Obama’s response to the attacks also raises a more political question: Why hasn’t a man known for his rhetorical gifts done more to address the fear the attacks instill in ordinary Americans? – Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post
It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, in a harsh world of partisanship and amidst the instant Twitter feed, to answer emotion and fear with facts. Barack Obama, never particularly good at the soft arts of politics, including the basic political skill of clearly and patiently explaining his policies, learned that lesson anew this week.
It must gall Obama, a smart and careful man, even if his legion of opponents and distractors never admit it, to have to confront a smart, calculating and cynical man like Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz taunted Obama in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the mad rush to denounce Syrian refuges to debate him on the issues and “insult me to my face.”
One almost wishes Obama would simply say: “Ted, you’re just not that important. We are talking about bigger things than your ego or campaign.” But that type of putdown is just not the Obama way and you cannot belittle unless you first explain. Obama’s presidency-long inability – or unwillingness – to effectively and consistently confront his critics and explain himself is among his major shortcomings as a leader.
Obama has an off putting tendency when challenged to either adopt the persona of a law school lecturer and make a legal case, or simply embrace, as he did this week, a dismissive tone with his critics. Perhaps an effective strategy when the issues are trivial, but not when the stakes are as high as they are in our post-Paris moment. Obama often seems to float above the circus, aloof and detached and when he does engage, as he did recently on the refugee issue, his dismissive, lecturing tone is counterproductive.
Even with Republicans offering little but recycled talking points – the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank correctly says Republican plans to deal with the so called Islamic State involves “killing them with clichés.” – the Paris attack and the resulting climate of fear call for more from a president who can, if he puts his mind to it, be a supremely effective communicator.
The World Needs…
“The world needs American leadership,” said Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new House Speaker. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California opined that “we want our homeland to be secure,” while Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana spoke of the need to “go and root out and take on ISIS.” Clichés for sure, but language that speaks to the need to offer leadership, reassurance and perspective.
The latest outrage from the continuing frontrunner Donald Trump, a call for closing mosques and creating a national database of Muslims, once would have been a disqualifying comment in national politics, but Trump will probably ride it higher in the polls. Such are the days of our lives and such is the ability of a demagogue to stir up fear and hatred.
For his part Cruz says “we are at war with ISIS,” but short of calling for greater use of American air power he offers precious little beyond what the Obama Administration is currently doing. Cruz and the others hoping to draft in the wake of Trump’s openly racist appeal to Americans who disdain immigrants (and now refugees) have succeeded, at least temporarily, in shifting the national debate from defeating a radical ideology to closing the borders to the victims of that ideology.
It is craven, cynical and fundamentally un-American, but in the hands of a modern day Joseph McCarthy like Cruz or a political P.T. Barnum like Trump it sells with the voters both need to crawl to the top of the GOP heap. It also resonates with many Americans who are just frightened and confused and seek candid reassurance and common sense. Lindsay Graham, the one true hawk in the Republican field, is so far behind he can speak the truth about the pandering of those higher in the polls.
“Are you willing to do what it takes to destroy ISIL?” Graham said recently referring to Cruz and others who are long on cliché, but short on ideas. “Are you willing to commit American ground forces in support of a regional army to destroy the caliphate? If you’re not, then you’re not ready to be the Commander-in-Chief, in my view, and you’re really no different than Obama.”
This is the crux of the real debate the Congress and the nation needs. What do we do to destroy these violent remnants from the 13th Century? I’m waiting for a Congressional committee to actually have a hearing and call some real experts to testify about real options. That’s old fashioned, I know, but used to be what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did.
Ground troops? Will the American public accept that? What will greater air strikes accomplish? If Syria’s Assad is deposed, which is American policy, who and what replaces him? We thought Iraq was tidied up when Saddam toppled and that didn’t work out so well. Would Syria be different and why? Do we risk a joint effort with Putin to fight ISIS and to what end? If we arm some additional group or groups in Syria are we just doubling down on the less-than-successful Iraq policy that saw us leave millions of dollars worth of military hardware behind in the desert, hardware that in some cases the radicals now use? Are there other options? Let’s hear them.
Explain the Policy….Please
Obama’s Syrian policy and approach to ISIS have been called “feckless” and his recent comment that the movement was “contained” may well rank with George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” as the silliest thing either man said during his tenure. It is also true that the President fumbled for too long while Syria burned and the refugee crisis has occurred during his watch and will be part of his legacy. Still, unlike his fire-breathing detractors on the right, I am willing to concede that Obama has a real policy for the region, a policy largely informed by what has not worked in the recent past. What has been missing is his patient, repeated articulation of that policy.
By failing to fully take the American people into his confidence and carefully explain the stakes and the real options, Obama contributes to what is truly feckless – the domestic debate about ISIS and Syrian refugees, how to ensure U.S. and European security, and the proper and effective U.S. military and diplomatic response to the mess in the Middle East.
It is a moment that demands calm, reasoned, candid national leadership that only a president can provide. We are waiting.
A Lesson From History…
I am reminded of what leadership in a moment of crisis sounds like re-reading Winston Churchill’s remarkable speech in the wake of the abject British defeat at Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. It was one of the worst moments of World War II and had events or political rhetoric turned even a bit differently we might be living in a very different world.
Thousands upon thousands of British troops had remarkably been evacuated from the French port of Dunkirk following the collapse of the French Army west of Paris. The British troops hauled back across the English Channel escaped with their lives, but not much else. A vast amount of precious material and equipment was left behind in the interest of saving the British Army so that it might fight again. Everyone knew at the time, especially Churchill, that Dunkirk was a military disaster that ironically is now often remembered as a spectacular success.
Churchill, newly the prime minister, had to explain the disaster to the House of Commons where criticism of the government was building amid calls for an investigation of the debacle in France. The moment demanded explanation, painful candor and hope. He confronted the situation directly and brilliantly:
“We have to think of the future and not of the past,” Churchill said. “This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments – and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too – during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.
“Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”
There are too many in it…let each man search his speeches…we shall find we have lost the future. One yearns for such talk at moments of national confusion, trial and fear.
…None Whatever for Panic and Despair…
At the end of his Dunkirk speech, Churchill uttered his famous “finest hour” phrase that is the most remembered part of the speech, but a line he spoke earlier seems particularly appropriate for the current moment.
“Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”
Cheers broke out in the House of Commons.
The rhetoric from the current campaign trail regarding the Middle East is nothing if not panic and despair. It is not a time for a lecture on the law or peevish scolding, but it is time for something more from Barack Obama. He might start by repackaging Franklin Roosevelt because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. A weary and wary nation longing for strength and hope needs to hear that from the top.