity while with him on the campaign trail.

And McCain has good reason to worry. Obama's strategy has proven successful against Clinton, and the media show every sign of continuing it into the general election against McCain. His wife Michelle, an active campaigner and advisor, is now off limits in the Barack Obama campaign coverage rule book. But the ultimate test of this strategy, the ultimate judge of its success will only come at the ballot box in November, which remains an open question.

Between now and then, however, if Obama's strategy continues to be successful, the media will shield him from the tough questions and criticism. Because there is no bitter partisanship where there is no discussion of the issues, and there is no divisiveness without debate. Obama is not seeking a dialogue in this campaign to bring about unity; rather, a monologue. Obama wants you silent - unless you agree with him, or until enough people do that your voice is no longer heard.



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