The Path from Political Demon to Savior

I was in Washington last week, meaning I was able to observe, on-site and up close, the reaction to President Obama’s remarkable switch in leadership in Afghanistan from the bizarre General Stanley McChrystal to the excellent General David Petraeus. The action certainly got news coverage, absorbing all the headlines. Most conservative sources decried the “hypocrisy” in Obama turning to Petraeus, whose profoundly successful surge in Iraq had been relentlessly opposed by Obama and the fringe left that sent him to the Oval Office. Even then, the condemnation from conservatives wasn’t sufficient.

Don’t get me wrong: Obama made the right move. What’s troublesome, however, is that this about-face—sure, call it hypocrisy—is so agonizingly predictable. The fact is the American left always behaves completely differently based entirely on whether it’s in power or out of power. As I told my students during the shift from President Bush to President Obama: Don’t worry about Iraq and Afghanistan. Once in power, the doves on the left will overnight transform into hawks, continuing if not strengthening Bush’s policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, probably even Gitmo.

Well, we now have a quite extreme example, as the radical left has turned to the man it once infamously and shamelessly labeled “General Betray Us” (New York Times ad, September 10, 2007), as he strove earnestly to turn Iraq from a bloodbath to a democracy, seeking to set its people on a course to freedom—free markets, free speech, free press, universal suffrage—extending the “March of Freedom” that George W. Bush nobly but imperfectly pursued. That troop “surge,” begun in 2007, worked so well that it was commended by almost all Democrats during the 2008 primaries, from Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden. The one exception was Barack Obama, which was no surprise for a man ranked by National Journal as the most liberal member of the most liberal Senate arguably in U.S. history—to the left of Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer. (See: “Obama: Most Liberal Senator in 2007,” National Journal, January 31, 2008.) Senator Obama’s position on the Petraeus-Bush surge in Iraq was so badly misguided, so amateurishly uninformed, and so utterly blind, that even the New York Times—headquarters of the Bush opposition—pleaded with Obama to change his tune. Even the Times had to admit the surge was working.

And yet, Obama persisted in his stubborn criticism, essentially adopting the line of Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who literally thrilled Al-Qaeda when (in April 2007) he publicly called the president of the United States “a loser” and declared that the Iraq war was “lost.”

As for the American public, it wasn’t bothered enough by any of this to penalize Obama at the ballot box in November 2008. No, Americans wanted “change.” To the contrary, they rejected the Senate’s chief supporter of the surge: Senator John McCain.

Since 2007, things in Iraq have turned around so magnificently—but certainly not flawlessly—that those on the left who employed Iraq to destroy George W. Bush haven’t made a peep about the reversal in fortune. Suddenly, it’s as if there was never even a war in Iraq. Iraq—what’s that?

And now, alas, we have a stunning spectacle, courtesy of the Petraeus replacement of McChrystal last week: The most extreme elements of the left, who had found Hillary Clinton too “pro-Bush” when it came to Iraq policy, who smeared General Petraeus as “General Betray Us,” who backed Obama as the only Democrat unwaveringly against Bush and Petraeus in Iraq, now stand behind Obama as he turns to Petraeus to do what Bush and Petraeus did in Iraq.

Putting it succinctly was the front page of Thursday’s Wall Street Journal:

“President Obama put the fate of the Afghanistan war into the hands of Gen. David Petraeus, trying to advance the centerpiece of his foreign policy by turning to the same commander who rescued George W. Bush’s Iraq war…. Gen. Petraeus was behind the ‘surge’ of U.S. forces into Iraq in 2007, which is widely credited for stabilizing the country and allowing the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces. Mr. Obama opposed that strategy as a senator; now his Afghanistan policy rests in the hands of its prime architect.”

I could pretend I’m surprised by this, feigning shock, but I’m not. As I said, the left behaves completely differently in power compared to when it’s out of power. And certainly don’t expect any apologies to George W. Bush.

Dr. Paul Kengor

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Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

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