Kelly McParland: Ever-cautious Obama finds even the Vatican takes a tougher line on ISIS
Kelly McParland | August 14, 2014 11:02 AM ET
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President Barack Obama is setting new standards in his reluctance to go to war. The commander-in-chief of the world’s greatest military would now appear to be more of a pacifist than the Pope.
Appalled at the barbaric tactics of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), Pope Francis urged the international community this week to “take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now underway.”
Pope Francis signals support for Iraq military action to protect Christians from brutal Islamic jihadists
The Vatican is increasingly indicating support for military action in Iraq to protect Christians and other religious minorities from persecution by brutal Islamic jihadists.
As the world grapples with how to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), the Vatican released a letter Wednesday in which Pope Francis urges the international community “to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now underway.”
“Maybe military action is necessary at this moment,” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi , the Vatican’s UN in Geneva, said in an interview with Vatican Radio.
The Vatican was moved by the plight of thousands of refugees from the tiny Yazidi community, an ancient religion with links to Christianity and Judaism that has been targeted by ISIS. Washington did authorize air strikes and air drops to help the trapped Yazidis, but Mr. Obama’s reluctance was clear even as the rescue was underway.
“As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” he declared in a televised appearance. Gloria Borger, a CNN analyst, noted that Obama looked so unhappy with his own decision, “It was as if he was reassuring himself as much as the American public.”
Critics of the president have been denouncing his cautious approach to the use of force for much of his six years in office, but discomfort has reached the level that Hillary Clinton – who served as his Secretary of State for four years and is all but certain to seek the presidency in 2016 – now feels it necessary to distance her views from those of her former boss. In a lengthy interview with The Atlantic, Mrs. Clinton made clear she had pushed for more aggressive involvement in Syria, including sending arms to rebel groups fighting President Bashar al Assad. Interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that
“she … suggested that she finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).
This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
The Daily Beast reported that Obama also blocked Clinton from talking directly to moderate rebel groups in Syria, and ignored her warnings that uprisings in Syria and Iraq would mesh into a single cross-border conflict.
Mrs. Clinton called the President to clarify that none of her criticism was meant as an attack on him, but it’s obvious that her camp of aides and advisers feels Mr. Obama’s position is a political danger, opening him to portrayal as timid and indecisive, and feel the need to distance her from it.
What’s incongruous about Mr. Obama’s record is that many of his decisions on foreign crises have been sensible and pragmatic. With the exception of Israel – where he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed set on butting heads from Day One – he has opted to avoid involving the U.S. in situations where it had little control and faced a high probability of disaster.
His reluctance to arm Syrian rebels for fear the weapons would end up in the wrong hands has been justified by events in Iraq, where Kurdish fighters now battling ISIS say they are outgunned by extremist forces that are well-armed with looted U.S. weaponry. His decision to pull U.S. troops from Iraq in the first place was forced on Washington by the refusal of Iraq’s government to sign a “status of forces” agreement enabling them to stay.
U.S. involvement in ousting Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, for which Mr. Obama is now being assailed, was reluctant, and came only under intense pressure from allies France and Britain. On another front, his determination to pursue diplomatic means in confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine appears to have been vindicated, as Ukraine forces are making headway and Mr. Putin has (so far) resisted the urge to intervene directly with Russian troops.
He gets little credit for any of these decisions, however, because he gives every appearance of moving only when forced to, and then doing the minimum required. He reacts rather than leads. The Yazidi mission could have been presented as a heroic effort to rescue trapped civilians from bloodthirsty jihadis, but instead had the feel of something the White House felt it had to do to avoid blame in the event of a massacre. If George W. Bush can be criticized for failing to resist the cowboy tendencies of many of his advisers, Mr. Obama tends to the opposite extreme, preferring to do nothing rather than risk making a mistake.
He understands the limits on U.S. power, and the price that comes from risking lives in unwinnable conflicts, but seems hesitant to say so for fear of being treated as a weakling. Instead he continues the time-honoured U.S. practise of boasting about American military might, while doing all he can to avoid using it. “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation,” he told cadets at West Point, while also pointing out he’d saved them from being sent to Iraq. He drew a “red line” against chemical weapons in Syria, and then didn’t enforce it. He expanded the use of drones with great effectiveness, but couldn’t bring himself to take credit, as if uncomfortable to be seen killing terrorists in cold blood.
Americans don’t like to see their president throwing up his hands and proclaiming there’s nothing he could do. If Mr. Obama was more emphatic about his views, and stated categorically that he will not risk U.S. lives trying to solve other people’s conflicts, he might attract more respect. You could disagree with him, but at least you’d know what he stood for. Odds are the Middle East would be a firestorm now no matter who happened to be president, thanks to events outside U.S. control. But by equivocating, posturing, delaying and avoiding involvement, Mr. Obama makes himself a target for anyone who thinks a major threat to U.S. influence is the administration’s poor record in using it.