New York Times' Tanenhaus: Bill Clinton 'The Last Conservative President'

September 18th, 2009 5:52 PM
There is an inside joke for the veteran viewers of MSNBC’s morning show, ‘Morning Joe,’ which refers back to a time when Joe Scarborough was in a heated debate with Zbigneiw Brzezinski (Mika’s father) over the behind-the-scenes content of President Clinton’s Camp David accords.  The elder Brzezinski grew rather frustrated with being out-shouted by Scarborough, and delivered the following zinger:
“You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on that it's almost embarrassing to listen to you.”
This crushing critique could also be applied to today’s appearance of the New York Times’ Sam Tanenhaus, author of 'The Death of Conservatism,' on that same show.  Tanenhaus delivered the following two opinions with an admirably straight face:
SAM TANENHAUS: Yeah, and it was interesting to go to the Clinton school and tell the audience there that the last conservative president in America was Bill Clinton.  In my view, which I describe in the book.  Because he’s a guy who adjusted his politics, his ideology to suit the temper of the times, and I think that’s what a real conservative does.  A pragmatic conservative.  And so he came in as this kind of, a starry-eyed Kennedy– Johnson liberal. And what does he see?  He sees that people believe in the free-market system that Reagan brought in, so he’s going to let it go.  And so he even let it go too far.
On this first charge, it is not as offensive that Clinton is counted as the last truly conservative president, as the milch-toast definition which creates that impression.  To be sure, the idea that Clinton is any sort of conservative is a ravaging of history truly worthy of the pages of the New York Times.  And while Clinton is clearly no conservative, the insanely superficial definition of conservatism used to reach this conclusion is one which assigns conservatism no greater intellectual prowess than mere populist capitulation.  This is exactly the opposite of classic American conservatism.  Conservatism, as a philosophy, is both deeper and broader than the Tanenhauses or Frums of the world would have people believe.  Tanenhaus’ working definition of conservatism, by contrast, could have been written by David Letterman.

An entire book could (and should) be written on the ways in which Tanenhaus is wrong.  Perhaps that could be Mark Levin’s next New York Times best-selling project?

And then, Tanenhaus reaches far beyond his experience:
WILLIE GEIST: The President has been blasted by some of our allies and the Republicans for that missile shield move. Where does he – how does he handle that?

TANENHAUS: Well that’s a good question.  I think one thing he has to say here is, we’re not fighting the Cold War any more. You know, Senator McCain, great figure and really is still kind of a cold warrior.  We all remember when Russia invaded Georgia, and Senator McCain, you know, during the campaign, kind of made it sound as if we’re at war with Brezhnev again.  I mean, the world has changed.  And I think President Obama will be able to say Iran is really the threat now, in the most destabilized region. Here is a way of efficiently and competently to meet them, and to show how much muscle we have, and then try to cut a deal.  I mean, that’s how you negotiate big-time global politics.
Let us count the ways in which Tanenhaus has missed the implications of the Obama administration’s most recent foreign policy capitulation.  The example of Georgia is a particularly important reminder of why, exactly, foreign policy between nation-states is an important element of national security.  According to British press, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, owned by BP, was attacked by Russian forces during the conflict – a pipeline which transports one million barrels of oil per day from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.  It is also “the only major conduit for Central Asian resources not under Russian control.”  Lastly, for those who might not be aware of the cities for which this pipeline is named, the countries containing this pipeline are Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey.  The significance of Turkey is nearly self-explanatory, but the important point is this:

The Russian supply of oil in the Middle East is heavily tilted to Iran.

Thus we see that Iran is the face of the threat – but that behind the Iranian mask, is a Russian bear.  The geopolitics of the Middle East are a great game between Russia and the United States, with a growing interest in the allegiance of China and Iran as the stakes.

And Tanenhaus gives us the spectacularly ignorant thought that “Iran is really the threat now” – and expects anyone with Google and an hour of free time to believe his assessment?

This is, in a phrase, stunningly superficial.  Tanenhaus should stick to reviewing books, and leave the geopolitics – and philosophical debates – to the professionals.