There have been very few moments in Barack Obama’s public life when he was entirely honest, but when he said he thought ISIS was a problem he could “manage,” he was speaking from the heart. That really is what he thinks they are.
Obama is coming off a horrible summer in which even his die-hard defenders could make only half-hearted efforts to explain why it’s okay for the President to spend all his time golfing and fundraising while the world collapses in flames. He’s looking at some of the worst polls that could ever be laid on a President’s desk, showing his Party underwater on every issue, while the public views Obama as a divisive failure of a President… numbers so bad the poll-addicted media stopped talking about the results of their own surveys. (Number of stories on ABC morning and evening newscasts about their own poll showing historic bad numbers for Obama: zero!) His efforts to spin his way out of his epic “no strategy for ISIS” blunder have failed.
So he’s got to do something, which means we’re in for an address to the nation on Wednesday night that will doubtless be filled with both finely-crafted poll-tested phrases, and incessant first-person declarations (“I have been appalled… I will no longer permit… that is why I have ordered our military leaders to…”) Obama has to put his bummer summer behind him, and let’s face it, even if he gives a speech full of holes tonight, he’ll still be able to shake the Etch-a-Sketch of history and give himself something of a clean slate. The media will shift to discussion of the speech and whatever bombing campaign Obama orders up. The images of Obama smiling and laughing on the golf course fifteen minutes after giving his allegedly “emotional” statement on the murder of James Foley will go down the memory hole. The wheel in the multimedia sky will keep on turning, and page one of the Obama playbook says this President can survive any catastrophe or scandal by playing for time until the short-attention-span media changes the subject.
Not only does Obama see the Islamic State as an issue he can manage, but he still views them as primarily a domestic political issue. He wants to do whatever it takes to get the American public off his case. One illustration of this mindset is the remarkable degree of effort Obama and his flacks are putting into revising the history of his boneheaded past comments on ISIS. Believe it or not, they’re still trying to trick us into forgetting that Obama referred to ISIS as the “jayvee” league of al-Qaeda. The President himself pulled that crap during his recent interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, who absolutely knows Obama was lying right into his face, but said nothing. Obama has put more effort into devising a strategy to spin his “jayvee” crack than he put into devising a strategy to defeat ISIS. That’s because in his mind, this is all about spinning, not winning.
Sadly, Obama’s not the only one who views the Islamic State as a political hiccup to be banished by breathing heavily into a rhetorical paper bag. The President is expected to wave aside the constitutional requirements for war-making tonight – the latest in a remarkably long streak of unilateral military actions from the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Congress, on a bipartisan basis, is fine with that. They don’t want to put their names onto something that could turn into a disaster. Republicans are thinking about 2014, Democrats about 2016. Notice how Hillary Clinton, dormant after an epic back-room beatdown from Obama’s political machine, is once again sending forth her munchkins to mutter that Obama is too “passive,” and the warrior-maid who dodged sniper fire in Tuzla would not be “gnashing her teeth the way we’re seeing time and time again with Obama.” Sounds like Hillary is putting her political chips on continuing Obama failure in Iraq and Syria. So is nearly everyone in Congress, both Republican and Democrat.
The Constitution is helpless if our politicians do not defend it. It’s one thing for a President to act quickly to stave off an imminent threat, but a long-term military commitment must be ratified by Congress. It is shameful to see both Republicans and Democrats backing away from that necessity. Even Administration officials are talking about a three-year commitment to battle the Islamic State (which, in more practical terms, means “we’ll be handing this thing off to Obama’s successor in 2017.”) That’s a war. Congress has to debate and authorize wars.
Among the many good reasons for such authorization is the necessity of rallying the American people and securing a national commitment to victory. Even when it’s done properly, as President Bush did with Iraq, public commitment can wane over time. Obama looked at the history of the Iraq war he shamelessly exploited for political gain, and concluded that as long as there is no great number of American troops in battle on the ground, an air campaign can rumble along in the back pages of the newspapers for years without any great political cost. He’s rolling the dice on no ISIS terror strikes in the West, no more genocides, no serious military threats to the Kurds or Baghdad, and not too many beheading videos. Maybe American air power can weaken the Islamic State enough for its regional enemies to put it out of business, but as long as they can hold it at bay, Obama’s political objectives have been reached.
For my part, I’m dubious that a problem like ISIS can be “managed.” The “moderate” Syrian rebels aren’t enthusiastic about serving as American proxies in a battle against ISIS, while the dictator they’re rebelling against – the man Barack Obama wanted to bomb, not long ago – becomes a de facto U.S. ally. (Maybe even a formal one, if ISIS management isn’t going well next year.) The family of journalist Steven Sotloff says “moderate” Syrian rebels captured him, and sold him to his Islamic State murderers for cash on the barrelhead. The Kurds are tough customers, but they’ve on defense. We have to be careful not to use Western air power to set up a scenario where Iran leads the Iraqi government to victory on the ground. We have to be on guard against creating conditions that lead ISIS to conclude that terrorist attacks in the West are its only reasonable option. I have no confidence that Barack Obama, or anyone that works for him, can chart a safe course through those rocks and whirlpools.
“Leading from behind” is not leadership at all. It’s a reactive effort to manage political problems, not a display of leadership designed to rally the people behind a difficult but necessary course of action. There’s no victory scenario, no winning conditions; at best, we hope for “exit strategies,” and that kind of talk usually comes from opposition party leaders looking for a battlefield defeat they can milk for votes. When Obama talks about “managing” ISIS, what he’s really thinking about is managing the American public. Every long military operation has a political dimension – the Bush team can fairly be criticized for not paying enough attention to that, during both planning and execution of the Iraq war – but what Obama’s doing now feels too much like politics with a military dimension. We’re only in this pickle because of his catastrophic failures in Iraq, but he’s come not one inch closer to admitting he was wrong. That inspires no confidence that he’ll learn from his past mistakes, or view his future mistakes as more public-relations hassles he can spin away. Or, to put it another way, if a J.V. president puts on a Lakers uniform and gives a speech, that doesn’t make him the Kobe Bryant of national security.
Update: Speaking of Bashar Assad, in the sad epilogue to Obama’s “red line” nonsense, it looks like he not only failed to destroy his chemical weapons stocks, but he was still using them on Syrian villages earlier this year. That would make the potential Assad-Obama alliance against ISIS a bit sticky, if Obama didn’t have a fully operational Memory Hole at his disposal.