It’s been a week of shocks, failures and gaffes, different in severity but all revealing.
In Washington Rep. Kevin McCarthy, presumed successor to Speaker John Boehner, seemed to be acting out what he understands to be the anger and aggression of the GOP base. He’s grim-visaged, stern. He says “frustrated” a lot. I guess when you’re not sure what substantive moves on-the-ground Republicans desire, you go to stylistic concerns. Mr. Boehner usually opted for an easygoing, humorous dignity that sometimes required a certain verbal obscurity. He was relatively careful, strategically colorful—“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”—and couldn’t stop his eyes from filling with tears, which in a Democrat might have been alarming but in a Republican was endearing. You can’t be wild, grubby or too vividly partisan as speaker of all the House, especially if you’re a Republican because you’ll be called on it. A problem for Mr. Boehner was that his dignity made him look impassive when his base was seething.
Mr. McCarthy seems to have decided to show he’s seething, too, and bare-knuckled and rough and tough. On “Hannity” Monday, he spoke of how he’s going to be “different” as speaker. He wasn’t wrestled into the following words, he eagerly shared them: “What you’re gonna see is a conservative speaker that takes a conservative Congress that puts a strategy to fight and win. And let me give you one example. Everyone thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”
Oh dear. Many of us actually thought the Benghazi investigations were driven by a desire to get the facts of a tragedy in which four people died and the administration’s response veered from misleading to dishonest. Instead they’re driven by a merely partisan agenda? At least one of Mr. McCarthy’s colleagues has, appropriately, asked for an apology—he shouldn’t be using their work to help his immediate prospects. Mrs. Clinton responded with her own special brand of faux-sadness, telling Al Sharpton that Mr. McCarthy’s statement “dishonors” those who died. She’ll be throwing that in Republicans’ faces when she testifies Oct. 22.
Mr. McCarthy is well-liked in the House, a veteran said to be a natural lover of the nuts and bolts. But it will be surprising if some of his fellow Republicans don’t start asking: “He’s got the guts and the hunger, but does he have the brains?”
In the Planned Parenthood hearings, some Republican members similarly acted out anger and indignation, but seem to have gotten little for it. They were not in general efficacious in their questioning. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards acted the part of a long-suffering woman being abused by crude, hectoring men. A focus seemed to be on financial issues—how much she is paid and Planned Parenthood makes. But that, as Mona Charen notes in National Review, is not the reason for the hearings. The reason is the harrowing videotapes, which were not shown. If they couldn’t be used, the hearings could have been delayed until they could. Without them, the real horror got lost. The appearance of men bullying a woman did not get lost.
The Republicans looked angry. They were real mad! Which I guess is what they think is needed now.
The week’s big failure was the administration’s, and it was of course Russia’s going full-bore into Syria. This wasn’t Vladimir Putin “enacting” anything. Even the Obama administration didn’t “act,” really. They scrambled, desperately, stung by surprise and humiliation.
Mr. Putin has moved to fill the void left by American inaction; he is attempting to displace the U.S. as the region’s dominant outside power. The Russians say they are bombing ISIS, but there is little evidence of that. By all accounts they are bombing U.S.-backed rebels. Mr. Putin is attempting to prop up his client Bashar Assad, and sending a message to radicals and extremists who may one day move on Russia. An imposed Syrian stability is in Moscow’s interest: He’ll show the destabilizers who’s boss. He is—once again!—asserting Russia’s place as a force in the world. He is trying to demonstrate to America’s allies that Russia is a better bet, either as a reliable friend or a dangerous foe.
Mr. Putin’s move is worse than a snub to President Obama. It’s an insult, a cuffing.
It is generally assumed Mr. Putin moves in other nations to whip up nationalist fervor and bolster his position at home. That would likely be a side benefit to this venture, not a motive. Is he moving to humiliate Mr. Obama? That would be a side benefit, too. He means to emerge as top dog. Old Putin cliché: He’s a whacked-out would-be czar riding shirtless on a horse. Emerging Putin cliché: “This guy means business.” He’s a deadlier and more acute strategic thinker than has been appreciated. He’s one cool customer.
Part of what has happened is due to the president’s habitual cloud-talking. In cloud-talking you say words into the air and then ask: “Isn’t that a pretty cloud?” Since 2011 the president has been saying, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Now he uses the word transition—Syria must “transition” away from Assad. Stepping down, red lines, transitions—the cloud-talk enters the air, has no force, and disappears. The world is impressed by actions.
Russia may in time move on ISIS, and if it does that will scare them. To ISIS the U.S. is ambivalent, half-hearted. Mr. Obama is dithering, or pursuing some grand strategy that exists in his head and is nowhere else discernible. (Maybe that strategy is to diminish U.S. leadership in the Mideast and withdraw from the region on the ground there is little we can achieve there. But in that case he would welcome Mr. Putin and see him as a means to his end. Instead, the sight of Mr. Putin leaves Mr. Obama jittery and off his game. Mr. Putin in fact is just about the only world leader who seems to rattle him, as if Mr. Obama doesn’t know what to make of someone who resists him, dislikes him, and doesn’t care if everyone knows.)
ISIS would take Putin seriously—he is not timorous about the use of force, as he has shown in Ukraine. And Russia’s reputation for brutishness has, after all these years, survived. ISIS will not enjoy being attacked by Russia, if they are attacked by Russia.
As for Assad, he’s famously ruthless but he’s also turned out to be tougher than Washington understood. When told four years ago that he was over, he essentially did a Moe Greene, from “The Godfather”: “I buy you out, you don’t buy me out. . . . The Corleone family don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore.”
Yes, in the end Moe was done in. But he was up against Michael Corleone, not Fredo.