Politics & Policy

Et Tu, Democrats?

Senator Dianne Feinstein (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Look who’s hitting Obama on foreign policy.

Have even Democrats lost faith in President Obama’s foreign policy?

That’s what a spate of public criticisms of the president from his own party suggests. It’s not just a conservative trope anymore that the president is not tough enough on America’s adversaries. A couple of Democrats openly agree, using the blunt instrument of public criticism rather than private persuasion to try to nudge the president in a more forceful direction.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) did Obama no favors during her latest appearance on Meet the Press.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked of the Islamic State on Sunday morning: “The fact is, they have been on the march now for months, if not years. So why does the president still say we don’t have a strategy yet? Doesn’t that project weakness from the White House?”

“I know what you want me to say, but I’m not going to say it in that sense,” Feinstein replied. “I think I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is he’s very cautious. Maybe in this instance, too cautious,” she said, before pointing out that the Defense Department, the State Department, and “others have been putting plans together.” Notably, she did not point to the White House as an originator of plans.  

“Hopefully, those plans will coalesce into a strategy,” Feinstein added. Note the word “hopefully.”

Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Menendez (D., N.J.,) also undermined Obama Sunday during interviews that he conducted while on a trip to Ukraine. Menendez wants Obama to arm the Ukrainians in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, and he is making the case in the open, rather than just behind closed doors.

“I think Putin has sized up the West and figured that the most difficult sanctions against Russia and the arms necessary for the Ukrainians to be able to defend themselves [are] not coming from the West, and we have to prove him wrong,” Menendez said on CNN before being asked about Obama’s “rationale” for refusing to arm the Ukrainians.

“I think that was his initial assessment, and there are those in Europe and elsewhere who [say], you know, we don’t want to provoke Putin,” Menendez said, in a not-so-veiled hint that Obama shares Europe’s fear of provoking Putin. “Well, Putin doesn’t need provocation. In this case weakness is a greater provocation for Putin to act.”

Menendez is echoing the Republican critique of Obama, albeit more graciously.

“For God’s sake, can’t we help these [Ukrainian] people defend themselves?” Senator John McCain asked Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “This is not an incursion, it’s an invasion.”

Days before Menendez and Feinstein spoke, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made alarming and apparently off-the-reservation statements about the threat posed by the Islamic State and what we must do to defeat it.

“This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said. “So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it and — and — and get ready.” He added that the Islamic State is an “imminent threat” to every interest we have.

Dempsey said that the Islamic State would have to be targeted in Syria: “To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no,” he said. “That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”

That joint press conference took place on August 21, about a week after the White House had laid out a much more limited view of the problem, and before administration officials walked back much of what was in the Hagel and Dempsey statements.

“Often we’re asked, what is the long-term strategy for dealing with ISIL? I think it’s very clear: You get a new government in place,” White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said on August 13. “That provides the basis for all of Iraq’s communities to support the government of Baghdad and to turn the focus where it needs to be, which is on combating ISIL. We will be providing training-and-equipping security assistance and advice to Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and then we can begin to squeeze the space where ISIL is operating and start to push them back. But that demands the cooperation of all Iraqis. And that’s the opportunity we have with this new government.”

A few days later, Dempsey stipulated that he didn’t support hitting the Islamic State in Syria, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest wouldn’t repeat Hagel’s language about an “imminent threat.”

In a smaller variance with the White House, Dempsey rejected the administration’s preferred acronym for the group. “I actually call ISIL, here we go, right, ISIS, I-S-I-S, because it’s easier for me to remember that their long-term vision is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,” Dempsey told reporters. “And al-Sham includes Lebanon, the current state of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait. If they were to achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways.”

All of this follows Hillary Clinton’s public lashing of Obama on foreign affairs: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Clinton told The Atlantic in an interview that ran August 10.

On issues ranging from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, President Obama’s allies seem to have come to the same conclusion about Obama as Putin and America’s enemies have – he’s too weak, too vacillating.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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