The Summer of Obama’s Caution and America’s Discontent
Americans don't seem to like a hawkish president, but they definitely don't like a weak one, either. By Ron Fournier
Wow. That was some summer. The Islamic State that President Obama dismissed as “JV” proved to be a virulent varsity—gobbling up gobs of the Middle East, beheading an American journalist, and threatening the United States. Russia invaded Ukraine. Ferguson burned. Obama shrugged.
“The truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy,” the president told Democratic donors between meetings of his national security team and rounds of golf. “In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.”
No, that’s not it. The truth of the matter is that Americans have always noticed how messy the world can be. Somebody needs to tell Obama there was media before social media.
What’s unique about our times is the nature of the threats—suicidal, homicidal, genocidal terrorists, well armed and organized, seeking the destruction of the United States. The other difference: the lack of Western leadership, starting with the president himself.
Obama’s acknowledgement that “we don’t have a strategy yet” in Syria could be forgiven if he hadn’t help spawned the ISIS wave by publicly dithering on Syria; if he hadn’t, less than a year ago, erroneously compared the terrorist state to a junior varsity club; and if he hadn’t appeared incapable of leading anybody to a solution. His own team is divided, confused, perhaps broken.
Attorney General Eric Holder called ISIS “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general,” and Secretary of State John Kerry vowed that the United States would confront the Islamic State “wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred.”
Their boss? Despite ordering airstrikes against ISIS targets, Obama doesn’t seem to agree that Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq pose an unprecedented threat to America. “Now, ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) poses an immediate threat to the people of Iraq and to the people throughout the region,” he said. “My priority at this point is to make sure that the gains of ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back.”
Democrats had comforted themselves in polls showing that a majority of Americans want their country less involved in global affairs, particularly military conflicts. Belatedly, leading members of Obama’s party are recognizing an inconvenient truth: While people don’t want their president to be hawkish, they hate to see him weakish.
“I think I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is: He’s very cautious—maybe, in this instance, too cautious,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee,” said Sunday.
On Ukraine, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power accused the Russians of opening “a new front,” and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Russia’s actions as a “direct invasion.”
Obama was unwilling to call an invasion an invasion. Contradicting Powers only hours after her remarks, the president said, “I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now …. it’s not really a shift.”
You could almost hear the eyes rolling in his Cabinet, not to mention in European capitals, where potential partners are gathering this week in a crisis-packed summit with Obama. In The Washington Post on Monday, veteran reporters Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz wrote that allies are “waiting to see whether Obama has the capacity to chart a clear, decisive course.”
Americans are waiting, too. Instead of clarity, we get condescending lectures, like the one Obama gave rich supporters about a messy world and social media.
Rather than decisiveness, the White House stalls with defensive spin, such as this gem from senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer: “There’s no timetable for solving these problems that’s going to meet the cable-news cycle.” As if the enemy is CNN, and not ISIS, which has proven to be more nimble and quick than Obama.
The White House public relations staff must think Americans are pretty dumb. How else do you explain the way chief spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri defended Obama for playing golf immediately after an address about the slaughter of journalist James Foley? “His concern for the Foleys and Jim,” Palmieri said, “was evident to all who saw and heard his statement.” Yes, just as evident as what else the world saw that day: the president’s golf cart, his golf clothes, and his wide, sporty smile.
The racially charged protests in Ferguson brought more second-guessing of Obama, as conservative and liberal partisans objected to his balanced approach. I found his tone refreshing in describing the conflict between a mostly African-American community and a majority-white police department, but Obama seems less clear-eyed about the international stage.
He tries to manage the world as he hopes it will be, rather than lead the world as it is. Yes, foreign policy is hard. These issues are both historic and existential. The American public is fickle. Congress is all but useless. And our allies in Europe are loathe to lead—or even to pay a fair price for fighting threats closer to their borders than our own.
But that’s why only one person gets to be president of the United States, and, presumably, that’s why Obama asked twice to be elected. He wanted the job. He knew its challenges (including the existence of social media). He thought he could lead. When does he get started?