The Things People Say…

No administration in America’s history would, I think, ever have considered such a step that we just found out President Obama is supporting today,” Palin said.

Across the globe in Prague, Obama was asked by ABC News to respond to the criticism.

“I really have no response,” the president said. “Because last I checked, Sarah Palin’s not much of an expert on nuclear issues.” [emphasis added]

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the President was replying to Sarah Palin who, as the President is correct to note, is no particular authority on questions of nuclear proliferation, I have a couple of responses to this.

1) As others have pointed out, Obama, by responding at all, has pretty much ceded this news cycle to Palin and ensured that that her face and her words will be all over the news;

2) He did this in a way that made him sound smug and condescending. While he is certainly correct that Palin is no expert, it’s kind of silly for him to act as if he himself is some sort of authority on the issue. Basically he is implicitly arguing that anyone who has a difference of opinion with him on this issue is not credible unless they are in possession of supposed “expert” credentials, a category which he somehow believes includes himself.

While it can credibly be argued that he probably has certain insights on our country’s security disposition that Palin does not have access to, the treaty, as far as I understand it, is a largely symbolic reduction of nuclear arms stockpiles — both the US and Russia remain in possession of enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. He’s also promised not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries. Neither of these things require any sort of “expert” knowledge to understand or have an opinion on.

In any case, unnecessary pugnacity and arrogance aside (though these are swiftly becoming hallmarks of his Administration’s public relations, at least when critics are involved), by responding in the way he did, Obama also opened himself to the exact sort of criticism he’s leveling at Palin, who

shot back Friday during a speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans with a reference to Obama’s early career choice. Mocking the president, she dismissed “all the vast nuclear experience that he acquired as a community organizer.” [emphasis added]

Well, she’s kind of got him there, unless one wants to try out the argument that simply by dint of being President, he has special knowledge of “nuclear issues” (broadly speaking and not including classified information like the specific disposition of American nuclear forces, which this treaty does not seem to deal with anyways). If that’s the case, it’s kind of hard to square that argument with what seem to be the President’s own ideas about nuclear proliferation;

3) That is to say, Obama’s arrogance on this issue is made all the more ridiculous in light of his own previous statements. To put it bluntly, they betray a staggering amount of naivety and a nearly complete lack of understanding about what he calls “nuclear issues.” To wit:

Just hours after North Korea launched a long-range rocket, President Barack Obama called for “a world without nuclear weapons” and said the United States has a “moral responsibility ” to lead the way, as the only nation ever to use them.


Obama proposed doing so by reducing America’s arsenal, if not altogether eliminating it; hosting a summit on nuclear security; seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and pursuing a new agreement aimed at stopping the production of fissile materials.

Also, he proposes gathering up all vulnerable nuclear material – or “loose nukes” – within four years. [emphasis added]

I can think of few serious commentators who still cling to the childish and unrealistic idea that the “nuclear genie,” as it were, can be put back into the bottle. Nuclear weapons can’t be un-invented. Even if the United States and every other country on earth were to completely destroy their entire nuclear arsenals — even if every nuclear weapon on the planet were destroyed — all it would take is one country — or even one lone scientist like the notorious A.Q. Khan — to decide to use existing plans to build a warhead and the whole experiment is ruined.

Obama also seems painfully unaware that, for all their destructive potential, nuclear weapons have also played a very powerful peacekeeping role. It seems unlikely (to me at least) that the Cold War would have remained “cold” had not the threat of nuclear obliteration obviated the possibility of a large-scale conventional war between the United States and the USSR in Central Europe and East Asia.

Moreover, he seems to think that he can “gather up” “all vulnerable nuclear material” within four years? We’re approaching halfway through year number two. Maybe he’ll get started soon.

All joking aside, the President’s high rhetoric about a “world without nuclear weapons” sounds like the words of an unsophisticated and naive child. That means he really shouldn’t be lecturing anyone about “not being much of an expert on nuclear issues.”

Sarah Palin might not be the most credible voice in the world when it comes to “nuclear issues,” but President Obama has implied that her opinions — and by extension the opinions of anyone else who doesn’t meet his standards of “expertise” — are beneath him. That’s unfortunate, given that she is far from the only person who has criticized him on this. Rather than offering a coherent and informed rebuttal — drawing, perhaps, on some of that “insider knowledge” he has access to — Obama has essentially resorted to defending himself by saying “You’re stupid. Shut up.”

The President fancies himself something of an orator and a diplomat. Alas, sometimes the best communicators know when to keep their mouths shut. By jumping into this particular fray and trying to position himself as an expert, however, he’s only managed to make a buffoon of himself.


4 Responses to “The Things People Say…”

  1. 1 cholm725
    April 9, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    What does he gain by staying silent?

    Why NOT encourage Palin? She is the death knell of rational conservative thought.

    George Bush was lauded for being a smug dick, and Cheney got all kinds of chuckles and thumbs-up for telling Congressmen to “Go fuck yourself” on the floor of the Senate.

    You can critique him as you have above, and your analysis seems pretty spot on to me in terms of how it will affect the media cycle, except I’m not so sure that telling Palin and her ilk that they’re stupid and need to shut up is a bad thing…even if it’s from the POTUS.

    He also may not be an expert himself, but he certainly has direct access to everything he needs to know. Palin does not. It’s also kind of a leap to assume that by pointing out that Palin is not an expert is somehow him touting himself as an expert.

    The rhetoric about a world without nuclear weapons was said by Reagan and many others…it’s very typical rhetoric when dealing with these issues. Again, I’d say this is less of Obama saying anything in particular and more of him sticking to the status quo.

    As for gathering up loose nukes, the program that does that had its funding cut by the Bush Administration, so they’re probably playing a little catch-up. It’s still not a bad idea, but a timeline almost always is in politics since you’re fucked as soon as you say it, don’t meet it, meet it, or whatever.

    I don’t think anyone believe the genie will go back anytime soon, or ever. It’s more like people saying, “Why do we have thousands of nukes when all we need is one MIRV on an ICBM?”

  2. 2 cholm725
    April 9, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    Here’s the full exchange too, which clarifies his point:

    STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to get to some of those broader issues. Because you’re also facing criticism on that. Sarah Palin, taking aim at your decision to restrict the use of nuclear weapons. Your pledge not to strike nations, non-nuclear nations, who abide by the nonproliferation treaty. Here’s what she said. She said, “It’s unbelievable, no other administration would do it.” And then she likened it to kids on the playground. She said you’re like a kid who says, “Punch me in the face, and I’m not going to retaliate.” Your response?

    OBAMA: I really have no response. Because last I checked, Sarah Palin’s not much of an expert on nuclear issues.

    STEPHANOPOULOS: But the string of criticism has been out there among other Republicans as well. They think you’re restricting use of nuclear weapons too much.

    OBAMA: And what I would say to them is that if the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff are comfortable with it, I’m probably going to take my advice from them and not from Sarah Palin.

    STEPHANOPOULOS: But not concerned about her criticisms?

    OBAMA: No.

  3. 3 Vincent
    April 12, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    What does he gain by staying silent?

    Well, by not acknowledging her remarks, he maintains a little dignity as opposed to looking like an arrogant jerk. Or even better, wouldn’t a great response have been: “I have heard Mrs. Palin’s comments and I understand her concerns. That being said, I and my advisors disagree.”

    George Bush was lauded for being a smug dick

    Hm. I guess I never thought of Bush as being “smug.” A bit lost, perhaps. Certainly overshadowed by the people around him. But I can’t recall too many instances where he attacked specific critics. The Obama Administration, on the other hand, can’t get enough of picking fights with Palin, calling out radio talk show hosts like Limbaugh, and wringing their collective hands about Fox News.

    I’m not so sure that telling Palin and her ilk that they’re stupid and need to shut up is a bad thing…even if it’s from the POTUS.

    Well, this gets to what I was saying above. Obama doesn’t really play a very convincing “tough guy” and when he tries to play one on TV he tends to come across like… well, a guy who’s trying real hard to pretend he’s tough. The problem is that he’s really tone-deaf about it. A lot of people are already joking that they wish he’d be as tough on Iran as he is on Rush Limbaugh.

    He also may not be an expert himself, but he certainly has direct access to everything he needs to know. Palin does not. It’s also kind of a leap to assume that by pointing out that Palin is not an expert is somehow him touting himself as an expert.

    Tell me what about this treaty requires any specialized knowledge to comment upon.

    I think you have a point re: Reagan, though, and it’s one that I hadn’t really considered. You’re right that “we must get rid of nuclear weapons” has been standard boilerplate for decades. That being said, I suspect that Ronald Reagan had a far more realistic view of “nuclear issues” than Obama does, though my only “proof” is intuition. I think Obama is mostly interested in the symbolism and the appearance of making grand gestures (does anyone really think there’s a danger of nuclear war between the US and Russia, circa 2010?), whereas Reagan was taking concrete steps to reduce the possibility of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

    As for cleaning up “loose nukes in four years…” Well, I don’t think that the idea is necessarily a bad one. The more of this stuff that can be secured, the better. The whole “in four years” thing, however, seems hopelessly naive, on the level of Rumsfeld’s famous “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months” comment about the Iraq War.

    I mean… just about anyone, even an uninformed amateur like myself, with none of the ultra-secret info that President Obama has at his disposal, should be able to figure out that setting any timetable for such a project, especially a four year timetable is totally unrealistic.

    Again, it comes down to the empty symbolism and pointless dramatic gestures of which he seems so fond. Either he really believes it can be done, in which case he’s hopelessly naive, or he knows it can’t, which would make him a liar who probably shouldn’t be lecturing anyone on their opinions, since his would seem to exist only for convenience.

    It’s not just a matter of “sticking to a timetable.” Everyone knows “four years” (his term of office, natch) is no real “timetable.” Much like the stuff that comes out of Sarah Palin’s mouth, it’s just dumb, useless words signifying nothing. Watching all this petty squabbling between the Obama Administration and all its various domestic enemies is like watching the Three Stooges hit one another, but considerably less funny.

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