Politics & Policy

The Media Holds Obama to Account, Finally

A critical reception, finally. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
His fecklessness about the Islamic State was too much even for his supporters.

It is a new Obama this week, as far as the Islamic State goes. An Obama 2.0. Or at least 1.5.

The media did its job this time. It told Obama loud and clear that his response wasn’t good enough. It was a welcome break from the way it has shielded the president from reality in one disaster after another these last six years.

It had its proper effect: Obama moved. And moved in a matter of days, not the months and years it has usually taken him in the past (when he has moved at all).

Impressive the good that can be done when the media does an honest job of covering a president that it supports, the way it always does (honest or not) with a president it opposes. If it had shown the same diligence on other terrible mistakes President Obama has committed — from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the modalities and excesses of withdrawal from Libya and Iraq and Afghanistan — some of those errors might have been corrected, too. The world would be a safer place today. Indeed, we would probably never have seen the present crisis in Iraq.

Obama is now announcing that he is coming out with a strategy for the Islamic State. And he and Secretary of State John Kerry have declared in advance that it is not the “containment” strategy they were proclaiming a few days ago.

Containment was a doctrine for which they were rightly criticized. It is unjustified in the absence of a relevant nuclear stand-off. It is also unsafe: The Islamic State would inevitably entrench itself, as any ideological movement-regime does if given time to do so, and the effects of its rooting in become harder to dislodge with every passing day. That would enable the terrorists to market their brand as a winning one to extremists globally, develop terror networks around the world, build an arsenal, and work on real capabilities to deter us (such as WMDs). America, Europe, the Middle East, and the world will all pay a price for the months that Obama has sat on this problem while it metastasized. We will learn only later how high this price will be.

Americans will have to watch closely how adequate his new strategy is, or how inadequate. There are important holdovers from the past in Obama’s pre-announcements. He has declared only one red line — against American boots on the ground.

Let Americans take note of the Red Line of the President of the United States: It is not drawn to delimit the Islamic State, it is drawn to restrain the U.S. military. It is not something to give heart to America’s friends around the world. Or to instill fear in its enemies.

We have the unacceptable circumstance of a president who is concerned with protecting first and foremost not America, but the sensibilities of his neck of the political woods — his “Base,” so to speak, as long as we understand that this is an ideological base, one that reaches into the media and other institutions, not just an electoral base.

It is a Base that cherishes a deep suspicion of the American military. It has entrenched within its ideology a distaste for American power in the world. Its concept of “conscience” has been truncated, limited to conscience for America’s sins, not conscience for having sinned against America.

It is not easy for a person to serve as a responsible moral agent for America when he is deeply attached to the social and moral world of this Base. This explains the phenomenon of repeated and severe practical and moral failings from a president without a pang of conscience for it. It just as well explains the behavior of journalists obligated to process information for Americans fairly and to give honest policy advice, who have exempted government actors from being held responsible for anything except what the Base, in its truncated concept of conscience, thinks people should feel a pang of conscience about.

The media’s watchdog role on Obama’s failings on the Islamic State has not ended; if anything, it has just begun. It has exercised that role with a welcome modicum of responsibility in the last few weeks; to use a familiar media phrase, pulled out for conservatives when they say liberal things, it was “unexpected.” But it would be a rash person who would expect it to continue much longer.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

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