The First 2016 Presidential Debate

Barack Obama never ran against George Bush. He ran against John McCain and then Mitt Romney – but of course he was running against George Bush both times. McCain assumed everyone would understand that he wasn’t George Bush, but he loved his hypothetical new wars to transform the world into what it should be – like us – and he admitted he had no idea how the economy worked, but he had guys who would handle that, making sure nothing much was regulated and the wealthy were freed from paying much in taxes, who would regulate themselves, keeping the bad actors in line. That was Bush stuff. George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush tried to help out, by disappearing from the scene for the whole election, but everyone knew that McCain would be another disastrous Bus. McCain just happened to be an actual combat fighter pilot. The younger Bush stayed stateside and didn’t show up a lot. He knew how to fly a plane. That was about it – but no one cared about such things. Obama won handily. He defeated George W. Bush. McCain was just an afterthought.

It was the same with Mitt Romney, who was spouting the same neoconservative stuff about transforming the world into exactly what we wanted, and which was right. We’d use our military to do that. What else is it for? And as for the economy, Romney may have known far more than McCain, or the second Bush, but the policies would be pure Bush – use our amazing military to slap the world into shape, whether they like it or not, and deregulate everything in sight, and free the rich from taxes so they could create jobs and prosperity for everyone. It was as if neither McCain nor Romney remembered that Iraq had been a disaster and the economy had collapsed, because none of that worked. Obama said look, that stuff doesn’t work – and he defeated George W. Bush both times. Obama seldom if ever mentioned Bush, but John McCain and Mitt Romney didn’t have a prayer. George Bush’s policies had been the policies of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan took Barry Goldwater’s nastiness and made it sunny back in the eighties. John McCain and Mitt Romney were Republicans. There was no way they could suggest anything else.

Now it’s happening again, but more directly. Jeb Bush is running for president, saying the same sorts of things, and Obama is out there saying something different, even if he cannot run again. Hillary Clinton can do the job this time, offering the alternative to whatever iteration of Goldwater-Reagan-Bush the Republicans offer this time. That does look like it will be Jeb, and that set up an interesting sort of pre-presidential debate, almost two years out from the 2016 election, on the issue that defined the Bush years – foreign policy. What are we to do with ISIS – the latest iteration of dangerous regional terrorism that may go global? On the same day, perhaps by chance, or perhaps not, Obama gave his answer in Washington, and Jeb Bush gave his in Chicago, in what was billed as the official unveiling of his foreign policy. They didn’t meet face to face for a debate, but each of them made their closing statements. This is how it should be.

Juliet Eilperin, the Washington Post’s White House bureau chief, covered the Obama policy statements:

President Obama argued Wednesday that America must “discredit violent ideologies” if it wants to counter recruiting efforts by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda here at home.

The president, in his keynote speech at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, aimed to strike a balance between addressing the risk of the radicalization of disaffected youths and the need to reassure Muslim Americans that their communities are not being targeted as a source of terrorist plots.

Critics of the president have questioned in recent days why the White House was not using the term “radical Islam” to describe the target of its counterterrorism efforts. Obama emphasized that “there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist…. It’s not unique to one group or to one geography or one period of time.”

“But we are here at this summit because of the urgent threat from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL,” he said, using a term to refer to the Islamic State. “And this week, we are focused on prevention, preventing these groups from radicalizing, recruiting or inspiring others to violence in the first place.”

The idea seems to be that prevention is better than war, even if it’s not very exciting:

Obama spoke repeatedly about the “need to be honest” about extremists and the diversity within the Muslim community, noting that many Muslim Americans have grown weary of hearing from federal officials on the issue of terrorism.

“Engagement with communities can’t be a cover for surveillance. It can’t securitize our relationship with Muslim Americans, dealing with them solely through the prism of law enforcement,” he said as the audience applauded in response.

The president outlined a multi-pronged approach to countering the pull of terrorist groups, which included not just highlighting the perspectives of moderate Muslims, but also addressing the economic and political grievances disaffected youths may have. It also includes bolstering the resources of local communities so that they can compete with the savvy social media campaigns the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are waging.

So here’s the plan:

Several online initiatives are being launched in concert with the summit, including a digital communications hub that the United States and the United Arab Emirates are establishing to push back against the Islamic State’s propaganda and recruitment efforts, a “peer-to-peer challenge” that the State Department is unveiling so that university students across the globe can develop digital content to counter violent extremist messaging. The United States also is joining with social media firms to organize several “technology camps” in the coming months to highlight alternatives to radicalism and challenge terrorist groups.

The administration also has established a couple of new positions aimed at stemming radicalism in the United States, including the first full-time coordinator for countering violent extremism at the Department of Homeland Security and a special envoy for strategic counterterrorism communications at the State Department.

There are no heroics here, just being decent:

Even as the country wages this fight, Obama concluded that Americans should not lose sight of the fact that Muslims are an integral part of U.S. society. He recalled how he recently received a Valentine’s Day card from an 11-year-old named Sabrina who wrote to him, “I am worried about people hating Muslims. If some Muslims do bad things, that doesn’t mean all of them do.”

“And she asked, ‘Please tell everyone that we are good people and we’re just like everyone else,'” Obama said. “That is how we discredit violent ideologies, by making sure her voice is lifted up, by making sure she is nurtured, making sure that she is supported.”

Scott Shane at the New York Times looks at the strategy here:

President Obama chooses his words with particular care when he addresses the volatile connections between religion and terrorism. He and his aides have avoided labeling acts of brutal violence by Al Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State and their allies as “Muslim” terrorism or describing their ideology as “Islamic” or “jihadist.”

With remarkable consistency – including at a high-profile White House meeting this week, “Countering Violent Extremism” – they have favored bland, generic terms over anything that explicitly connects attacks or plots to Islam.

That may drive the folks on the right crazy, but those bland terms have a purpose:

Obama aides say there is a strategic logic to his vocabulary: Labeling noxious beliefs and mass murder as “Islamic” would play right into the hands of terrorists who claim that the United States is at war with Islam itself. The last thing the president should do, they say, is imply that the United States lumps the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims with vicious terrorist groups.

But Mr. Obama’s verbal tactics have become a target for a growing chorus of critics who believe the evasive language is a sign that he is failing to look squarely at the threat from militant Islam. The vague phrasing, they say, projects uncertainty and weakness at a time when extremists claiming to fight for Islam threaten America and its interests around the world.

This is a semantic battle, but it’s a semantic battle that’s worth fighting:

“Leading up to this summit, there’s been a fair amount of debate in the press and among pundits about the words we use to describe and frame this challenge, so I want to be very clear about how I see it,” the president said. “Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam.”

But Mr. Obama said that “we must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie.” The operatives of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, “are not religious leaders – they’re terrorists,” he said.

That ruins a lot of the narrative in the news, but so be it. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it, perhaps for good reason:

Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism official from 2009 to 2012, said he believed that the dispute was a “pseudo-controversy” driven largely by domestic politics, even if it has produced some clumsy moments in the White House press room. What the debate has missed, he said, is that any American president has to think about how his words are received overseas.

“Our allies against ISIS in the region are out there every day saying, ‘This is not Islam,'” said Mr. Benjamin, now at Dartmouth. “We don’t want to undermine them. Any good it would do to trumpet ‘Islamic radicalism’ would be overwhelmed by the damage it would do to those relationships.”

That sort of bullshit is for domestic political consumption, and it is bullshit.

That wasn’t all. The Los Angeles Times and a few other papers published, that same day, an op-ed from Obama on Our Fight Against Violent Extremism:

We know from experience that the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders. At this week’s summit, community leaders from Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston will highlight innovative partnerships in their cities that are helping empower communities to protect their loved ones from extremist ideologies.

More broadly, groups like al Qaeda and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better.

Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change. Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies. Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.

What is this about legitimate grievances? At Right Wing News see Obama Outrageously Claims ISIS Terrorists Have “Legitimate Grievances” – and at PJ Media there’s Nuance! Obama: Terrorists Have “Legitimate Grievances” – and at Twitchy there’s How Off His Rocker Is Obama? This Brutal “Legitimate Grievances” Perspective Reveals Answer – and so on.

Of course there’s Part III of the National Security Strategy published by the George W. Bush White House one year after the 9/11 attacks:

The United States of America is fighting a war against terrorists of global reach. The enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism – premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.

In many regions, legitimate grievances prevent the emergence of a lasting peace. Such grievances deserve to be, and must be, addressed within a political process. But no cause justifies terror.

The same folks didn’t attack George Bush over that, so this is a Republican thing, and curiously may make things harder for Jeb Bush, whose presentation didn’t go well:

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush on Wednesday promised to chart his own course on foreign policy – even as he announced a campaign brain trust associated, in part, with the most contentious policies of his brother’s and father’s presidencies.

In a speech before the nonpartisan Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Bush stepped delicately into territory where the 41st president, George H. W. Bush, and the 43rd, George W. Bush, still loom large.

The man expected to become the third Bush to make a bid for the White House said he has been “fortunate” to have two family members “who both have shaped America’s foreign policy from the Oval Office.”

“I recognize that as a result, my views will often be held up in comparison to theirs,” Jeb Bush said. “But I am my own man.” He added that his approach to geopolitics would be shaped by “my own thinking and my own experiences.”

In his prepared remarks, Bush mentioned Iraq, where his father and brother waged wars, only in passing — including once by mistake, when he meant to say Iran.

David Graham at the Atlantic Online takes it from there:

When people say that Jeb Bush has a name problem, they often mean that he has a foreign-policy problem – his association with his older brother’s much-maligned stewardship of global affairs.

On Wednesday afternoon, he made his first move in trying to solve that problem. Speaking at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Bush asked to be judged on his own merits. “I love my brother, I love my dad … and I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make,” he said. “But I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own principles.”

If Jeb Bush isn’t George W. Bush, however, it’s tough to tell who he is. His speech was a mix of obligatory platitudes about leadership, general statements of principles, and a stinging critique of the Obama administration – all the more stinging because it was delivered in Chicago, Obama’s home. But it was notably short on specifics. That’s understandable at this stage, before Bush has even officially announced he’s running, but it doesn’t help solve his problem.

And there were problems:

Consider the principles Bush laid out. He said that a strong American economy is essential to maintaining peace. He insisted that America’s words and actions must match. He said military spending is too low and needs to grow. He called for strengthening global alliances like NATO and regional ties to countries like Canada and Mexico. And he said America needs to be more ready to fight asymmetrical threats. He summed up his approach by calling it “liberty diplomacy,” a phrase that is eerily similar to his brother’s “freedom agenda.”

So what else is new? There’s only this:

Bush was most comfortable when criticizing the Obama White House. He said the U.S. has been a necessary leader because “our presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, have accepted responsibility in the world with a faith that America is a force for good. I have doubts whether this administration believes American power is such a force.”

Bush said he favored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Congress, and in general complained of chilly relationships with allies. “The great irony of the Obama presidency is this: Someone who came to office promising greater engagement with the world has left America less influential in the world,” Bush said. In particular, he assailed the White House’s policy on Iran: “They draw red lines, then erase them. With grandiosity, they announce resets and disengage.”

Lurking not far behind these questions is the memory of George W. Bush. Why, as Jeb Bush noted, does Iran now hold so much sway in Damascus, Sanaa, Baghdad, and Beirut? One major reason is that the war in Iraq created a power vacuum that empowered Tehran. How effectively did George W. Bush slow down Iranian proliferation?

Yeah, well, there is that, but something else was going on here:

Some of the speech seemed to be aimed as much at Rand Paul, a presumed rival for the Republican nomination, from the emphasis on projecting American power abroad to his defense of the NSA’s metadata-collection program. “We do protect our civil liberties, but this is a hugely important program to keep us safe,” Bush said. And his call for increased military budgets seems risky, since the U.S. already spends more on the military than other developed countries, and since polls suggest Americans don’t want more Pentagon spending. …

Perhaps most importantly, Bush’s speech sets him up nicely against Hillary Clinton. For all the vagueness of his address, it still offered a clearer articulation of a worldview than the presumptive Democratic nominee has done. Bush is also somewhat insulated from any attacks on his brother’s misadventures in the Middle East, since Clinton both voted for the war and helmed the Obama administration’s policy in the region as secretary of state.

That may not last, as Igor Volsky points out here:

According to Reuters’ Steve Holland, Bush has tapped a “diverse” roster of former George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush officials to advise his burgeoning campaign on foreign policy, including key architects of the 2002 invasion of Iraq. The list of advisers provided to Reuters by a campaign aide includes Paul Wolfowitz and Stephen Hadley, as well as former George W. Bush Homeland Security Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, and Bush adviser Meghan O’Sullivan.

Wolfowitz, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, began advocating an attack on Iraq shortly after the Sep. 11 attacks, established “what amounted to a separate government” to push for war and invited journalists to secret meetings in order to lay out the foundation for his plans. Wolfowitz established the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon that ignored the conclusions of the intelligence community and fed policy makers and the media discredited claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Then-Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley famously disregarded warnings from the CIA and then-FBI director George Tenet and included references to Iraq’s pursuit of uranium in Bush’s speeches, a claim that proved to be false. Hadley later apologized for leaving the now-infamous phrase in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address and was promoted to become the president’s National Security Adviser.

Meghan O’Sullivan was as a top adviser to L. Paul Bremer – the U.S. viceroy in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority that is blamed for mismanaging the occupation of Iraq immediately following the American invasion – and is credited with developing the security agreements and early transfer of sovereignty negotiations between the United States and Iraq. She also served as special assistant to George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007.

He may not be his own man, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explores that:

Yes, he’s a Bush, and yes, he’s a Republican, but Jeb Bush wants to assure voters he isn’t a Bush Republican. This is impossible. Not because of his name, but because Jeb is a mainstream Republican, and by definition this puts him a stone’s throw from his brother’s administration.

That’s just the way it is:

Despite the rancor and division of the last seven years, the truth is that the GOP still sits in the shadow of George W. Bush. Even the Tea Party doesn’t escape his influence; its anti-establishment rhetoric and angry denunciations of government obscure the extent to which its supporters – such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida – promote the basic Bush agenda of broad tax cuts, deficit spending, social conservatism, and an aggressive foreign policy.

It’s the same old same old:

“Weakness invites war,” declared the younger Bush, promising “liberty diplomacy” centered on “enforcing” peace and security around the globe. With a little more swagger, it could have come directly from George W. Bush.

If this wasn’t enough to undermine his claims of independence, there’s also the list of Jeb’s foreign policy advisers, which doubles as a yearbook for the GOP security establishment. Key officials from both Bush administrations are present, with a heavy roster from the previous decade of Bush policymaking…

In fairness, you probably shouldn’t use this as direct evidence of the next Bush’s foreign policy – to the extent they’ve joined a third Bush campaign (Team Bush III: Bush Hard With a Vengeance), it’s because they’re the most experienced foreign policy hands in the Republican Party. As the candidate of at least one establishment, it would be shocking if Jeb didn’t have support of figures from the last two Republican presidential administrations.

Which gets to an important fact of the presidential process. When we say someone is “running for the nomination,” what we mean is that he’s building consensus for his candidacy. And while it’s possible for a powerful, skilled figure to change the terms of that consensus, most candidates simply adapt their platforms and ideas to what the party wants. Anyone who represents the Republican Party in 2016, and thus the Republican mainstream, will end up selling a spin on Bushism. Jeb’s unique problem is that he can’t elide this with rhetoric.

Does that mean any Democrat will be forever running against George Bush? Yes. Now it’s Hillary’s turn, even if she wasn’t present for the first 2016 debate, this time on foreign policy – and we’ve heard it all before.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The First 2016 Presidential Debate

  1. Rick says:

    Just a few observations:

    And as for the economy, Romney may have known far more that McCain, or the second Bush…

    Although we have no reason to really think that.

    Yes, Romney may have known more about “finance” than those other guys — after all, that’s pretty much how he made his millions — but he didn’t ever seem to understand the “economy” at all. They’re not the same thing, of course, and require opposite skill sets. “Economists” don’t sit around, trying to figure out how to make bundles of money by, for example, scooping up vulnerable companies, selling off some of their assets and laying off many of their workers, any more than “financiers” sit around trying to figure out, for example, whether increasing the minimum wage ultimately helps or hurts a local economy.

    You’re not the first to confuse the two (if, indeed, you did; sometimes it’s hard to tell with you), since both professions are concerned with money and wealth. To most of us, money and wealth would be nice things to have more of, but other than that, they’re both pretty boring, and we figure either one of these people could do the other’s job. But if you think about it, if that were true, most economists would be filthy rich — which, of course, they’re not — and most very rich people would be capable of saying brilliant things about how the economy works — which, of course, they’re not.

    And speaking of folks guilty of intellectual disconnect:

    What is this about legitimate grievances? At Right Wing News see “Obama Outrageously Claims ISIS Terrorists Have ‘Legitimate Grievances’ ” – and at PJ Media there’s “Nuance! Obama: Terrorists Have ‘Legitimate Grievances’ ”…

    Do these people doze off while reading, and just fail to notice that Obama is not even talking about “terrorists”? I defy them to show us exactly where they got terrorists in any of what Obama said:

    Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change. Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies. Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.

    Yes, I know how easy it is to take what the anti-Obama crowd says as anything less than astounding, but these people need to be constantly called out on their stupid claims! Do these liars think they’re actually serving a useful function within civilization, or are they just doing it for the money? And how much money can they possibly be raking in to make being a lying asshole worth all the trouble?

    But other than that, this language thing can get pretty complicated. I’d always thought that it was okay to use the word “Islamist” to describe the bad guys, since the “-ist” at the end denotes someone who’s pushing his religion on others — but yeah, now I realize that’s too fine a distinction for most people in the world, who, only hearing the word “Islam” and totally ignoring the “-ist”, will conclude that we’re in a “religious” war after all.

    And I was interested to hear Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter (and father of co-host Mika Brzezinski), speaking on Morning Joe this morning, mention that when he worked in the White House, they, too, were guilty of too often using the word “jihadist”, or “holy warrior”, which they eventually realized implied that we were in one — and which played right into the hands of the terrorists.

    This question of our seeming to be at war with “Islam” seems to be too much of a delicate balance for ham-fisted conservatives, especially Republican ones, to negotiate. They don’t seem to even understand, much less are able to deal with, the necessary diplomacy, probably because “nuance” is something many of them proudly hold in disdain.

    The good news is our current president seems perfectly capable of understanding this nuance; the bad news is that he’ll be gone in less than two years. I, for one, shudder at the thought.

    Speaking of which, and okay, I guess it was inevitable, but as for my image of Jeb Bush seeming refreshingly normal compared to all those other contenders, I’m starting to notice that the more I hear him actually speak, the less refreshing he sounds.


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