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Beyond Winning and American Leadership

We have witnessed some pretty awful presidential press conferences in our time, but President Barack Obama’s performance in Turkey on Monday surpasses them all. There was nothing so memorably pithy as “I am not a crook” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but it was packed with more pure nonsense and un-presidential prickliness than anything we can recall.

The Cable News Network reached into its thesaurus to describe the president as “unyielding” in the headline, but by the second paragraph was forced to settle for “testy,” and even such polite press as Politico.com described him responding to reporters questions with “mild irritation.” We’d have gone with “annoyed,” “arrogant,” “dismissive,” “snarky,” “snarling,” and “downright un-presidential,” but that would only be a warm-up for all for the pure nonsense that he spouted. Little wonder that the president was “defensive,” as other press outlets put it, as the recent victories of the Islamic State in Paris and Beirut and over the skies of Egypt and across an expanding caliphate in the Middle East, as well as his venue in recently-bombed and refugee-swarmed Turkey, forced him to defend his foreign policy in general and his dealings with the Islamic State in particular. Pure nonsense is necessary to defend such a record, and some un-presidential prickliness is inevitable.

Obama had once scoffed at the Islamic State as a “jayvee team” of terrorism, and even after it seizure of an area larger than most European countries and its downing of a Russian jetliner over of Egypt and successful bombings against its Shiite enemies in Lebanon and another deadly attack in Turkey, and just hours before it launched a coordinate attack on six sites in Paris he boasted they were “contained,” so even the most cooperative press had to ask if he might have underestimated the enemy. The president explained that the expansion their Middle Eastern caliphate had not lately increased, a claim that even one of the most reliably supportive Democratic senators disputes, and which ignores its recent incursions into Lebanon and Turkey and the very heart of France, and we think even the most sympathetic observer would note some mild irritation on the president’s part.
Obama was more upbeat as he announced that “What is different this time” is that all the major parties involved in the Syrian civil war now “agree on a process that is needed to end this war, and so while we are very clear-eyed that this will be a very, very difficult road still ahead, the United States, in partnership with our coalition, is going to remain relentless on all fronts — military, humanitarian, and diplomatic. We have the right strategy, and we’re going to see it through.” This is hardly Churchillian in its rhetorical spelndor, even without the accompanying prickliness, and only reminds how very, very difficult that road to surrender to Iran over its nuclear ambitions proved to be, and it was immediately undercut by his comments on how relentless the United States will be on the military front. “And let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria. What happens when there’s a terroristic attack from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya, perhaps? Or if there’s a terrorist attack that’s operating anywhere else — in North Africa, or in Southeast Asia?”
This is a devastating rebuttal of whatever straw men Obama imagines are advocating 50,000 troops in Syria, but it raises unsettling and unasked questions about what Obama would do in the case of a terrorist attack from Yemen or the former Libya that he bombed into chaos or North Africa or Southeast Asia or some other likely place of origin, and it has little to with the debate that’s actually occurring. Not only in the Republican nomination race but even in the most respectable foreign policy think tanks there is a growing consensus that some change of course is necessary, and the president responded to such contrary opinions by saying that “if people want to pop off and have opinions about what they think would do, have a specific plan. If they think somehow that their advisors are better than my joint chiefs of staff or my generals on the ground, I would like to meet them. I would like to have that debate.” Reports indicate that those generals on the ground are being ignored, and the joints chiefs of staff at this point are more considered concerned with gender equity and a welcoming atmosphere for non-traditional recruits, and the advice Obama has been following has turned out as it has, so the president is left with prickliness.
“What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people and protect the people in the region who are getting killed to protect our allies and people like France. I’m too busy for that,” the president, sounding rather testy. The statement implies than “winning” and “American leaders” are scare quote-worthy slogans that have no relationship to what will protect America and the people in the regions we’re doing some of the killing and for allies as well as “people like France,” and if it were only pithier it would live in presidential press conference infamy with “I am not a crook” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The historical consequences of such thinking, though, are likely to be far worse.
There was the familiar talk about not being at war with Islam, which Obama noted that even George W. Bush had said, and some worries that you can’t deal with suicide bombers, which isn’t even Rooseveltian, given that FDR had the Navy stand up against kamikaze pilots, and similar prickliness, but he topped it all with his insistence that America grant asylum to at least 100,000 “refugees” from the Syrian civil war, and his support for Europe taking in millions more. Those “refugees” include a suspiciously high number of fighting-age males, many have proved not be from Syria at all, at least one was involved in the horrific attacks on France, and despite his administration’s earnest assurances that they’ll all be carefully checked out there’s really no way of knowing, given the lack of Syrian record-keeping and current poor relations with the Syrian government, who might be a bad guy among the newfound wards of the state. This is all part of that humanitarian front, apparently, and the president insists it would be racist and xenophobic and downright un-American to question the wisdom of relocating the Middle East’s apparently unmanageable pathologies into America and the rest of the west, and that his more enlightened attitudes will eventually win the heart of the Muslim world.
We expect that most of the western world, even the bluest portions of the formerly stiff-spined America, will expect a less prickly and more robust response to the latest outrages. The Islamic State seems poised on further outrages yet, and far more robust responses will be required.

— Bud Norman

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