Do Obama's foreign policy critics really want more spin and less candor?

Maybe honesty is not always the best policy

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Something is off kilter in the cosmos when the political press corps wants the president to spin them more. 

The president is under pundit siege for being too honest and straightforward in talking about foreign policy. This is like snowballs freezing in the hell; the jaded jousters of the news media want more baloney, less beef.

This has been a common response to the president saying last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to defeat ISIS.  Even sympathetic critics have jumped on the president for that alleged gaffe. 

“The statement may have had the virtue of candor, as Obama weighs the military and diplomatic components of a U.S. response and seeks support from other nations,” Dan Balz, one of our best political reporters, wrote in The Washington Post. “But it hardly projects an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.”

In The New York Times, the reliably liberal columnist Frank Bruni scolded Obama for not providing better spin:

“Not having a strategy, at least a fixed, definitive one, is understandable. The options aren’t great, the answers aren’t easy and the stakes are enormous.

“But announcing as much? It’s hard to see any percentage in that. It gives no comfort to Americans. It puts no fear in our enemies….

“… He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that ‘America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything’; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

“This is all true. It’s in tune with our awareness of our limits. And it reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach.

“But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R.”

I find it hard to see the logic here. Bruni says Obama’s assessment of America’s limited capacity to exert self-interested, prudent power in the global crises of the moment is “true” and that he properly is not repeating the overreaching mistakes of post 9/11 foreign policy.  And that isn’t the right message to send? What is the right message? Dishonesty? Bravado? Better spin? He is putting Obama in an impossible bind.

And so is the American public.  Polling consistently shows Americans are cautious, war wary and don’t want to repeat the interventionism of the Bush administration. That is Obama’s position, too.  But Americans also want to feel like a superpower and Obama is not making them feel the power.  I suppose you could call that a failure of the president to fully deploy the bully pulpit. I would call it a mature and steady posture that resists phony posturing.

The whole affair of the “we don’t have a strategy” gaffe is itself a phony issue.

That remark was taken out of context and was essentially a verbal blunder.  Obama had just given a long explanation of exactly what the U.S. strategy to handle ISIS (or ISIL) was – to build a coalition of nations.

“And in order for us to degrade ISIL over the long term, we're going to have to build a regional strategy,” he said. “Now, we're not going to do that alone. We're going to have to do that with other partners.”

Then Obama took a follow-up question, “Do you need Congress's approval to go into Syria?” He replied:

“But I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet. I think what I've seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently are. And I think that's not just my assessment, but the assessment of our military, as well. We need to make sure that we've got clear plans, that we're developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress and make sure that their voices are heard.”

If Obama had said, we don’t have a “specific plan and coalition” yet, there would be no flap and no gaffe. So, yeah, he misspoke.

But the bigger problem is that punditocracy, like the public, immaturely wants the illusion and comfort of control and dominance when there is none.  They want Obama to talk loudly and carry a little stick, to talk tough but not take action. Not a good plan.

Liberal and Democratic allies of the president who were fierce critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now pushing Obama to “do something.” One day it’s Syria. One day it is Iraq. One day it is Ukraine.  The Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, Diane Feinstein of California, said Obama is “too cautious.”  Does she really believe there are strong, self-interested unilateral actions just waiting to be executed?

The Republicans relentlessly demand “action.” Unless I am miscounting, if the president followed instructions from John McCain and Lindsey Graham, we’d be fighting full wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, Somalia, Yemen, Mexico and maybe Missouri.

That’s fine, that’s partisan.

The attacks Obama is facing from Democrats and the press are maybe more dangerous. Almost daily, there is some moral atrocity that is beamed instantly into our media world and which inspires outrage, frustration and a desire to act, right wrongs, to exact revenge. The beheading of American Steven Sotloff is the most recent. But Thomas Friedman notes:

“There are no words to describe the vileness of the video beheadings of two American journalists by ISIS, but I have no doubt that they’re meant to get us to overreact, à la 9/11, and rush off again without a strategy. ISIS is awful, but it is not a threat to America’s homeland.”

This is a key point: These are not threats to the homeland or direct and vital national interests. And they are not threats where unilateral American responses are a good option. NATO and Europe need to be in the trenches in Ukraine. ISIS can’t be harnessed without Arab allies.

If practical solutions to crises in these geopolitical hotspots are hard to find, a general global strategic vision is a pipedream.

In Dan Balz’s critical piece, he quotes historian Donald Kennedy of Stanford, “It’s difficult virtually to the point of impossibility to have a grand strategy in a world that is so fluid and in which we no longer yield the power we once had. In a sense that is Obama’s strategy, a recognition of that fact. So that rhetorically as well as in reality, he’s trying to diminish the expectation that we can control events.”

Harvard professor Stephen Walt unpacks this a bit more:

What these critiques lack, of course, is a convincing explanation of how doing more in all these trouble spots would make Americans safer or more prosperous.

“Unlike the reflexive threat-inflators who dominate the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, Obama didn't panic over the emergence of this lightly armed group of bloody-minded radicals whose new ‘caliphate’ extends over a lot of mostly empty territory. He recognized that this group is brutal and that its recent advances need to be halted, but he also knew it wasn't the reincarnation of the Soviet empire, Nazi Germany, or even Baathist Iraq. In particular, Obama understood that the threat to the United States itself was neither large nor imminent and that a permanent solution to the problem would require local actors to step up. Instead of doing ‘the full McCain’ and plunging back into the quicksand, Obama has done just enough to give the Kurds and the Iraqi government the opportunity to contain the problem themselves...

“The common thread to these various responses is an appreciation not just of the limits of U.S. power, but also of the limited need to exercise it. ‘Limited’ does not mean zero, which is why sensible people oppose a return to 19th-century-style isolationism. But this approach recognizes that the overwhelming majority of problems in the world do not threaten the United States directly and therefore do not require an immediate, forceful, and potentially costly U.S. response.”

Roger Cohen in The New York Times disagrees:

“The pendulum always swings too far. Obama the restrainer has been the great corrective to Bush the decider. Far from the magician imagined back in 2008, Obama has been the professional moderator. But the president has gone too far; and in so doing has undersold the nation, encouraged foes, disappointed allies, and created doubts over American power that have proved easy to exploit.”

Obama was not especially cautious in ordering the Afghanistan surge; it may have looked powerful but it led to enormous loss of life and precious little success. He was not especially cautious in enabling NSA surveillance programs and other overreactions of the counterterrorism bureaucracy

Obama’s current caution in action and candor in rhetoric in the face of a new wave of bellicosity appears to be lousy public relations.  It strikes me as leadership, just not the kind that is easily recognized in the present. 

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