NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE
August 9, 2014 4:00 AM
Box-Checking as Leadership
Obama’s foreign-policy failures are always the fault of someone else.
By Jonah Goldberg
The other night Mike Barnicle tweeted “Make Dick Cheney read this.” The “this” was a link to an article in the Washington Post about the plight of the Yazidis, trapped on a mountaintop.
Now lest you take me for the sort of person who follows Mike Barnicle on Twitter, let me explain that I saw the tweet because Paul Begala thought it was sufficiently perspicacious to warrant retweeting. Now, lest you think I am the sort of person who follows Paul Begala on Twitter, let me say in my defense that I find it useful to monitor some enemy broadcasts, as it were.
Anyway, the tweet was simply part of a whole plague of prattle from an army of argle-barglers that seem to think they’re taking a bold moral stance by aiming all of their attention on people with no power to make any decisions. Trapped on a mountaintop by savages who make the Thuggees seem civilized, watching their children die of thirst, presented with the choice of renouncing their faith (and being condemned to Hell by doing so) or execution (for the men; slavery for the women), no doubt the Yazidis were deeply gratified when they got word that Mike Barnicle had taken to Twitter to hold accountable a man who can do nothing for them. Nothing takes the pain out of slow death, genocide, and seeing your wives and daughters carried off into slavery more than the firm knowledge that fingers are being pointed thousands of miles away at men who’ve been in retirement for five years.
Heaven forbid Barnicle tweet “Make Barack Obama read this” or even “Make Joe Biden read this” (which would require his drawing in the margins of the Washington Post article pictures of flying saucers shooting each other. “Pew-pew! Boom! Good article.”). After all, Obama is the actual president of the United States. He could actually do something to help the Yazidis.
Let us stipulate — at least for the sake of argument — that the First Cause of Iraq’s unraveling was the Iraq War. That doesn’t change the fact that the second, third, fourth, fifth, and nth causes of the chaos are the result, directly or indirectly, of President Obama’s decisions (or indecisions). Obama chose to pull troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible. Obama chose to dismiss ISIS as the “jayvee squad” this year. Obama chose to issue a “red line” ultimatum, then chose to say “never mind.” The guy has been president for five years. And yet to listen to him and his defenders he’s been utterly powerless to undo his predecessors’ mistakes, real or alleged. It’s like these people think the twice-elected president of the United States is still new to the job.
Life, the Movie
But all of that is irrelevant, too, at least when it comes to the question of what to do now. And bear in mind, Barnicle was tweeting this hairball when Obama had done and said nothing to indicate that the U.S. would actually do anything to help the Yazidis (just as Obama has done little to nothing to help the slaughtered Shiites and Christians of Iraq, the rebels in Syria, the sovereign government in Ukraine, et al). The vital priority for Barnicle (and Begala) was to unleash the full gale of Barnicle’s moral authority and righteous indignation (which is like talking about the raging tempest let loose upon the land by a mouse fart) against a retired guy in Wyoming. Never mind that the retired guy in Wyoming wanted to keep U.S. forces in Iraq so as to prevent anything like what we’re seeing from happening!
Now that events in Iraq have descended from “urgent” to “Hieronymus Bosch,” Obama has finally acted, and I am glad for it. Let us send as much aid as we can to the Yazidis; if in the process, we kill a lot of ISIS fighters, that’ll be a nice bonus.
But there’s a common theme to Obama’s foreign policy and Barnicle’s rodent flatulence. They both work on the assumption that global events are things that happen out there. “The world stage” used to be a platform for U.S. leadership. For Obama, the world stage is more like, well, a stage where other nations put on a show for our benefit. There are plenty of good arguments for America to be more circumspect internationally (and plenty of bad ones). But I don’t think Obama and his supporters fully recognize that when the lead actor on the world stage decides to walk off and sit in the audience, it changes the performance and the roles of the other performers.
Box-Checking as Leadership
I will confess I never really appreciated the perfidy of the phrase “leading from behind” until Wednesday’s presidential press conference.
Earlier that day, the secretary of defense, who has been kept away from the press lest the cameras remove all doubt about his incompetence, announced that 20,000 Russians were massing on the Ukrainian border in what seemed like preparation for an invasion.
(I often hear this would be the first instance of a European nation invading another since 1939. I’m not sure that’s exactly true from, say, the Georgian or Hungarian perspective. But that’s quibbling. Such a crime would be, in the parlance of international-relations scholars, a huge frick’n deal.)
At the press conference, the president made no mention of this in his prepared remarks about the Africa summit, which he read aloud with all of the passion of a DMV bureaucrat explaining the different methods of payment for a parking ticket. He then took questions. Chris Jansing of NBC asked whether the sanctions against Russia were working. With his customary logic-chopping defensiveness, the president responded that the sanctions were doing what they were intended to do, but it was unclear whether they were actually working. This is like explaining that the pepper spray did everything it was supposed to do but the bear is eating your face anyway.
It’s also perfectly Obamaesque. I did exactly what I set out to do. If it’s not working, it’s only because someone else isn’t responding the way they’re supposed to. I gave a speech telling the oceans to stop rising, damn it! I even said “let me be clear.”
The point of the sanctions isn’t to prove that sanctions can cause “economic pain.” The point is to deter Vladimir Putin. And on that score, they clearly aren’t working at all. It’s amazing to me how much Obama thinks and talks like a bureaucrat. I’ve checked my box! I did my job! I’ve fulfilled my responsibilities. If the bear is eating your face, it must be the fault of Jones in accounting. Hate that guy.
This has been Obama’s standard response to problems around the globe. He did what he was “supposed to do,” and whenever the consequences of his actions create problems, it’s because others didn’t do what they were supposed to do. I pulled troops out of Iraq. I reneged on missile defense in Eastern Europe. I “reset” with Russia. I intervened in Libya. I didn’t intervene in Syria. I told Leon Panetta to deal with Benghazi. I took the blue pill. The fact that the Iraqi pullout was destabilizing, that Putin saw his moves as weakness, that Islamists took over Libya, that Assad stayed in power, that the Matrix revealed itself anyway: These all reflect someone else’s failures.
He was then asked if the 20,000 troops massed on the Ukrainian border might lead him to “reconsider” sending lethal military aid to the Ukrainians. After prattling on about how Ukraine doesn’t need aid to beat the separatists, Obama added, “Now if you start seeing an invasion by Russia, that’s obviously a different set of questions. We’re not there yet.”
Now, I don’t want to go to war to defend Ukraine. I don’t want Obama to say we would go to war to defend Ukraine — and not because I think that such a statement would necessarily be irresponsible if it came from a different president. But I don’t think Barack Obama would go to war to defend Ukraine even if he said he would. As with his “red line” debacle, the worst thing a president can do is vow to take a hardline and then not take it. But would it be too much to ask the president of the United States to characterize a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine as outrageous?
Keep in mind that “outrageous” is safer than “unacceptable.” The problem is that his use of “unacceptable” is almost entirely ironic. He uses it like a theater critic saying a cast change is “unacceptable” when it is obvious the critics’ acceptance is irrelevant. His use of “unacceptable” has been more promiscuous than Vizzini’s use of “inconceivable” in The Princess Bride. (How long has it been since Putin’s annexation of the Crimea was “unacceptable”?)
Leading from the Sidelines
In the best sense, “leading from behind” sounds like something a football coach does. He can’t be out on the field, but he coordinates, instructs, and inspires from the sidelines. Among the myriad problems with this analogy is the simple fact that international affairs isn’t like a football game, where the coach can bench players for failing to follow instructions or execute the plays. In Obama’s version of leading from behind, he’s more like a football handicapper who has no control of events and merely watches from the virtual sidelines as events transpire, adjusting the odds as they unfold. This analogy fails, too, of course because the president of the United States isn’t an observer. Obama is open to sending lethal aid — it seems — only if Ukraine is invaded. But refusing to send lethal aid makes invasion all the more likely. I understand that the president thinks he’s very clever by seeing the guiding principle of his foreign policy as “don’t do stupid sh*t.” But the real-world consequence of that principle is to let events unfold and then whine about being neck-deep in sh*t you think you can blame on others. It’s not leading from behind, it’s failing from behind.