Barack Obama is demonstrating bottomless reservoirs of gracelessness. A full 13 months after his election, in the course of justifying the deployment of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, President Obama could not spare a word of praise for George W. Bush -- not even when recounting the nation's "unified" response to 9/11. To the contrary, throughout his pained recitation of the choices we face in Afghanistan, he adverted at least half a dozen times to the supposed blunders of his predecessor.
It's beginning to sound whiny -- and unpresidential. Enough about the terrible mess he inherited. Let's hear a little more about the tremendous honor that has been bestowed on him. Ronald Reagan inherited a worse situation in 1980 -- inflation at 13.5 percent; the prime rate at 21 percent; the Soviets in Afghanistan; American hostages in Tehran; communist coups in 10 new countries over the previous decade -- but Reagan never impugned his predecessor. As biographer Lou Cannon noted "Reagan ... was generous to Carter in his public statements even though he did not care for him."
George W. Bush showed the same chivalry toward Bill Clinton, declining to breathe a negative word about him -- even when sorely tempted by the pardon scandal that further tarnished an already clouded tenure. Even now, despite the unremitting barrage from his successor, Bush keeps silent, true to his tradition of civility toward opponents.
President Obama is so spiteful that he warps history to fit his prejudices. Everything was going brilliantly in Afghanistan, he explains, until "the decision was made to wage a second war, in Iraq." Iraq took the lion's share of resources and ruined our international reputation, he argues. But in the next sentence, without acknowledging the surge (far less the courage Bush demonstrated in pursuing it despite tremendous political and military pressure against it), Obama boasts that "we are bringing the Iraq War to a successful conclusion" and "successfully leaving Iraq to its people."
No doubt Obama's "success" in Iraq is attributable, as he sees it, to the fact that "I've spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships" including "a new beginning" between America and the Muslim world. Oh yes, that's going so well. As the Taliban gain strength in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the chief object of Mr. Obama's flirtation, Iran, spat in the eyes of the U.S. and the U.N. last week by announcing that it will build 10 new nuclear enrichment facilities. This follows contemptuous brush-offs from Iran's bosses. In November, Ayatollah Khameini again spurned Obama's "many private approaches" saying it would be "perverted" to negotiate with the United States.
President Obama has been crystal clear that Bush's "arrogance" led to disaster for the United States. And once again, he's at pains to emphasize his new approach. The president assured the Afghans that "America is your partner, never your patron" (though a miserably poor and besieged country might like a patron very much). The odd thing is Obama's tone toward our "partners" sounded downright scolding in several places. "This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over." That is not exactly partnerish talk. "... We will be clear," he continued, "about what we expect from those who receive our assistance ... We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable."
It would be nice if that standard were applied to Washington, D.C., far less Kabul. But this is the tone of his vaunted new diplomacy? Of Pakistan, the president said, "In the past, we too often defined our relationship ... narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership ... built on ... mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust." But then comes the poke in the shoulder: "... We have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear."
Well, perhaps President Obama doesn't realize how he sounds. That must be it. He had the gall, after kneecapping Bush, to demand a halt to "rancor" and "partisanship." But the greater outrage was his pious declaration that "we must make it clear to every man, woman, and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights"? This from the man whose State Department told China early on that human rights were not our priority; who has decided he can deal with the butchers of Darfur; who averted his eyes from the bloody crackdown on protests in Iran; and who tamely permitted the Chinese to censor his words during his visit.
But there's no cause for self-examination. There's still George W. Bush to kick around.