Hail to the Chai: When American Foreign Policy Falls Short

It’s a shame Marine One and Hail to the Chief don’t usually make Sunday morning talk shows and nightly news. As I see it, the way a President treats these traditions says a lot about his administration.

Take President Jimmy Carter, for instance. He hated hearing Hail to the Chief, so much so that he tried banning it. That didn’t work out too well. President Ronald Reagan took a different approach, pioneering the tradition of saluting the Marine Guard each time he exited Marine One. President George W. Bush awkwardly saluted while holding his dog.

Recently, President Obama found himself in Bush territory, as it were. Saluting Marines with a coffee cup in his right hand, it was embarrassing and frustrating to say the least.

But this incident is more than another Presidential gaffe. On top of the tan suit and the long vacations in Nantucket, the coffee cup salute shows how truly detached the Obama administration is from public perception. In itself, however, the incident projects an air of awkwardness, uncertainty and weakness about the President. The President’s lack of credibility in threatening to use force shouldn’t surprise. Like it or not, our ability to deter is on the decline.

Maybe this is why our policy in the Middle East is deeply flawed. Maybe this is how ISIS, ISIL, IS—or whatever we call it today—is on the rise. Maybe it is the reason American foreign policy is, as Vali Nasr aptly put it, in retreat.

Before we dive deeper into this failure, let’s give President Obama credit where it is due. He has succeeded in assembling a coalition of Arab states against ISIS.

In the aggregate, however, President Obama’s strategy falls short. Today’s coalition lacks the key ingredient of American military might. According to recent polls, over 70% of Americans don’t support putting boots on the ground. After almost fifteen years in Iraq and Aghanistan, it’s a pretty reasonable position to take.

Let’s put partisan politics and public opinion aside for a second. In ISIS, America faces a challenge and enemy from both ethical and pragmatic standpoints. Terrorism is deplorable in itself, but beheadings and raping and pillaging mark a new degree of banal evil. You know a group is fanatic when Al-Qaeda calls them “too radical.”

In the face of this grave threat posed to human decency, to our moral and military might, the Obama administration is holed up on Pennsylvania Avenue debating which acronym for ISIS to use. Hint: they are still a serious and credible threat no matter what you call them.

I hope President Obama enjoyed that cup of coffee. I hope it gave him that jolt of energy he needed. At the end of the day, I’m just hoping he comes to see the inconvenient truth that in 2014, America is the jayvee squad in Kobe Bryant jerseys.

About the Author
Zach Shapiro studies International Relations and Arabic at Tufts University. He is Chair of the Tufts Chapter of the American Enterprise Institute Campus Executive Council. He speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
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