Politics & Policy

The Unengaged President

Obama's lack of interest in the world is evident in his handling of the oil spill and the Afghan War.

What do General McChrystal and British Petroleum have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re both Democratic-party supporters.

Or they were. Stanley McChrystal is a liberal who voted for Obama and banned Fox News from his HQ TV. Which may at least partly explain how he became the first U.S. general to be lost in combat while giving an interview to Rolling Stone: They’ll be studying that one in war colleges around the world for decades. The executives of BP were unable to vote for Obama, being, as we now know, the most sinister duplicitous bunch of shifty Brits to pitch up offshore since the War of 1812. But, in their “Beyond Petroleum” marketing and beyond, they signed on to every modish nostrum of the eco-Left. Their recently retired chairman, Lord Browne, was one of the most prominent promoters of cap-and-trade. BP was the Democrats’ favorite oil company. They were to Obama what Total Fina Elf was to Saddam.

#ad#But what do McChrystal’s and BP’s defenestration tell us about the president of the United States? Barack Obama is a thin-skinned man and, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, White House aides indicated that what angered the president most about the Rolling Stone piece was “a McChrystal aide saying that McChrystal had thought that Obama was not engaged when they first met last year.” If finding Obama “not engaged” is now a firing offense, who among us is safe?

Only the other day, Sen. George Lemieux of Florida attempted to rouse the president to jump-start America’s overpaid, over-manned, and oversleeping federal bureaucracy and get it to do something on the oil debacle. There are 2,000 oil skimmers in the United States: Weeks after the spill, only 20 of them are off the coast of Florida. Seventeen friendly nations with great expertise in the field have offered their own skimmers; the Dutch volunteered their “super-skimmers”: Obama turned them all down. Raising the problem, Senator Lemieux found the president unengaged and uninformed. “He doesn’t seem to know the situation about foreign skimmers and domestic skimmers,” reported the senator.

He doesn’t seem to know, and he doesn’t seem to care that he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t seem to care that he doesn’t care. “It can seem that at the heart of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is no heart at all,” wrote Richard Cohen in the Washington Post last week. “For instance, it’s not clear that Obama is appalled by China’s appalling human rights record. He seems hardly stirred about continued repression in Russia. . . . The president seems to stand foursquare for nothing much.

“This, of course, is the Obama enigma: Who is this guy? What are his core beliefs?”

Gee, if only your newspaper had thought to ask those fascinating questions oh, say, a month before the Iowa caucuses.

And even today Cohen is still giving President Who-Is-This-Guy a pass. After all, whatever he feels about “China’s appalling human rights record” or “continued repression in Russia,” Obama is not directly responsible for it. Whereas the U.S. and allied deaths in Afghanistan are happening on his watch — and the border villagers killed by unmanned drones are being killed at his behest. Cohen calls the president “above all, a pragmatist,” but with the best will in the world you can’t stretch the definition of “pragmatism” to mean “lack of interest.”

“The ugly truth,” wrote Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, “is that no one in the Obama White House wanted this Afghan surge. The only reason they proceeded was because no one knew how to get out of it.”

Well, that’s certainly ugly, but is it the truth? Afghanistan, you’ll recall, was supposed to be the Democrats’ war, the one they supported, the one the neocons’ Iraq adventure was an unnecessary distraction from. Granted the Dems’ usual shell game — to avoid looking soft on national security, it helps to be in favor of some war other than the one you’re opposing — Candidate Obama was an especially ripe promoter. In one of the livelier moments of his campaign, he chugged down half a bottle of Geopolitical Viagra and claimed he was hot for invading Pakistan.

#page#Then he found himself in the Oval Office, and the dime-store opportunism was no longer helpful. But, as Friedman puts it, “no one knew how to get out of it.” The “pragmatist” settled for “nuance”: He announced a semi-surge plus a date for withdrawal of troops to begin. It’s not “victory,” it’s not “defeat,” but rather a more sophisticated mélange of these two outmoded absolutes: If you need a word, “quagmire” would seem to cover it.

Hamid Karzai, the Taliban, and the Pakistanis, on the one hand, and Britain and the other American allies heading for the check-out, on the other, all seem to have grasped the essentials of the message, even if Friedman and the other media Obammyboppers never quite did. Karzai is now talking to Islamabad about an accommodation that would see the most viscerally anti-American elements of the Taliban back in Kabul as part of a power-sharing regime. At the height of the shrillest shrieking about the Iraqi “quagmire,” was there ever any talk of hard-core Saddamite Baathists returning to government in Baghdad?

#ad#To return to Cohen’s question: “Who is this guy? What are his core beliefs?” Well, he’s a guy who was wafted ever upward from the Harvard Law Review to state legislator to United States senator without ever lingering long enough to accomplish anything. “Who is this guy?” Well, when a guy becomes a credible presidential candidate by his mid-forties with no accomplishments other than a couple of memoirs, he evidently has an extraordinary talent for self-promotion, if nothing else. “What are his core beliefs?” It would seem likely that his core belief is in himself. It’s the “nothing else” that the likes of Cohen are belatedly noticing.

Wasn’t he kind of unengaged by the health-care debate? That’s why, for all his speeches, he could never quite articulate a rationale for it. In the end, he was happy to leave it to the Democrat Congress and, when his powers of persuasion failed, let them ram it down the throats of the American people through sheer parliamentary muscle.

Likewise, on Afghanistan, his attitude seems to be “I don’t want to hear about it.” Unmanned drones take care of a lot of that, for a while. So do his courtiers in the media: Did all those hopey-changers realize that Obama’s war would be run by Bush’s defense secretary and Bush’s general?

Hey, never mind: Moveon.org have quietly disappeared their celebrated “General Betray Us” ad from their website. Cindy Sheehan, the supposed conscience of the nation when she was railing against Bush from the front pages, is an irrelevant kook unworthy of coverage when she protests Obama. Why, a cynic might almost think the “anti-war” movement was really an anti-Bush movement, and that they really don’t care about dead foreigners after all. Plus ça change you can believe in, plus c’est la même chose.

Except in one respect. There is a big hole where our strategy should be.

It’s hard to fight a war without war aims, and in the end they can come only from the top. It took the oil spill to alert Americans to the unengaged president. From Moscow to Tehran to the caves of Waziristan, our enemies got the message a lot earlier — and long ago figured out the rules of unengagement.

Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is author of America Alone. © 2010 Mark Steyn.

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

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