Obama and history
- From: jose el fontanero <josefsoplar@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sat, 24 Oct 2009 09:48:30 -0700 (PDT)
Obama and history
By Patrick Owen Jones
One of the principal reasons that policymakers should study history is
to avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. Mistakes in the
realm of economics, social policy, defense, and foreign policy all
come to mind.
Every policy maker has an array of decisions to make and often current
problems are so complex that no remedy is obvious. One sure bet to
avoid disaster is to immediately discard policies that have failed.
For example, one of the lessons of World War II is that a free society
pays a high price if it chooses to appease an implacable
dictatorship. Britain and France did no one any favors by appeasing
Hitler in the 1930s. Their lack of resolve caused millions of people
to die needlessly.
The Great Depression in the USA provides a telling lesson of what
government should not do when the economy begins to contract,
resulting in massive unemployment. President Hoover raised income
taxes and signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act which cut off world trade
and thus exacerbating an already weakened economy.
Since 1945, we have not made those mistakes again. We certainly have
committed other errors, but American policymakers have shown an
ability to learn from the past.
The current Obama Administration has a full plate of problems that
demand the most delicate policy making. Domestically, the number-one
problem is restarting the economy and growing out of the Great
Recession. President Obama has also chosen to enter the health care
reform fray and is frantically trying to corral his team in Congress
to pass a bill that he can sign. Internationally, the White House
needs to win the war in Afghanistan, make progress in withdrawing
from Iraq, close Gitmo and, most importantly, prevent Iran from
getting the bomb.
Obama was elected to bring change. Part of his appeal lay in his
great rhetorical gifts, convincing people that he was going to rise
above partisan politics and deliver solutions.
Most reasonable people would agree that little has been accomplished
to date. It has been only nine months, however, and perhaps we should
allow Obama some more time before we chide him for non-performance.
A modern American president must decide issues that require superb
judgment. In an ideal world, the American president would be a master
politician, an economic wizard, endowed with tremendous organizational
skills, a gifted speaker, and know history.
Well, give one point to Obama. He is one hell of a speaker, at least
when his teleprompter is present. But is that enough?
We live in the real world. No American president has ever possessed
all the skills enumerated above. Neither Washington nor Lincoln or
even FDR could meet such a high standard.
But of all the skills listed. the one crucial skill is a knowledge of
history. By knowledge of history, I do not mean a professional
historian who grasps all the nuances of what has occurred in the world
over the last 500 years.
What I have in mind is something else. Any man or woman serving as
POTUS should have a solid grounding of what has occurred in the world
in general, and in the USA in particular, over the last century, along
with a practical understanding of what has worked in the past and what
The lessons of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold
War, international trade and development policy, the collapse of
Communism, etc. are basics that every American president needs to
know. Likewise, on the domestic front, every president ought to know
what happens when taxes are raised or lowered. He or she should know
the lesson of the Cold War: market economies outperform any economy
that has the word "social" or "socialist" in front of it.
This particular president, for all his gifts, is woefully ignorant of
history. He has shown this on many occasions. Some of these
instances are insignificant, like not knowing how many states are in
the USA. He said 57, but every school child knows that it is 50, and
has been so since 1959. In and of itself, this is not a big deal.
More troubling was Obama's comment that JFK's fiasco with Khrushchev
in Vienna in 1961 marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Say that again, what? JFK was humiliated by Nikita Khrushchev in
Vienna. The Soviets took the wrong lesson from this meeting and
placed missiles in Cuba a year later. For Mr. Obama's information,
the Cold War ended in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
That was 28 years after JFK let Khrushchev eat his lunch in Vienna.
President Obama came to my city, Prague, in April this year. He
praised the Czechs for throwing off Communism in 1989. Fair enough,
but then he began making up history. Obama stated that the
demonstrators compelled the totalitarian government to give up and
implied that the moral force of the demonstrators forced the old line
Commies to capitulate and leave town. I could not believe my ears.
My Czech friends looked at me, bemused. They did not know that they
were so heroic. And I was shocked that Obama had no one on staff to
check his facts.
The truth was significantly different. The Czechs only began putting
pressure on the regime to cede power a month after the Berlin Wall
fell. Solidarity had already come into power in Warsaw, East Germans
had been pouring out all summer through Hungary to Austria, and
Czechoslovakia was the laggard (as usual) in pushing for an end to
Communism. If anything, the revolution in Prague was an anti-climax
in the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe. But once
again, Obama did not know this.
Why is it important to point out these Obama mistakes? I know that I
should give the guy a break because he has his heart in the right
place. After all, he is not George W. Bush!
These mistakes are important because they point to a serious
underlying problem: no historical memory. This president does not
have a clue about recent history let alone ancient history. He has no
grounding on what works and what does not. His only guide is his
philosophy or the ideology of his "advisors."
When a president has a philosophy, he must know that there will be a
price for implementing it. Ronald Reagan knew that winning the Cold
War meant budget deficits and all the problems that they bring. He
also knew that implementing Reaganomics would bring long-term gains
but also some very strong short-term pain. By knowing history he
could craft effective long-term policy and gird his administration
against the slings and arrows from his opponents for the downside that
those policies bring.
This president has no idea what will work in either the domestic or
international sphere. He does not realize that the country can ill
afford expensive new social programs while we run a budget deficit
that amounts to 10% of GDP. Obama does not understand that if you
commit yourself to win a war in Afghanistan, you have to make a
reasonable effort to do so and not be hemmed in by left-wing captives
Furthermore, the lesson of Herbert Hoover is that a president does not
raise taxes when the economy is in the tank. It is not smart
economics. Full stop.
None of us should want President Obama to fail. Such failure is
failure for the whole country. As an ex-pat American, I can tell you
that the United States, for all its sins and limitations, is still the
indispensable country. It is the only country that can still secure
freedom and provide cover for the democratic world.
It is not too late for President Obama to change course and apply his
intelligence to the task of fashioning the right policy for the right
Will someone introduce President Obama to the economic ideas of Milton
Friedman and Robert Mundell and for good measure throw in a book by
Hans Morgenthau on the basics of international politics? No doubt the
White House has sufficient resources for some remedial tutoring.
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