A day before ISIS released its latest gruesome video of the beheading of an innocent and heroic American, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart offered up a defense of President Obama’s policy. In what is perhaps the article’s most memorable segment, Beinart attacked those like Senators McCain and Graham who want Obama to take more forceful action against the group:
McCain and Graham want Obama to act both “deliberately” and “urgently” because they’re both happy words. (As opposed to “lethargically” and “rashly,” which are nastier synonyms for the same thing.) But when you translate these uplifting abstractions into plain English, you see how contradictory McCain and Graham’s demands actually are. You can either demand that Obama not bomb Syria until he’s ensured he has a plan likely to win international and congressional support, or you can demand that he bomb as soon as possible. You can’t demand both.
Actually, you can. Senators McCain and Graham are right in demanding that sometime in, say, the last three years Obama should have developed a strategy for confronting the growing extremist spillover from the Syrian Civil War. On September 2 a former Pentagon official revealed that Obama was given in-depth intelligence about ISIS in particular for at least a year before its surge this summer, yet a week after the first beheading Obama admitted that “we don’t have a strategy yet.” Beinart’s false choice glosses over the President’s procrastination.
Too often Obama has treated foreign policy as a spectator sport. Recently he was surprised by Egypt’s and the United Arab Emirates’ bombing of Libya even though those countries’ concerns about extremists’ gains have been growing for some time. His attitude towards governance more generally helps illustrate the theme. Obama was initially unaware of the problems with the website for his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, as well as the National Security Agency’s decade-long practice of spying on allies. An October 2013 article in the Washington Post summed this all up nicely when it cited former Obama administration officials as saying that “the president’s inattention to detail has been a frequent source of frustration, leading in some cases to reversals of diplomatic initiatives and other efforts that had been underway for months.”
This is not a call for all-out war on ISIS; it is a critique of the President’s reluctance to make a decision on ISIS, whatever it may be. Even if tomorrow we learn that Obama has put together a coherent strategy for confronting the threat of ISIS or any of the other crises facing the United States, it would not make up for the fact that when he has made decisions, they have often been dictated by political considerations. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently recounted that Obama and Hillary Clinton admitted in front of him that this was the case with their public opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq during the 2008 presidential campaign even though, by Clinton’s own private admission, “The Iraq surge worked.” More importantly, it would not excuse the fact that his aides, including Clinton, have defined the guiding principle of his foreign policy as “don’t do stupid stuff.”
The first time ISIS beheaded an American journalist Obama said that he did not want to “put the cart before the horse” with regard to his policy. Two and a half weeks have now passed since the first beheading. Are we still putting the cart before the horse in demanding a plan of action, or are President Obama’s policies simply falling behind?