The New York Times has a fascinating piece by Peter Baker about a series of off-the-record dinners President Obama has had recently with Washington foreign policy insiders.
Some of the guests have been indiscreet enough to share the President’s musings with the press, but it’s hard to blame them. Presumably the White House wanted to get a message out about what the President is thinking. This wasn’t an intelligence briefing and it wasn’t a meeting of the war cabinet, and under the circumstances, the White House probably expected details of the dinner to leak and welcomed the chance to make some points, first to the high level guests and then through them to the nation at large.
Most substantively, President Obama appears to be warning Syria’s Assad in no uncertain terms that if Syria fires on U.S. warplanes conducting strikes, the United States will crush his air defenses and leave him so weakened that his overthrow will be certain. That is a big deal; the legal position may be a bit dicey, but Obama is asserting the right of U.S. warplanes to conduct any and all operations they wish anywhere over Syrian territory. That is an ultimatum Dick Cheney could love, but it is also another red line drawn in the sands of the Middle East. As with all red lines, it gives the other side power; it is up to Assad rather than Obama now whether the war in Syria gets much bigger than originally planned.
The other piece of hard news emerging from the dinners was that President Obama called the President of France a liar. Hollande claims France doesn’t ransom captives, Obama allegedly said, but he lies—France does in fact pay ransom. (France is not alone; millions for tribute, not one red cent for defense seems to sum up where many European countries are headed these days.) Again, saying nasty things about French politicians sounds more like something that would come out of W’s White House in that hyperactive first term than one might expect from Mr. Cool. But there it is.
Beyond that, two points from the Baker story seem particularly striking. The first is that if the President’s dinner guests are understanding him correctly, the critics really seem to be getting under his skin. As Baker writes,
It was clear to the guests how aware Mr. Obama was of the critics who have charged him with demonstrating a lack of leadership. He brought up the criticism more than once with an edge of resentment in his voice.
“He’s definitely feeling it,” said one guest. At one point, Mr. Obama noted acidly that President Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon only to have hundreds of them killed in a terrorist attack because of terrible planning, and then withdrew the remaining ones, leaving behind a civil war that lasted years. But Reagan, he noted, is hailed as a titan striding the earth.
One can sympathize with the President’s frustration, but incidents like the Marine disaster in Lebanon and Iran-Contra were dwarfed by Reagan’s historic accomplishment in putting the Soviet Union on course to destroy itself, ending a forty year global conflict that had tested the United States to its limits. President Obama still has two years on his watch; if he delivers like Reagan he will be remembered like Reagan, and frankly I hope for all our sakes that that is what happens.
But the second and more striking point is that while the critics are definitely getting under the President’s skin, he doesn’t yet seem to have figured out exactly why criticisms of his leadership are resonating so broadly. Again, from Baker:
“Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than ‘don’t do stupid things,’ ” guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.”
This is the narrative the President seems to be clinging to (bitterly, judging from some of the comments): the critics are against him because he isn’t a hot head. He doesn’t jump in with both feet; he measures twice and cuts once. He sees the complexities and wrestles with them, and then does the best thing for the country even if some people think he is moving too slowly. Partisan opponents and superficial critics mistake his Olympian calm, his deliberative conduct of foreign policy for wimpishness. He offers good policy; they boo him because they want theater.
If only this were true.
All presidents have a lot of critics, and no doubt some of President Obama’s critics are unfairly hammering him. But that’s hardly the main thrust of the serious critiques that, one would hope, he would be thinking about and responding to.
The real criticism of the President isn’t that his foreign policy is too deliberative, it is that his deliberations don’t seem to end with policies that, well, work. He put a lot of thought and effort into the reset with Russia; the results are what we see. His carefully considered and cool-headed search for moderate Islamists and attempts to build relationships with them didn’t end well in either Turkey or Egypt, and it is hard to see what it accomplished. His humanitarian intervention in Libya left that country worse off than he found it, and shows very little evidence of foresight or careful thinking on his part. His peacemaking diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians has been conspicuously less successful than the efforts of most of his predecessors, and the most recent Gaza debacle further weakened our damaged standing in the region. Nobody seems to be hailing his Afghan strategy as a masterpiece, and few think he handled Iraq particularly well. Old allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia seem to doubt his resolve, in six years he doesn’t seem to have developed particularly close or effective relationships with other world leaders, and more and more observers at home and abroad believe that he has lost control of events.
None of this is about pace or style. If President Obama were getting good results and his strategies seemed to be working, nobody would be complaining about how long it took him to make up his mind, or criticizing him for choosing complicated and subtle approaches.
If he were twice as slow and twice as nuanced in his approach to key issues, the American people would be cheering him on and the delirious think tank illuminati would be dancing before him and scattering rose petals beneath his triumphant feet—if his policies were working. It’s the impression of confusion, failure and retreat, not impatience with deliberation and nuance, that is undermining President Obama’s standing in the country and the world and causing Democratic strategists to rip out their hair.
There is some evidence from the Baker piece that the President’s deepest response to criticism is to say that results are impossible — that Abraham Lincoln and George Washington combined couldn’t handle the problems now troubling the world. It is true that some of the problems he faces are intractable, and true, also, that some of his critics are simply blaming him for things that no one can control. And the President also has a point that President Bush did not exactly leave the world in an idyllic place.
Even so, “No, we can’t” was not the slogan President Obama ran on back in 2008. The oceans were going to begin to recede, Guantanamo would close, and ‘smart diplomacy’ was going to heal the world. He didn’t base his 2012 re-election campaign on the idea that the world was a mess and that no one can really deal with it. He claimed to have dealt effectively with the jihadis, leaving only remnants and the JV. Otherwise, things were good. Governor Romney was called an alarmist for warning that the reset was at best cosmetic and that American foreign policy was in trouble.
President Obama isn’t in trouble because he moves cautiously. President Obama isn’t in trouble because he prefers cool reason to hot passion when it comes to making big foreign policy moves. President Obama isn’t in trouble because his decisions are grounded in the complexities of the real world. President Obama is in trouble because fewer and fewer people at home or abroad think that the policies he chooses can bring about the ends he seeks.
It is a substance issue, not a style problem, and it is grounded in observation and reason, not passion and personal hostility. Though some of his critics are overheated, and some no doubt are more motivated by partisanship than anything else, at its core the increasingly widespread negative assessment of the President’s foreign policy is a cool judgment and not a hot one.
All that said, the President isn’t totally wrong to feel that the objections to his foreign policy approach have a style-based component. What the critics (the ones most worth listening to, anyway) are pointing toward is a blind spot in the President’s Spock-like, Vulcan approach to the international situation. President Obama’s apparent difficulty in grasping the significant and often critical role elements like emotion, excitement and momentum play in world politics may be one of the reasons why his policies so consistently fall short of his goals. Again, from the reports on his dinner time conversation in the Baker piece:
But the president said he had already been headed toward a military response before the men’s deaths. He added that ISIS had made a major strategic error by killing them because the anger it generated resulted in the American public’s quickly backing military action.
If he had been “an adviser to ISIS,” Mr. Obama added, he would not have killed the hostages but released them and pinned notes on their chests saying, “Stay out of here; this is none of your business.” Such a move, he speculated, might have undercut support for military intervention.
It is probably true that a lower profile by ISIS would have made it more difficult to win support for airstrikes in the United States and around the world, but that’s hardly the point. ISIS is a master of the pornography of politics and the pornography of perverted religion: slave girls, heads on spikes, executions uploaded to the internet, naked defiance in the face of its enemies. ISIS isn’t trying to win a conventional geopolitical chess match, it wants to electrify millions of potential supporters and change the nature of the game. The execution of American hostages succeeded brilliantly, from an ISIS point of view. It has made President Obama look weak, forced him to change his entire Middle East policy and brought the jihadi movement back into the world spotlight. The politics of spectacle has eclipsed Al-Qaeda, weakened Assad’s position, drawn the awe and admiration of jihadi wanna-bes and funders, and elevated 30,000 thugs and nutjobs to a major force in global events. Yes, that elevation carries with it the risk of serious pushback and even conventional military defeat, but jihadi ideology has benefited enormously from what ISIS has accomplished so far. ISIS still isn’t going to conquer the world, but radical Islam is closer than ever to launching the clash of civilizations of which bin Laden dreamed.
ISIS has much less money than President Obama does, many fewer fighters, much less equipment and in every other conventional measure of power it is a pipsqueak compared to the Leader of the Free World. But who is acting, and who is reacting? Who is dancing to whose tune?
ISIS doesn’t need President Obama’s advice; it clearly knows its job better than he does. The same thing is true of Putin; the Russian president has a much weaker hand, objectively speaking, than President Obama, but in part because President Putin understands the importance of spectacle and momentum in politics, he has been able to run rings around the Vulcan-in-Chief.
Drama and spectacle are among the assets that successful world leaders employ; that doesn’t mean that those leaders are hotheaded or stupid. The impression, hopefully inaccurate, that the Baker piece gives us is of a president who knows things aren’t working but doesn’t think he has anything to learn. If that is really where this president is, he and we have some hard times ahead.