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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Listening to Dad

(Reprinted from the issue of December 18, 2003)

Capitol BldgIn a surprising move, President Bush has appointed his father’s secretary of state, James A. Baker III, as his personal envoy to restructure Iraq’s huge debts. “Secretary Baker will report directly to me,” Bush announced.

What does this mean? One speculation is that Baker will also have the unofficial diplomatic duty of winning multilateral support for the troubled U.S. occupation of Iraq. With direct access to the president, he won’t be subordinate to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of Bush’s hawkish team.

This suggests that Bush is edging away from the neoconservatives who have favored unilateral American military action in the Mideast. Baker is an old bête noire of the neocons, among whom he has long been detested not only for his multilateralism, but more specifically for making insistent distinctions between American and Israeli interests. They haven’t forgotten that he urged the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir to give up its dream of a “greater Israel” (annexing the occupied territories).

Has the younger Bush been taking advice from his father? Has he decided that the neocons’ pro-Israel agenda has gotten him into a political and diplomatic mess from which an older generation of moderate Republicans can help extricate him? Or is he merely hoping that Baker’s savoir-faire in international relations will come in handy for the time being?

This may be my own wishful thinking, but I suspect that Bush, like previous pro-Israel presidents, has gotten a bit weary of being used, evaded, and defied by the Israelis and their Amen Corner in this country.

At any rate, the hawks’ optimistic scenarios for the conquest and occupation of Iraq have turned out to be seriously misleading, and it’s time for U.S. foreign policy to return, if not to the “isolationism” of the Founding Fathers, at least to adult supervision. Sometimes there’s no substitute for a practical man who knows the ropes.

I was never an admirer of the first President Bush and I was opposed to the 1991 Gulf War, but at least he had a clear and limited war aim: driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. At the time, the neocons criticized him harshly for seeking less than a total conquest of Iraq, including regime change. In his 1998 memoir, A World Transformed, he answered these critics:
Trying to eliminate Saddam ... would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible.... We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.... There was no viable “exit strategy” we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post–Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations’ mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.
These words prompt the columnist Paul Craig Roberts to comment, “In the thrall of warmongering neoconservatives, George Bush the son has managed to achieve every dire consequence against which George Bush the father warned.”

Amen. But maybe the son is belatedly trying to take some of his father’s advice. Better belatedly than never.
Angry Voices

It would be an overstatement to say that President Bush has roused a sleeping giant, but at least he has annoyed a dozing dwarf. The Washington Post reports that conservative leaders are getting upset, and vociferously so, about his spending habits. Federal spending has shot up 23.7% since he took office, discretionary spending 6.5% — and now he has also won passage of a Medicare increase that will soar into the trillions of dollars over the next two decades.

Among the angry voices on the right quoted by the Post are the Wall Street Journal, The American Spectator, Paul Weyrich, Bruce Bartlett (of the National Center for Policy Analysis), and Stephen Moore (of the Club for Growth). Not to belittle them, but these are intellectuals whom Bush probably figures he can afford to disregard. Big spending wins elections, and the victors are usually long gone when the bills come in. No political career has ever foundered on the disapproval of economists.

Nor does the amnesiac voting public hold long grudges against the profligate spenders of yesteryear. King Louis of France is remembered for his prophetic words Apres moi, le deluge. The motto of democratic rulers is Apres moi — who cares?

It would be another stretcher to say that the Democrats have replaced the Republicans as the Party of Thrift, but they are at least using, if only in desperation (or perhaps for comical effect), a rhetoric of fiscal responsibility which the Republicans have abandoned. We never expected Ted Kennedy to lose sleep over big deficits. Well, politics has always made strange bedfellows (and in Massachusetts they can now get married).

The Babe Ruth of big spenders remains Franklin Roosevelt. Of course in a literal sense most of his records have been broken, but you have to remember that he set those records, as it were, in the Dead Ball Era of federal spending. It took a lot more energy to waste a dollar in those days than it does today. Bush is better compared to Lyndon Johnson, who begat Medicare in the first place while waging war abroad.

At one time the Republicans at least put a certain inertial pull on the growth of government. Federal spending kept mounting under Republican presidents too, but you could assume that the Democrats (with perennial majorities in both houses of Congress) and their established programs were providing the impetus. That is no longer true. The Republicans control the White House and Congress, and behold!

What’s more, the trillions that Medicare will suck out of us won’t be “discretionary.” In a few years, Baby Boomers will retire and become eligible for government benefits in numbers equivalent to the population of a very large country — Germany, say. That is, roughly 80 million taxpayers, who have hitherto supported the tax-consumers, will move to the other side of the ledger, becoming tax-consumers themselves. A dwindling productive population, thinned out by contraception and abortion, will have to support them.

But neither party seems daunted by the prospect of transferring an entire generation, and a particularly numerous one, from the private economy to the welfare state. Bush couldn’t have chosen a worse time to add explosive new entitlements to the welfare state’s burdens.

Hurry! Christmas is just days away. But it’s not too late to buy a gift subscription to my monthly newsletter, SOBRANS, for readers in your family and office. For just $19.83, we’ll send a six-month gift subscription (and for $17.11 an e-mail subscription). Or consider a great stocking stuffer: my pamphlet, Anything Called a “Program” Is Unconstitutional: Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian, for just $5.65. But hurry. Supplies and time are limited. Call 800-513-5053 to order by credit card or send a check to P.O. Box 1383, Vienna, VA  22183. You can order these and other items at the Subscription page.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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