The Magazine

Feeling Lucky?

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez was a 20-game winner four times in the 1930s. He led the league twice in wins, winning percentage, and ERA, and three times in shutouts and strikeouts. He was an awfully good pitcher. But he always said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” It’s best to be both. But if the Obama administration continues to resist being good at national security policy, we need to hope they—and we—remain lucky.

Feeling Lucky?

Despite a systemic counter-terrorism failure, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate his bomb. That was lucky. 

Despite a perverse attempt to side with our enemies in Honduras, the Honduran people ignored us and ended up with a decent and democratic—and friendly—government. That was lucky. 

Despite a foolish overhyping of the possibilities of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and an unseemly inclination to badger our close ally, nothing too damaging has happened on the ground in the region. That was lucky.

One could go on. And one could even argue that Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts was an instance of Obama luck. By killing health care (assuming it did), it may have averted a massive outpouring of voter anger that Democrats would have faced in November as a result of having forced health care down our throats. Now the issue may recede sufficiently, and if the economy comes back in the short term—partly thanks to the death of Obama’s health care and cap and trade proposals—Democrats may only have a bad, rather than awful, election year. And that would be lucky.

But the real stroke of luck would be regime change in Iran. It’s the only alternative to either a jihadist regime with nuclear weapons, or war. The administration has been pathetically timid with respect to Iran. It can’t bring itself to do the smallest things to support the Iranian dissidents. But the Green revolution could still prevail.

It sometimes works this way: the hard and controversial work of a prior administration—Ronald Reagan’s in taking on the Soviet Union, George W. Bush’s in beginning the task of changing the Middle East—isn’t reversed by its successor. The effort still has momentum. And the big change  then happens on the successor’s watch.

So if Obama doesn’t throw away our achievements in Iraq, if he perseveres in Afghanistan, if he doesn’t entirely turn his back on the freedom doctrine for the Middle East—then the Iranian people have a chance to prevail, even without a champion in the White House.

But it would be easier if they had a champion.

Some in Congress are stepping up. The death last week of Charlie Wilson is a reminder of the difference that members of Congress can make. Most accounts of how the Soviet Union was brought down tend to emphasize the Reagan defense buildup and the Strategic Defense Initiative, the deployment of the Pershings, Reagan’s moral and political support for dissidents, and his rhetorical assault on the evil empire. These were important. But one shouldn’t forget our aid to those fighting against the Soviet army in Afghanistan—and the impact in the Soviet Union of the forced withdrawal. That aid began in the Carter presidency and was spearheaded by Charlie Wilson.

It’s not clear Congress could do anything so dramatic for the Iranian protestors. But the legislation introduced last week by Senators John Cornyn and Sam Brownback at least pushes in the right direction. “The Iran Democratic Transition Act” would support—rhetorically and financially—efforts by Iranian opposition groups to remove the regime in Tehran and pave the way for a free and democratic government in Iran.

President Obama said early last week that he had “bent over backwards” to engage Iran. So he has. We’re lucky we haven’t paid a heavier price for this foolish policy. One that seems to have been driven by an odd combination of vanity and weakness. It would be good if the president now stood up straight and put the American government unambiguously and energetically on the side of the Iranians demonstrating against a dictatorship. 

With all due respect to Lefty Gomez, and to the admittedly large role of fortune in human affairs—it’s nice to be lucky, but it’s safer to be strong.  

—William Kristol


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