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There are Transitions and then there are Transitions

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Reading this morning’s New York Times, I’m struck by their take on what Obama’s been doing in the waning days of  the transition of the presidency to his successor. As is to be expected, they apparently think it’s just fine for the current president to be doing everything he can to try to hem in his successor and make it as difficult as possible for Trump to alter Obama administration actions. Indeed, they seem to think it is Obama’s obligation to do so! Times writer Michael Shear even argues that George W. Bush did the same when he negotiated a status of forces agreement with then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, thereby forcing the incoming president to remove American troops by 2011!

“In mid-December 2008,” Shear writes, “President George W. Bush signed a multiyear status-of-forces agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq that called for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Concerns about security and instability in Iraq in 2011 led the Obama administration into talks with Iraqi leaders to leave some U.S. forces beyond the deadline, but the negotiations broke down and Obama ended up following the timeline he had inherited from Bush.”

As if there were anything but the superficial similarity of timeframe in an outgoing administration’s governing responsibilities here! More, this completely disregards the fact that the Obama administration later treated the tough negotiating position adopted by the Iraqi government in response to its half-hearted attempts to complete the process Bush had set in motion, as an opportunity to walk away. And they did, leading to all those horrible consequences we have since been dealing with (from the rise of ISIS and the proliferation of terrorism and instability in Iraq itself, spilling into Syria)  that resulted from the premature vacuum the Obama withdrawal created.

Shear’s account further disregards the pressure at home the outgoing Bush was under to demonstrate  to the American public and the world that our Iraqi presence was not an indefinite one, that we had  invaded to remove Saddam, not to take  that country over for ourselves. Looking for something to justify President Obama’s unprecedented series of executive actions to lock into place his own policy agenda, even in the face of its rejection by the voters (Trump won the electoral college after all!), Shear has essentially latched onto what might well be the most feeble analogy imaginable.

Bush trying to work within the law, and the sovereignty we wanted the new Iraqi government to achieve, and living up to his commitments to the American people in doing so, is in no way similar to Obama’s last minute flurry of executive actions designed to further entangle his successor in policies and rules that will be hard to undo or reverse.

Referring to the Bush negotiated status of forces agreement with Iraq which Obama failed to complete, Shear goes on to draw the analogy more tightly:

“Something similar,” he writes, “transpired with the actions Obama took on Dec. 23rd at the United Nations. By abstaining on the United Nations resolution, the United States paved the way for its approval.  Conservatives viewed the action with disdain.”

Er, no it didn’t. There was nothing similar about the two actions.

And why shouldn’t conservatives react badly to such a move, given its remarkable break with longstanding bi-partisan American tradition vis a vis protecting Israel from the harm of one-sided resolutions? In fact, unlike Bush and the status of forces agreement, Obama was under no obligation to allow passage of the resolution, let alone to act through his State Department behind the scenes to facilitate it. In fact, President Obama did what he did because he agreed with the resolution as John Kerry’s subsequent farewell speech to State Department employees, broadcast nationally, made clear. As with his other late term orders blocking offshore oil and gas drilling or federalizing millions of acres of state lands in the West against the wishes of the state governments and citizens of those states, Obama refused to veto the resolution declaring Israel’s settlement activity against international law and lumping the status of East Jerusalem and its Western Wall (sacred to Jews around the world) in with it, in pursuit of his policy agenda — one that had been rejected in an election that handed Donald Trump the presidency.

In the view of people like Shear, nothing, it seems, is barred to progressives if the end they desire is just in their view. They will twist themselves and the rest of us, if need be, into knots to defend such actions and this clumsy rhetorical effort at moral equivalence by Shear continues to demonstrate what can only be seen as a complete lack of respect for the other side in these policy arguments. Conservatism, in the eyes of progressives, is tantamount to a kind of heathenism in the church of the nation’s political life. Anything done to block or undermine its objectives is alright, although heaven help the conservative who might deign to go down a similar path. Imagine the fury that would assail us from papers like the New York Times if a president Trump, four years out, were to pull this same shtick.

It is, in fact, simply inarguable that no president in modern times has ever been so willful about his agenda as President Obama has, or so willing to tie the hands — or try to — of the person voters have chosen to succeed him. Did Truman work to prevent Eisenhower from implementing his agenda when he took office? Did Eisenhower do that with Kennedy, or did Johnson, a famously vindictive politician, do it with Nixon, a man he abhorred?

Nor did Ford do it to Carter or Carter to Reagan. All accepted the will of the people and made way for a new president and a new agenda. So did the elder Bush as his successor has long acknowledged and the younger Bush did it for Obama.

If the country as a whole had wanted Obama 2.0 it had every opportunity, by electing Hillary Clinton, to achieve that. But it didn’t, and that despite the historically high negatives for Donald Trump in the polling data.

Yet the political left remains convinced that Obama is on solid ground in doing whatever he can to balk the incoming president and even continues to egg him on in the media. But in doing so, he makes the staffers in Bill Clinton’s White House, who famously pulled the letter “w” off White House keyboards in a slight to incoming President George W. Bush, and who grabbed stuff on the way out the door, look like pikers. President Obama is doing something much worse here, if it’s not quite as tacky. Through all his last minute policy decisions via executive actions, when outgoing presidents usually affect a modest quietude and work to ease the transition in the face of coming change, Obama has gone the old staffers in Bill Clinton’s administration one better, trying to permanently fix the government’s landscape to make it harder for the Trump administration to do what it was elected to do.

As the incoming president would say (or rather tweet) — if he hasn’t already — “so sad.” But, of course, it’s worse than sad. It’s another strike at longstanding American governing traditions and at the bi-partisanship expected in democratic transitions of power which has made American governing practices the most stable, long lived and admired in the world. This is the sort of thing that, once tossed away, can be very, very hard to reclaim.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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