Blogs: Paul Pillar

Obama's Burden and Rhetorical Asymmetry

Paul Pillar

Another basis is the greater appeal of being seen to meet a threat rather than being seen to stand back in the face of a perceived threat. Careful consideration of the extent to which a perceived threat is real, or of whether a threat is dire enough to sustain severe costs in trying to counter it, or whether any specific effort to counter it may turn out to be counterproductive, always carry less weight in public debate than the simple theme of meeting and defeating a threat.

The simplicity vs. complexity distinction is in a broader sense another big part of the rhetorical asymmetry. It is why much of the criticism of President Obama is (even without being exacerbated by verbal gaffes of his own) phrased in terms of his supposedly not having a “strategy” or “organizing principle.” Having a “strategy” or being”strategic” always sounds good, no matter whether or not there is any specific substance in the minds of those who utter such terms. Stanford historian David Kennedy put this phenomenon nicely into perspective when he observed, “It's difficult virtually to the point of impossibility to have a grand strategy in a world that is so fluid and in which we no longer yield the power we once had. In a sense that is Obama's strategy, a recognition of that fact.”

The complexities do not have the rhetorical appeal but they are often what matter most in determining whether a U.S. initiative is going to be a success or a fiasco. With regard to Middle Eastern problems involving ISIS, Tom Friedman aptly described those problems as being inextricably embedded in not just one but several civil wars. U.S. involvement means taking sides in those civil wars, and that means making new enemies and eliciting more unfavorable reactions against U.S. interests.

Yet another foundation of the asymmetry that applies uniquely in the United States is the American exceptionalist tendency to view just about any significant problem in the world as a U.S. responsibility, and to believe that the United States, with the right policies, ought to be able to solve or resolve just about any problem in the world. That never actually has been the case, and certainly is not today. Kennedy notes, “There's an expectation especially since World War II that the United States and the president in particular can command events. That not true and less true today than ever.” The tendency to make world events at large a part of the incumbent U.S. president's report card is not unique to Mr. Obama, but it is worth noting that except for Libya the messes he is having to deal with are not of his own making.

Whatever good luck Barack Obama may have had earlier in his life that helped get him to the White House, it has been offset by some significant bad luck once he got there. At the beginning of his presidency he was given an awful legacy, including the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, a soaring budget deficit, and a foreign war that was not only one of the biggest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy (and responsible for much of that budget deficit, which had been a surplus at the beginning of the previous administration) but also spawned such continuing problems as ISIS. Now moving into the last quarter of his presidency he is carrying the necessary but mostly thankless burden of having to be the restrainer-in-chief.

Peter Beinart, in observing how the very emotional American public and political reaction to the gruesome killing by ISIS of two freelance journalists resembles in some respects the deep emotional reaction by the American public to the taking hostage of U.S. diplomats in Tehran in 1979, sees some similarity between the current domestic politics of U.S. foreign policy and the politics during the latter part of Jimmy Carter's administration. This is another piece of bad luck for Obama: having to deal with such emotional—and very unhelpful in trying to win support for prudent and carefully constructed policy—public reactions to still more events that are not of his own making. But as Carter himself observed, life is unfair.

Image: White House Flickr.