Arrgh! They Made Me Defend Sean Spicer!

Yes, he’s an idiot. Still...

The latest Sean Spicer controversy was so, so stupid that I swore—swore I tell you!—that I would not lower myself to write about it.

The Trump Administration spokesman, making the dumb assertion that Assad is even worse than Hitler because Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” was absurdly—gleefully?— attacked as a Holocaust denier.ThnkProgress, which I am going to have to place on my “never trust these hacks” list, wrote that Spicer “argued that the Nazis never used chemical weapons during the Holocaust,” which is a lie, flat out. Spicer didn’t mention the Holocaust at all. Then The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect released a statement saying,

“On Passover no less, Sean Spicer has engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death.”

This is perhaps not quite a lie, since the combination of confirmation bias and paranoia could make this organization see Holocaust denial behind every rock, but it is no less ridiculous, inflammatory and unfair. Then some of my 2016 election-deranged friends—I now picture them wrapped in tin foil, wearing Groucho glasses and spreading DDT around as they sit cross-legged in a teepee with a flaming penguin on their heads—began citing the Anne Frank Center slander with approval, and garnishing likes from a lot of people who I usually like and who once had brains larger than marbles.

So now I have to defend Sean Spicer. Yecchh.

Observations:

1. Everyone is calling for Trump to fire Spicer. Of course he should fire Spicer. He should have fired Spicer  months ago. Sean Spicer is incompetent, bumbling, inarticulate and gaffe prone. He is even more incompetent, bumbling, inarticulate and gaffe prone than Robert Gibbs, who was the most incompetent, bumbling, inarticulate and gaffe prone press secretary I ever had the pain of watching. (Obama’s subsequent press secretaries were just liars.). Spicer is much worse than Gibbs, though he doesn’t say uh-uh-un-um-um-um as much. I wish he would: they would be an improvement over what he does say. Spicer looks stupid and sounds stupid, so he represents the President and his entire administration as stupid WHICH THEY MIGHT BE, but his job is to place both in the best light possible. He does the opposite. This Hitler botch was just the most recent example.

2. Trump promised to appoint and hire “the best people,” so having one of the worst people imaginable representing his Presidency to the news media and the public leaves “incompetent” in the dust as “suicidal” takes over. This is especially true since the President knows that the news media is actively hostile to his leadership and is actively allied with the Democrats to bring him down and cancel out that damned election by any means possible. Trump’s situation screams out for a spokesman with the credibility, suave and wit of the late Tony Snow or the fierce intellect and articulateness of the very much alive Laura Ingraham. The fact that Trump can’t see that, and that his advisors haven’t threatened to walk out and join an anti-Trump rally if he refused to fire this clod and send him back to the Budget car rental desk or wherever he came from is really ominous. If “best people” means people like Spicer…well, I don’t like to think about it. And if the “You’re fired!” executive won’t fire someone who performs as horribly as him, who will he fire?

3. The Hitler statement was, no question, idiotic. At best, it was the most egregiously warped use of Rationalization # 32. The Unethical Role Model imaginable: Spicer was really saying, “why couldn’t Assad be more like Hitler?”! At worst, it  was like walking into the buzz-saw of the Trump-hate narrative that the President and his team are virtual Nazis and secret anti-Semites. It was so dumb that the fact that Spicer didn’t physically try to stuff the words back into his mouth as they started coming out is signature significance that the man belongs in a home. Continue reading

Incompetent Elected Official Of The Month: President Barack Obama

Yesterday’s U.S.  missile attack on Syria prompted by Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians clarifies just how inept and feckless President Obama’s handling of foreign policy was.

In an article today in the reliably progressive and Democratic Party-boosting The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg writes,

“President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, like many foreign policy doctrines, was contradictory at times, and it sometimes lacked coherence.”

1. At times?

2. Sometimes lacked coherence?

3. Notice the obligatory “like many foreign policy doctrines” to cushion the blow. Journalists are in permanent denial over just how epically awful the first black President’s administration was.

Goldberg eventually gets around to Obama’s “decision, in 2013, to go back on his promise to punish the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians. Early in the Syrian civil war, Obama publicly drew a red line concerning Assad’s behavior, but later decided to forgo military strikes, even after being presented with near-definitive proof that Assad had crossed the red line in grotesque fashion. “  This inadequate description intentionally leaves out the dispiriting details of that fiasco. Here is what Obama said in August of 2013 when the first “red line” appeared:

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation….We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.” 

Ethics Alarms:

Now, lawyers and grammarians may argue over what “a red line” means, what constitutes “use” and “a whole bunch,” and what the President considers “enormous consequences.” None of that matters. What matters is what the statement was understood to mean around the world, and it was widely understood to mean this: If chemical weapons are used against the Syrian people by Assad, the United States will act decisively. Last week, reliable evidence indicated that indeed chemical weapons had been used, and that the “red line” had been crossed.

Obama’s response? Double-talk, backtracking and word-parsing:

  • The President to reporters Friday with Jordan’s King Abdullah in the Oval Office:  “What we have right now is an intelligence assessment. And as I said, knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used. Obtaining confirmation and strong evidence, all of those things we have to make sure that we work on with the international community. And we ourselves are going to be putting a lot of resources into focusing on this. And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime. But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists — all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region. So we’re going to be working with countries like Jordan to try to obtain more direct evidence and confirmation of this potential use. In the meantime, I’ve been very clear publicly, but also privately, that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues. So this is not an on or off switch.”
  • A White House official to reporters Thursday: “I think what the Assad regime needs to know is that we are watching this incredibly closely. Were he to undertake any additional use [of chemical weapons], he would be doing so under very careful monitoring from us and the international community. There should be no mistaking our determination not just to get to the bottom of these reports, but to send a message … that Bashar al-Assad and his regime will be held accountable for these types of actions. We’re going to be methodical, rigorous and relentless … so we can establish exactly what happened…all options are on the table in terms of our response…If we reach a definitive determination that the red line has been crossed … what we will be doing is consulting closely with out friends and allies … to determine what the best course of action is.”

So those “enormous consequences ” of the “red line” being crossed is that the United States will start consulting with friends and allies?

Well, yes, in a word. Continue reading

“Walking Dead” Leadership And Israel’s Iran Nightmare

You call this "escapist entertainment?"

You call this “escapist entertainment?”

For some reason, last night’s “mid-season finale” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” caused me to think about what lies ahead in Iran-US-Israel relations. Can’t imagine what that reason is….

In this cataclysmic episode of the zombie apocalypse drama, the psychopathic character called “the Governor,” full of bloodlust and vengefulness and determined to press his conviction that the group of competing survivors “led” by Rick Grimes has no legal right to exist, confronted the alleged good guys’ leader in the abandoned prison they call home with an army, a tank and a demand that they surrender their shelter or die. Rick, who has repeatedly shown a flat learning curve in basic leadership skills and has already gotten many people killed by trusting the Governor rather than taking him out, despite ample evidence that the Guv is exactly as trustworthy as Vlad the Impaler or, say, Iran, engaged this murderous madman in a full-bore, Rodney King, “Can’t we all get along?” plea.

It was futile, of course, and only some lucky turns (an unlikely escape by the one individual who could turn the tide here, a well-aimed hand grenade there, and an unexpected rescue by sure-shot, gun-toting little girls elsewhere) prevented a bloody slaughter with the Governor’s objectives fully realized. Our feckless hero Rick, however, was obviously not willing to do what he had to do to prevent the carnage of an attack, and was going to depend on hope, passiveness and a refusal to be proactive to keep a proven predator at bay. Yet his approval percentage with his core constituency inexplicably still hovers in the 90s.

Ironically, Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt chose today to assemble his time-line of President Obama’s Rick-like handling of Syria, which you can read here. (Hiatt is a card-carrying liberal Democrat, like the rest of the Post’s editorial board.)

I wonder if they show “The Walking Dead” in Israel? It’s scary enough here, but I bet, given our President’s leadership similarities to Rick Grimes, it would be absolutely terrifying there.

 

Ethics Quiz: Playing Follow The Leader

To follow or not to follow?

To follow or not to follow?

I live in the Washington, D.C. area, and at this moment even the beginning of the NFL season, usually the one thing everyone here (except me) usually cares about, is being over-shadowed by the drama of the looming Congressional vote on Syria. What was assumed—why, I cannot imagine–to be a likely rubber stamp with only an insufficient number of Republicans providing opposition because, as we all have been told repeatedly, they will oppose the President on anything, has materialized as strong bi-partisan opposition. The Washington Post estimated last night that the votes in the House are currently running 3-1 against the symbolic-and-deadly-but-promised-to-be-non-committal missile strikes on pre-announced targets. This is the most encouraging development in the government since President Obama was elected, I am tempted to say. It shows that this is not a nation of lemmings, and that the separation of powers has its virtues after all. Nonetheless, interesting ethical arguments are arising in favor of votes both no and yes.

The no arguments are varied, and reach the same conclusion from different positions, some more ethical than others. The pacifist Left and the isolationist Right, both irresponsible and dedicated to ideology over reality, are on the same path here, and would be on that same path even if the President’s argument for missile strikes was strong. Others, including me, but also those who supported more extensive military action in the Bush administration, fault the plan because of its dubious results, its contradictory logic, and the feckless and troubling way the President brought us to where we are.

I just heard an interview with a Republican House member who announced that he reversed his initial support for the missile strike after hearing Obama’s remarks in Sweden. After hearing Obama appear to deny that he drew the red line—a rhetorical point that was too cute by half and clumsily stated—this Congressman decided that he couldn’t believe anything Obama said or promised regarding Syria, including his assurances that nothing would lead to “boots on the ground.” (I would argue that his assurances that nothing would lead to boots on the ground is, if not dishonest, frighteningly irresponsible.)

The yes arguments are more perplexing. Naturally, there are those who, against all logic, simply adopt the contradictory and militarily nonsensical arguments John Kerry was asked to present to the Senate (apparently because President Obama knows that he appointed an inarticulate—but loyal!!!—dim-bulb, Chuck Hagel, as Secretary of Defense—but that is another, though related, issue). Liberal columnist Eugene Robinson,  who has won an Affirmative Action Pulitzer Prize and who has proven that he will cheer whatever his fellow-African American in the White House does, even if he makes a decree like the South American rebel-leader-turned-dictator in Woody Allen’s “Bananas”...

“From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish…In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!”

made this “argument”…

“The issue can’t be who wins that country’s civil war. It has to be whether the regime of Bashar al-Assad should be punished for using chemical weapons — and, if the answer is yes, whether there is any effective means of punishment other than a U.S. military strike…Let me clarify: I believe that a U.S. strike of the kind being discussed, involving cruise missiles and perhaps other air-power assets, can make it more likely that Assad loses. But I also believe that — absent a major commitment of American forces, which is out of the question — we cannot determine who wins.”

Gee, thanks for clarifying, Eugene!

Other, more coherent voices argue for endorsing Obama’s plan do sent a few missiles—not any that might hit Assad or his weapons, mind you– because they argue, even if the plan is weak, misguided, dangerous or certifiably bats, the President and, by extension, the United States will be dangerously weakened if a call to arms is rejected. This is essentially the argument of rational conservative James Taranto. Here is former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, this morning:

“…During the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has generally waged a war of words and then used those words casually and clumsily. President Obama declared that Assad “must go” when his departure seemed inevitable — without a strategy, or even the intention, to achieve this goal when it became difficult. He drew a chemical-weapons “red line” that became a well-trodden thoroughfare. The Obama administration revealed details of an imminent military operation, which was promptly repudiated by the parliament of our closest ally, then abruptly postponed. The administration seemed to indicate that United Nations support for a military strike was needed — before declaring it unnecessary. It seemed to indicate that a congressional endorsement was superfluous — just before staking everything on securing it. Obama is inviting members of Congress to share responsibility for a Syrian policy that has achieved little to justify their confidence. In fact, he has undermined political support for the legislative outcome he seeks. For more than five years, Obama has argued that America is overcommitted in the Middle East and should refocus on domestic priorities. Now he asks other politicians to incur risks by endorsing an approach he has clearly resisted at every stage…”

Wait…this is how Gerson argues that Congress should vote yes? Indeed it is…

“Legislators are not arguing between preferred policy options, as they would on issues such as health care or welfare. They are deciding if they will send the chief executive into the world with his hands tied behind his back. This would be more than the repudiation of the current president; it would be the dangerous weakening of the presidency….even if this military action were wrong or pointless, it would have to be sufficiently dangerous to justify the gelding of the executive branch on a global stage. A limited military strike may be symbolic. But for Congress to block that strike would be more than symbolic. It would undermine a tangible element of American influence: the perception that the commander in chief is fully in command.”

This is a good time to stop and offer today’s Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, based on the reasoning of Gerson and others:

Are members of Congress ethically obligated, by loyalty and responsibility for the image and credibility of the U.S. abroad and to avoid weakening the institution of the presidency, to support the missile strikes on Syria, even if they and their constituents believe that to do so is wrong and misguided?

And here’s a poll:

Continue reading

Addendum: James Taranto And The Consequences Of Unethical Presidential Leadership

red line

Today, at his press conference in Stockholm, President Obama raised many a hackle by saying,

“First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” Barack Obama said today at a press conference in Stockholm. “The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are [sic] abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war.”

The President’s critics take this as yet another of his habitual accountability dodges, even though, for once, he didn’t blame George W. Bush. I will give the President the benefit of the doubt here, as he was speaking extemporaneously and is infamously imprecise when he is not delivering a prepared speech. He is saying that the bright line prohibition on chemical and germ warfare was not devised by him, that it is a matter of international law of long-standing, and that his red-line statement only re-affirmed the United States’ pre-existing obligation, in his view, to take action when such a line is crossed. I have no problem with that; the problem is, as this episode has shown, that President Obama did not and does not mean what he said, and the consequences he has devised for the crossing of that red line by the Assad government manage to be weak, insignificant, inadequate, cynical, cruel, dangerous, misdirected, ill-timed and illegal (under international law) all at the same time. That’s quite an accomplishment, but not one I’d want my mother to hand on the fridge.

The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, who, at his best, delivers a clarity of ethical analysis and a precision of language that are unsurpassed in U.S. punditry, moved on from mocking the latest red line clarification to an excellent discussion of why the credibility of the American President, and leaders generally, is so important. Credibility is the practical result of integrity: that is the ethical virtue President Obama’s handling of this matter betrayed.

You should read his whole commentary here. This is the key passage: Continue reading

War, Syria, Leadership and Ethics

Indecisiveness and narcissism makes great drama, bad leaders, and gets people killed , too.

Indecisiveness and narcissism makes great drama, bad leaders, and gets people killed , too.

I try to think about the ethics of war as little as possible, much less write about it. It is too frustrating, and ultimately a waste of time: the same debates and philosophical arguments have been made, eloquently and passionately, for not just hundreds but thousands of years, and only the mechanics of warfare have changed.

My father, a war hero and a man who would have loved to have devoted his life to the military if his wounds hadn’t prevented it, used to say that war was the stupidest of all human activities. “There is nothing good about war,” Dad said. “Yet it is sometimes necessary and unavoidable. And don’t ask me to reconcile those statements: I can’t. Nobody can.” I remember asking him about General Patton, who led my father and his comrades during the Battle of the Bulge. “Patton supposedly loved war,” I said. “He did,” my father replied. “He was insane.” He loathed Patton.

The Syria crisis has triggered all the same arguments again, and I want no part of them. Ethical analysis doesn’t work where warfare is concerned. The conduct of ritualized killing combatants and innocents is, at best, an extreme utilitarian act that always creeps into  ethically indefensible “the ends justify the means” territory before the end of hostilities. So many invalid rationalizations are used to justify killing—“It’s for a good cause,” or the Saint’s Excuse, prime among them, with “They started it!” following close behind—that it is useless to tote them up. The war most often cited as a “moral war,” World War II, still involved the killing of innocent non-combatants by the Allies. ( My father remained amazed at the efforts at “limited war” in Iraq, noting that Allied soldiers were expected to accept civilian deaths as unavoidable and not a matter of concern. He also felt that the current dedication to half-measures just guaranteed longer wars, more deaths, and less satisfactory results. “It’s war,” he said. “You can’t make it humane or sensible; you can only make it shorter. Telling the military that it has to waste time and military personnel to avoid civilian deaths makes no sense. There is no such thing as a humane war.” Naturally, he approved of Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb, in part, he admitted, because he was slated to be in the Japanese mainland invasion force that was likely to sustain up to a million casualties.) The Allies engaged in atrocities too, such as the fire-bombing of Dresden.

You want to talk about the problem of supporting terrible people and factions to defeat another? World War II is the champion on that score. The U.S. partnered with Stalin, who was a greater mass murderer than Hitler, and defeated Japan, the enemy of China, allowing Mao, a greater mass murderer than Stalin and Hitler combined, to enslave a billion people. The peace negotiated after the Second World War was only slightly less destructive than the one that ended the First World War (and led directly to the Second): The U.S. handed over half of Europe to Communism, laying the seeds of the Cold War that only avoided ending humanity in a nuclear holocaust by pure moral luck. The fact that WWII is the “best” war powerfully makes the case: ethics and war have nothing to do with each other. Each renders the other useless and incoherent. Continue reading

Obama’s Leadership Incompetence, Now Getting Dangerous

Bad poker bluff

Nice hand, Mr. President.

Not everybody should be a leader, and it is no shame if you have no talent for it.  It is tempting to think that all intelligent, educated, articulate people within a certain range of emotional stability and sanity can learn to be effective leaders, but history and experience tell a different story, and it has many tragic chapters.

I know many readers think that I get great joy out of criticizing President Obama for his lack of leadership skills and instincts, but in truth I find myself consciously avoiding writing about this almost every day, because the problem is on display that regularly*, and this isn’t a Bash Obama blog. I do find it remarkable that such an obviously intelligent man is so immune to leadership instincts, and that he hasn’t resolved to at least try to learn from his more naturally leadership-gifted predecessors. For example, the White House made a point of noting that the President was a great admirer of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” which recounts how Abraham Lincoln assembled a Cabinet made up of political enemies, adversaries and rivals whose perspective and abilities he managed and used to great advantage. Yet Obama’s choice of Cabinet members and advisors, as even his supporters have pointed out, is unusually insular, passive and narrow, with the same loyalists being recycled into position after position (Hillary was the exception). True, this may reflect the President’s recognition of his own leadership limitations, for Abraham Lincoln, a once-in-a-century example of a born leader, is a daunting model. This is a pattern, however. When various voices in the Obama-worshiping media, such as did the New York Times last week, lament that Lyndon Johnson would have been able to get gun control measures through Congress, they are commenting on the same phenomenon. LBJ was a natural leader, and Obama, whatever his other virtues, is not. Continue reading