We can celebrate the fact that the United States is apparently going to bomb ISIS vigorously and not sporadically, and is going to bomb in Syria, aiming at ISIS, and is also going to assist moderate factions in the Syrian civil war. This last development is unconscionably late, as there was a time when the moderates were a much better bet than they are now, squeezed between the Assad regime and the militant Islamists. There is no possible explanation that is not discreditable for why we went from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion that Assad was “a reformer,” to the unctuous Obama revelation that it was “time for him to go,” to the infamous, self-eradicating “red line,” to the abdication in favor of Congress to approve the much-announced punitive cruise-missile attacks that new Secretary of State John Kerry assured would be “unbelievably small,” to confiding the disposal of the poison gas that Assad had conferred upon some of his refractory countrymen to the capable and infinitely trustworthy hands of Vladimir Putin, who had supplied Assad in the first place. This dismal sequence was summarized last Wednesday by the president in his address to the country as the combination of strength and diplomacy that resolved the Syrian poison-gas crisis. It would also have been easier to deal with ISIS from the air when they were running amok with their assault vehicles festooned with black flags. And we were admonished to remember that the “Islamic State ” is not Islamic.
The same singular analytical method was touted as having alit upon the magic combination of strength and understanding that imposed upon Putin a restrained compliance with a fair solution in Ukraine. The president also took credit for America’s having, implicitly almost alone, routed Ebola in Africa (though the pandemic is still spreading and other countries have done their part to fight it). Conspicuous among the supposed triumphs of American policy that the president omitted to mention was any repetition of his statement several months ago that “diplomacy and American strength” had produced a satisfactory end to the crisis of Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. Given the prodigies of imagination the president displayed in identifying foreign-policy problems his administration had solved, the fact that he didn’t warm up this worm-eaten chestnut again is tantamount to an admission, if not of failure, at least, in the lexicon of Obaman self-evaluation, of deferred success.
No one can blame a political leader for putting the best possible face on his actions, but such wild fantasies as these incite concern over whether the president is really in touch with the facts, or whether he is chronically untruthful. This alarm was escalated when, in the midst of his address, President Obama told his viewers and listeners: “This is American leadership at its best.” There are two serious problems with this. It isn’t American leadership at all, and certainly not at its best; and it is tasteless, déclassé, and unprecedented for a president of the United States, in an address to the nation to outline policy in a national-security crisis, to critique at all, and especially in such unearned superlatives, his own performance. It is not conceivable that Roosevelt in the “great arsenal of democracy” address (December 1940), Truman in advocating aid to Greece and Turkey (1947), Eisenhower in sending the U.S. armed forces into Lebanon (1958), Kennedy in imposing the blockade of Cuba (1962), Nixon in invoking the “silent majority” in support of “Vietnamization” (1969), or Reagan in announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative (1983) would have offered a personal opinion of the quality of his leadership. Roosevelt said that neither “the pious frauds” of those Americans who served the interests of the dictators, nor any “dictator [or] combination of dictators,” would deter the United States from doing what its clear national interest and moral duty required. Nixon said, “This is my policy and I take responsibility for it. If it succeeds, what my critics say now won’t matter; if it fails, what I say then won’t matter.” In Truman’s famous phrase, all of them — and all those named were often responsible for American foreign-policy leadership at its best — understood that the buck stopped with them.
President Obama recently referred to a group of the terrorists as a “junior varsity.” Certainly, none of this rag-tag of terrorists and fanatics, nor all of them together, pose the threat that a great power such as the Third Reich or the Soviet Union, vested with all the instances and sinews of a powerful country and led by cunning and fiercely motivated tyrants, did to Western civilization, and to the United States in particular. But as terrorists go, ISIS is as extreme and odious as it is possible to imagine. Imputations of sophomoric standards and practices are more accurate when leveled against an American president who warps a sequence of failed policies into an illusory winning streak, and puts himself at the head of the 42 men who preceded him in his great office as an author of successful initiatives to lead the United States and its allies to success in a great crisis.
As I wrote above, our hearts may beat faster with the incitement to believe that the president’s dithering and sanctimony will at least produce a serious bombing assault on these terrorist mutants. They are so ghastly that they cannot really shelter invisibly among the civil population like conventional guerrillas, nor expect sophisticated arms from a foreign supplier. This air campaign in itself will not solve the problem, but ISIS et al. will not be able to advance on, or even exchange fire with, the ill-assured army of Iraq in the teeth of heavy American air attacks. Unlike the factions in the former Yugoslavia, which had anti-aircraft missiles and caused the United States and its allies to stay at 30,000 feet or higher to conduct a war worth killing for but not worth dying for, ISIS has no ability to shoot down warplanes and no defense against the combination of absolute precision and carpet coverage any comprehensive over-flight of the U.S Air Force and naval aviators, and contingents from serious allies, can administer. So a partially effective response appears finally to be emerging from years of posturing and pusillanimous shilly-shallying, and a first step may be imminent in resurrecting the Western Alliance as a reciprocal fraternity of purposeful democratic states prepared to act together, albeit with little likelihood of casualties, against an unspeakably barbarous enemy. Some countries are likely to contribute token air forces to such a risk-free turkey-shoot of such a horrible enemy.
But no one should imagine that President Obama’s address, or even the most effective possible sequel to it, will instantly redress most of the squandered credibility of the United States as a serious or consistent influence for international law and resistance to aggression and political criminality in the world that it earned and exercised very consistently from Roosevelt’s Quarantine Speech of 1937 to the overthrow of the Mullah Omar in Afghanistan in 2001. We are prayerfully envisioning a heavy air campaign with practically no casualties, by a president who is weak in the polls, facing a sharp electoral rebuke in eight weeks, and limping toward the end of an unsuccessful presidency at the head of a debt-ridden, bitterly divided, and largely, economically stagnant country. (The president’s claim to the greatest period of unemployment reduction in American history in his address to the nation last week was another Brobdingnagian whopper but went almost unnoticed amid such a heavily forested mass of unfounded claims to foreign-policy successes.) But as it is alleged St. Denis, patron saint of Paris, said after his decapitation (a timely simile), and arising from and walking away from the execution block with his head in his hands, “All journeys begin with a single step.”
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.