Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Government shutdown threat means it’s high noon for Obama

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 20, 2013 14:44 UTC

As the nation heads towards a government shutdown and defaulting on its debts, the two battling sides cannot even agree which election they are fighting. Republican presidential hopefuls are jostling for position ahead of the 2016 primaries while President Obama has his eyes on the midterms next year. Both sides insist they will not compromise; yet both sides cannot win.

The president’s blink over Syria has encouraged the GOP. His failure to act resolutely and stand by his promise to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his own people suggests that when he declared over the debt ceiling, “I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations. I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States,” he may have been bluffing, just like when he said about Syria, “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

The Republicans who hope to launch their presidential bids by tapping into the energy of the Tea Party, currently obsessing about killing the Affordable Care Act by defunding it, are prepared to call the president’s bluff. For Senator Marco Rubio, whose reputation among Tea Partiers was dimmed by his attempts to broker immigration reform, the debt ceiling showdown at the end of the month is the perfect way to strangle Obamacare before it comes into full force. “I’m in favor of funding the government at the levels that were agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act and not spending a single penny more of hardworking taxpayer dollars on a disaster, which is Obamacare,” he said.

Rubio’s rivals sing from an identical hymn sheet. This is Senator Ted Cruz’s rendition of the “single penny” line: “Under no circumstances will I vote for a continuing resolution that funds even one single penny of Obamacare.” He is under the illusion the president, given the chance, will welcome the chance to abandon his healthcare reforms, which takes a lot of swallowing. As they enter their second term, presidents tend to be preoccupied with protecting their legacy. Perhaps Mr. Cruz thinks that when the president declared, “The law I passed is here to stay,” he had his fingers crossed behind his back, just as he did over the Syrian red line.

Here is Senator Ron Paul explaining his populist reasons for backing the defunding of Obamacare: “Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Defund Obamacare,’ and so that’s where I am.” To give him his due, he knows threatening to defund Obamacare is just a gambit. “We were elected to represent the people who said defund Obamacare. So I think we should represent them,” he explained. It’s not exactly a principled stand, but he knows, like his rivals, that to win the nomination for 2016 he will need to appear to have tried to defund Obamacare whether it works out or not.

On Syria, Obama shouldn’t text while he’s driving

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 17, 2013 15:50 UTC

The confusion surrounding the American response to the Syrian government gassing its own people has shocked foreign policy wonks. Here is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, after the president threw the problem to Congress, then, facing defeat, handed negotiations with Bashar al-Assad to his nemesis Vladimir Putin: “The President has essentially allowed the red line in Syria to be somewhat ignored.” And here is Haass’s final verdict on the president’s dillydallying: “Words like ‘ad-hoc,’ ‘improvised,’ ‘unsteady’ come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”

There is little sign the president has yet grasped the cost of contradicting all his top foreign policy advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were each asked for advice, then ignored. Obama appears oblivious to the fact that his fumbling over Syria has severely diminished his authority, even among close colleagues and his own party. He is under the impression that marching to the top of Capitol Hill and marching down again and backward flipping on decisive action against a despotic perpetrator of dastardly mass murder is simply a matter of “style.”

He seems to think his real enemies are not Assad, Putin, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top mullah, and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean tyrant, but “folks here in Washington.” “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear [the 'folks in Washington’] would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy,” he told George Stephanopoulos.

It’s time for Obama to defy Putin

Nicholas Wapshott
Aug 5, 2013 15:44 UTC

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden leaves President Obama looking weak. Putin meant it that way. His political base likes him thumbing his nose at the American president and he took a gamble that Obama  would not retaliate over a freelance spy.

It might be argued that this is just another Russian mosquito bite, an embarrassing irritation but not a major incident. It makes little difference where Snowden lives under what amounts to house arrest. In Russia, civil rights will be almost as severely curtailed as if he were locked up here. Like the WikiLeaks leaker Julian Assange, self-exiled to one room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Snowden is going nowhere and is no longer free to do his worst. The Russians have already accessed his most damaging information, as did the Chinese before they sent him packing. Even the Guardian, the most ardent conduit of his erudite revelations, must have a data dump to keep it occupied for years.

That does not mean the president should do nothing. Harboring Snowden comes on top of a number of other offensive Russian actions that suggest Obama should draw one of his famous lines in the sand. Most egregiously, Putin has continued to bolster the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, the tyrant of Syria who has used Russian military hardware to kill 100,000 of his own people. Russia not only continues to provide heavy arms, missiles, and aircraft parts that allow Syria to continue bombing civilians in rebel-held cities, it repeatedly vetoes U.N. efforts to broker a peace deal.

It’s not Watergate, it’s Whitewater

Nicholas Wapshott
May 21, 2013 16:31 UTC

The trifecta of scandals — Benghazi, the IRS and snooping on journalists — that has broken upon the heads of the Obama administration is as bad as Watergate. No it isn’t, says Bob Woodward, whose reputation was made by doggedly pursuing the source of a burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel. No it isn’t, says Carl Bernstein, who shares the bragging rights for toppling President Richard Nixon. Oh yes it is, says Peggy Noonan, the Republicans’ mother superior, writing, “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.”

Really? How about the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 that besmirched the honesty of President Ronald Reagan, for whom Noonan used to write speeches? Perhaps she penned Reagan’s first denial, “We did not — repeat — did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we,” or maybe his amnesiac mea culpa four months later, “I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Strange the tricks age plays on the memory. And I am not talking about Reagan.

If you were a precocious five-year-old at the time, you would have to be 32 to recall the Iran-Contra scandal, in which, with or without Reagan’s say-so, administration officials, in defiance of Congress’s clearly stated wishes, secretly sold weapons to America’s perennial enemy, the terrorist state of Iran, then passed the proceeds to Nicaraguan insurgents. Even if you were the smartest kid you would have to be over 41 to remember Watergate and, in President Gerald Ford’s words, the “long national nightmare” that led to Nixon’s resignation ahead of certain impeachment.

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