The Corner

Obama’s Rhetorical Box-Checking

Rich — I think Hume makes a brilliant point, as he so often does. But this time his point is all the more salient because he agrees with me! I’ve been saying for over a month that Obama’s entire approach to the Islamic State has been of a piece with his foreign policy generally; anything that gets the press to stop asking him about foreign policy is his idea of a good foreign policy.

From my column in mid September:

For Obama, a successful counterterrorism strategy is one that simply saves him from having to talk about terrorism. That’s the approach that led to the rise of the Islamic State. As for the “success” in Yemen, on Monday the Wall Street Journalreported: “Scores of al-Qaeda militants have moved into Yemen’s capital Sanaa in an attempt to exploit swelling political unrest and destabilize the government.”

And from a subsequent G-File:

I still think Obama’s greatest concern isn’t how to conquer — or even “manage” — the Islamic State or terrorism in general but how to find the right words that will rescue him from political hassles, responsibility, and blame. Rather than say he misjudged the Islamic State, he told Chuck Todd he never even called them the “Jayvee” team, which was a lie.

And here’s how I put it on Special Report in mid August:

But that said, the takeaway I take from this in the rise of ISIS is the hawks got a lot of thing wrong in the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003, but one thing at least some of them got right was the idea that after 9/11 this is going to be a long war. You cannot look at the forces that are making ISIS the cause celeb throughout the Islamic world where it’s becoming a Twitter feed phenomenon and think that, oh, if we just target these trucks or we cut off this road that somehow we’re going to solve the problem. These people are committing mass crucifixions and mass murders and atrocities on a staggering scale. And I think Charles is exactly right. You need a truly global strategy. But how are you going to deal with this? The Pentagon is saying it’s going to take 10 or 20 years to deal with ISIS alone. Why aren’t we arming the Kurds in Syria? Why aren’t we bombing ISIS in Syria? Why aren’t we actually trying to get rid of ISIS? Instead we’re doing all this cosmetic stuff that may get us through the news cycle but isn’t going to solve the problem.

My point here isn’t merely to glom on to the glow of Hume’s genius and say I-told-you-so-first, but to make a larger point. Obama is now doing some of the things I raised on Special Report. The media has covered these steps as if Obama is reacting to events on the ground. He’s not, and almost never does. He’s responding to domestic political reactions to those events and concomitant media uproar. That’s why he offered public-relations counseling to the Islamic State. He was essentially admitting that he was being dragged into war by public outrage over the beheadings.

As Charles Krauthammer and others have been saying for years, Obama’s only rationale for ordering the surge in Afghanistan was to make the political issue go away. That’s why he included a date certain for withdrawal. In one swoop he both placated the media demand to follow through on his campaign promises and “do something” about Afghanistan while at the same time pandering to his base about guaranteeing a withdrawal from Iraq. His response to Libya was driven by domestic politics, too. He was all set to replay the same “strategy” in Syria when it dawned on him that the politics would be bad. So he fed the beast by dumping the issue on Congress.

One can debate almost every foreign-policy decision Obama has made with regard to the merits, but if you take a step back it becomes clear that the real driver of Obama’s decisions is Beltway chatter and the domestic politics that feed it. And it’s not just on foreign policy. Whenever a scandal erupts, he says whatever words he has to make the media firestorm go away. And because the media doesn’t like to dwell on bad news for Obama, it usually works. He says he was outraged by Lois Lerner. The story went away almost everywhere save for Fox News and, once it subsided, he reverted to saying there wasn’t a “smidgen” of corruption. After the Tucson shooting, he gave a grand speech about changing the tone, immediately satisfying the chattering class. And then quickly pivots back to his usual demonization of his opponents. The public was outraged over government blunders and inefficiencies, so he gives a State of the Union address bemoaning salmon regulations. And on and on. He rhetorically checks a box and then ignores the problem. 

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