8 a.m. ET: President Obama won decisively in November by promising a firm break from the policies of the Bush administration. But when it comes to national security issues, Obama hasn't necessarily steered a much different course than that of his predecessor -- until Thursday.
In a political environment consumed by health care, with occasional references to Afghanistan, Obama's move to halt a missile defense porgram in Poland and the Czech Republic temporarily refocused the commentariat on the chess match of foreign policy, and renewed a 25-year debate between liberals and conservatives on the subject. "Obama's decision to abandon a Bush-era plan for a missile defense system in Europe and establish a partly ship-based shield against Iranian rockets could tighten U.S. pressure on the Islamic republic and ease a simmering rift with Russia," the Washington Post writes. Those twin goals -- turning the heat up on Iran, and down on Russia -- are the primary motivation for Obama's move, along with the administration's argument that the new system will simply be more effective than the old one.
But intentionally or not, Obama also reignited a philosophical and strategic fight that began during the Reagan administration. The new plan, the New York Times observes, "turns Ronald Reagan’s vision of a Star Wars system on its head: Rather than focusing first on protecting the continental United States, it shifts the immediate effort to defending Europe and the Middle East." In a tough editorial, National Review writes Obama "knows how to put a smile on faces in Tehran and Moscow," and trashes his decision as the latest volley in liberals' long campaign against missile defense. The piece concludes: "The president has sent a chilling message about American resolve in the face of Russian saber-rattling. Georgia, Ukraine, and the rest of the world have learned a disturbing lesson." The Wall Street Journal editorial board hits the same themes: "Don't expect either [Poland or the Czech Republic] to follow America's lead anytime soon."
More charitable views of Obama's move played up the idea that it simply represents a shift in focus, not a surrender or a sop to Russia. "The Obama administration is not abandoning missile defense in Europe, but it is junking the previous administration's view of the missile threat posed by Iran and what that means for Europe," the Associated Press writes. Joseph Cirincione says, "This is not Munich; it is Prague. It is not appeasement; it is the new defense realism, the triumph of pragmatism over ideology." Joe Klein, though supportive of the move, warns: "The Obama Administration's diplomatic strategy is, I believe, wise and comprehensive--but it needs to show more than public concessions over time. A few diplomatic victories wouldn't hurt." Josh Marshall argues that Obama is "taking away the missile defense the Europeans have mainly been asking us for years not to build" and predicts this will "become a big 'soft on defense' cudgel for the right, particularly for folks with 2012 ambitions."
Indeed, this already has the makings of a campaign issue. Republicans have accused Democrats of being weak on national security in some form or another every two or four years for at least the last 60. The outlines of the next GOP volley on the defense issue hadn't become clear yet, given that Obama -- while making diplomatic moves that irritated conservatives -- hadn't done anything in Afghanistan, Iraq or the broader fight against terrorism to expose himself to obvious criticism from the right. Now, the plan of attack looks clearer.
On health care, the debate over Max Baucus' reform bill continues to focus on cost -- not so much the cost of the bill itself but the cost of insurance under his plan, and whether it puts an unaffordable mandate on the lower and middle classes. And there remains no easy answer to the question of which party should pay the biggest share of health insurance costs: the government, businesses or consumers. Baucus said Thursday that he would make changes to the bill to try to appease his critics, and there are a lot of those around.
Paul Krugman writes that "it has been clear for months that whatever health-care bill finally emerges will fall far short of reformers’ hopes. ... How bad does a bill have to be to make it too bad to vote for?" In his mind, the jury is still out on whether the Baucus bill is just that bad. John Dickerson suggests, "Perhaps some of the fire aimed at Baucus should be redirected at the president," since the Baucus bill does achieve many of the political and policy goals Obama has laid out. Charles Krauthammer takes on the question of whether Obama really did lie during his address to Congress, and decides: "Obama doesn't lie. He merely elides, gliding from one dubious assertion to another. This has been the story throughout his whole health-care crusade."
September 18, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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