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American Politics Grows Up in a Moment of Triumph

Posted on May 3 2011 8:00 am
Seth Mandel is the former managing editor of four New Jersey-based newspapers, where he won awards for his coverage of the Middle East and Russia. He has appeared on Shalom TV's current affairs roundtable. He is currently based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @SethAMandel
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One of the most interesting parts of Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward’s book on the Obama administration’s prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is when James Jones flies to Pakistan with John Brennan to tell Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari that his country is the center of our Central Asia policy:

“Pakistan is the epicenter of the strategic review,” Jones said. The president was elevating the importance of Pakistan. Jones said the region would now be called PakAf instead of AfPak.

This distressed the Pakistanis, who responded that the inversion might suggest that Pakistan was the main problem. That would not be positive, nor would it be in the spirit of the proposed partnership, they said.

You have to love Zardari’s classic inability to grasp the obvious. It might suggest that Pakistan was the main problem. Yes, indeed it might. Because Obama himself grasped that long before he dispatched Jones and Brennan. I thought of this watching Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, field questions Monday from the press on whether our relationship with Pakistan will be under any additional duress since, well, they were hiding Osama bin Laden on their own turf and we had to put special forces on the ground to go get him. Brennan first let it be known that the Pakistanis aren’t fooling anyone:

I think it’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time.

Later on, he was asked about reconsidering American aid to Pakistan. Here is his response:

I think people are raising a number of questions, and understandably so.  Again, we’re in just the first day after the operation, and he was found in Abbottabad outside of Islamabad.  I’m sure a number of people have questions about whether or not there was some type of support that was provided by the Pakistani government.  So I think people are raising these questions and how we’re going to have to deal with them.

Good for Brennan, good for the lawmakers questioning support for Pakistan, and good for the administration to say this out loud. Pakistani arrogance and victimhood has been perhaps the least tolerable aspect of our alliance. When I asked former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in November if Pakistan had made any mistakes in the war on terror (he had just finished detailing a laundry list of mistakes he thought the U.S. had made), he looked at me with a mix of annoyance and condescension and asked me if I had any suggestions.

But this highlights one of the most important accomplishments (prior to killing bin Laden) of the Obama administration: Barack Obama has, from the very beginning of his presidency, made Pakistan the priority it should have been for a long time. And so he deserves his share of credit for this—as do not only the men and women in uniform, but the men and women who gave their lives for this, and the families that will never be made whole again because one or more of them made the ultimate sacrifice. The president made a promise and saw to its fulfillment. The Bush administration deserves its share as well, for setting the nation on course to catch and eliminate bin Laden. (“Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended.”)

But perhaps the most significant aspect of this event, at least in the near-term, is that it will remove some of the silliness we’ve experienced in the national conversation. As a conservative, it has not been easy watching Donald Trump monopolize the conversation on the 2012 presidential election by pontificating on the president’s unwillingness to show his long-form birth certificate. (Admission: I haven’t seen the birth certificates of any of the candidates I have ever voted for; I cannot even pretend to pretend to be interested in such foolishness.)

In any event, if one thing was clear before Sunday night, it was that many conservatives were simply not taking the president seriously enough as a candidate. The presumption that Obama was some sort of alien from outer space—or whatever it is that Trump’s supporters thought—made it impossible to gather steam for a serious candidate. That wasn’t too much of a tragedy at first—it’s still early. But it was rapidly turning into a circus.

But how ridiculous does Trump look now? (I would contend he looked ridiculous from the start, but perhaps now CNN will cease its wall-to-wall coverage of him.)

And now the conversation will, after a few more days, return to the debate over the budget. No one is going to care to listen to Trump claim that we need to levy tariffs on Chinese goods and steal other people’s oil to avoid the looming fiscal disaster.

The president is currently running against Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity.” We shouldn’t be too surprised if Ryan gets goaded into running—both by the president’s criticism of the plan and by Republicans who remind him that if the Ryan plan is going to be the turf on which the 2012 contest is played, Ryan himself might as well be on the field.

Either way, it’s impossible not to notice that in the last week, between the Donald’s wasted breath and bin Laden’s last, the country seems to have grown up. Let’s hope the debate now reflects that.

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