WASHINGTON — He had just hung up the telephone with the devastated parents before heading in front of the cameras. Unusually emotional, President Obama declared himself “heartbroken” by the brutal murder of an American journalist, James Foley, and vowed to “be relentless” against Islamic radicals threatening to kill another American.
But as soon as the cameras went off, Mr. Obama headed to his favorite golf course on Martha’s Vineyard, where he is on vacation, seemingly able to put the savagery out of his mind. He spent the rest of the afternoon on the links even as a firestorm of criticism erupted over what many saw as a callous indifference to the slaughter he had just condemned.
Presidents learn to wall off their feelings and compartmentalize their lives. They deal in death one moment and seek mental and physical relief the next. To make coldhearted decisions in the best interest of the country and manage the burdens of perhaps the most stressful job on the planet, current and former White House officials said, a president must guard against becoming consumed by the emotions of the situations they confront. And few presidents have been known more for cool, emotional detachment than Mr. Obama.
It was all the more striking given that Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain canceled his vacation after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria released the video showing Mr. Foley’s death because the accent of the masked killer suggested he came from Britain. Former Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News that Mr. Obama would “rather be on the golf course than he would be dealing with the crisis.”
But the criticism went beyond the usual political opponents. Privately, many Democrats shook their heads at what they considered a judgment error. Ezra Klein, editor in chief of the online news site Vox, who is normally sympathetic to Mr. Obama, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that “golfing today is in bad taste.” The Daily News published a front-page photograph of a grinning president in a golf cart next to a picture of Mr. Foley’s distraught mother and father under the headline, “Prez tees off as Foley’s parents grieve.”
“As a general rule, I think that he’s right that you can’t be held hostage to the news cycle — the man deserves a bit of downtime,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist. “But in this particular instance, I think a lot of Democrats flinched a little bit.”
The video, Mr. Manley added, “was just so shocking that the idea that he was going to immediately run to the golf course was just a little too much for folks; it was tone-deaf.”
Mr. Obama has traditionally resisted what he sees as the empty political gesture of abruptly upending his schedule in reaction to the latest crisis. Aides said the golf game did not reflect the depth of his grief over Mr. Foley, noting that the president had just spoken with his parents that morning. “His concern for the Foleys and Jim was evident to all who saw and heard his statement,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director.
Mr. Obama is not the first president to get in trouble with a golf club in hand. On the course one day in 2002, President George W. Bush delivered a tough-worded statement denouncing a suicide bombing in Israel and then, barely missing a beat, told reporters, “Now, watch this drive.” Mr. Bush later concluded that such scenes sent a bad message, and in the fall of 2003, with the Iraq war raging, he gave up golf for the remainder of his presidency.
What really matters, according to Mr. Obama’s defenders, is not what the president does to blow off steam, but what he does to blow up ISIS. Aides to Republican and Democratic presidents have long argued that the commander in chief is on duty no matter where he is, and that even on vacation, he is receiving briefings, making phone calls and issuing orders. Other presidents have taken vacations during major crises and times of war. This year Mr. Obama has repeatedly interrupted his summer break to deal with Iraq and the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
For Mr. Obama, the video of Mr. Foley’s death is acutely personal because it showed one of three other American civilians held hostage, Steven J. Sotloff, suggesting he would be killed next if the president did not stop bombing ISIS targets in Iraq. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the masked killer says while holding the back of Mr. Sotloff’s orange, prison-style shirt.
There could hardly be many more wrenching situations for a president. Sending American troops into harm’s way is difficult enough, but they at least volunteered for duty and are trained for the dangers they confront. The rise of social media has made such life-or-death blackmail all the more horrific. As far as aides knew, Mr. Obama did not watch the ISIS video, and advisers did not think he should.
“That’s got to be exquisitely disturbing,” said Peter D. Feaver, a former national security aide to Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton, who now teaches at Duke University. “And it’s different than for average Americans who are watching this on television but know there’s nothing they can do. With President Obama, there are things he can do, but he’s concluded that he can’t do them.”
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said ISIS appeared to design its video to instill maximum fear in Mr. Obama and a country it perceives as exhausted by war. Mr. Obama’s forceful response on Wednesday, he said, was “a necessary and important one — that we’re not being intimidated, we’re not backing down.”
Including Mr. Sotloff in the video, Mr. Hoffman added, intensified the direct threat the group was sending the president. “They put the knife in, and they’re trying to twist it by making it personal,” he said.
Former presidents have been the subject of personal appeals from terrorists threatening American lives, from the Iran Embassy seizure under Jimmy Carter to the hijackings of T.W.A. Flight 847 and the Achille Lauro cruise ship under Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Obama, too, has faced this situation before. Warren Weinstein, an American development consultant abducted by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, appealed directly to the president in a video late last year. In May, Mr. Obama authorized a prisoner swap with the Taliban to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after concluding that his life was at risk.
Frances Fragos Townsend, a former counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Bush, said it is important to avoid letting the president become too emotionally involved in such situations, adding that she would not have shown the ISIS video to Mr. Obama. “You fight very hard to not have it be personal,” she said. “You just don’t let them do that. They can use your name, and they can make it personal. But it’s not.”
“We Don’t Understand Real Evil, Organized Evil, Very Well. This is Evil Incarnate.” TOWNHALL.COM by HUGH HEWITT, 8-9-14
“We Don’t Understand Real Evil, Organized Evil, Very Well. This is Evil Incarnate.”
That title is a quote from former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, quoted in Peter Baker’s fine piece in Friday’s New York Times’ on the president’s decision to sort-of, kind-of, maybe strike against ISIS.
Baker’s quote of Crocker, who served as President George W. Bush’s Ambassador to Iraq and President Obama’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, is worth reading in its entirety:
“This is about America’s national security,” said Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador to Iraq under Mr. Bush and to Afghanistan under Mr. Obama. “We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the ISIS leader, “have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”
This is the chilling reality of the war in which we continue to find ourselves, a reality that the American left –of which the president is the condensed, 100 percent concentrated version– refuses to believe: that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Hamas, or any Islamist not named bin Laden is a threat to the United States. The president and his ideological allies especially refuse to consider any facts that are inconsistent with their conclusions, even facts that line up as direct threats to America, because they’d rather live in ignorance and danger than validate in any way W’s view of the world and of the crucial necessity of staying involved in the Islamic world, helping our genuine allies and fighting our genuine enemies there.
That was the terribly difficult “middle ground” that Bush and Vice President Cheney knew the U.S. had to occupy, possessing as they did (and still do) a perspective that understood that we and the rest of the West are not at war with Islam but with a virulent, radicalized and very violent strain of Sunni Islamist extremism, every bit the match of the Khomeinism that gripped Iran in the late 1970s and holds on to it still. This latter terror was not opposed by Jimmy Carter and nearly 40 years later still threatens the West in new and more menacing ways. The Sunni equivalent nested first in Afghanistan, was beaten back there, in western Iraq in the person of Zarqawi, and across the globe until, after the election of President Obama, it was granted a reprieve and regrouped and reorganized, and is growing fast and very strong now in western Iraq and other places around the globe.
The left will want to argue that Bush created ISIS, an absurd but predictable last ditch effort to build a weak wall against the reality that people like Lawrence Wright and Bernard Lewis have been arguing against for more than a decade. Indeed, Baker found the pitch perfect representative of the school of pretend-it-doesn’t-exist to quote for his piece:
“This is a slippery slope if I ever saw one,” said Phyllis Bennis, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a research organization for peace activists. “Whatever else we may have learned from the president’s ‘dumb war,’ it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.”
This point of view is sadly the dominant one within the White House, and the president’s very minimalist response last night should not confuse people about the crucial fact that he is one with Bennis in worldview. I quoted on my show yesterday but requite here to emphasize its importance, President Obama’s very revealing, very candid assessment of ISIS, made to the New Yorker’s David Remnick in a much overlooked but crucial piece from January:
At the core of Obama’s thinking is that American military involvement cannot be the primary instrument to achieve the new equilibrium that the region so desperately needs. And yet thoughts of a pacific equilibrium are far from anyone’s mind in the real, existing Middle East. In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
He went on, “You have a schism between Sunni and Shia throughout the region that is profound. Some of it is directed or abetted by states who are in contests for power there. You have failed states that are just dysfunctional, and various warlords and thugs and criminals are trying to gain leverage or a foothold so that they can control resources, populations, territory. . . . And failed states, conflict, refugees, displacement—all that stuff has an impact on our long-term security. But how we approach those problems and the resources that we direct toward those problems is not going to be exactly the same as how we think about a transnational network of operatives who want to blow up the World Trade Center. We have to be able to distinguish between these problems analytically, so that we’re not using a pliers where we need a hammer, or we’re not using a battalion when what we should be doing is partnering with the local government to train their police force more effectively, improve their intelligence capacities.”
This point of view cannot be reconciled with the facts on the ground in western Iraq, or Nigeria, or Mali, or Somalia or indeed in Gaza. It must oblige the president o almost double over with the pains of cognitive dissonance when confronted with the rampage and slaughters of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As Remnick pointed out, this worldview is “the core” of the president’s understanding of the world, the equivalent of Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” It is the Rosetta Stone to understanding everything President Obama has done –and mostly not done– since becoming president in 2009. He departs from it only when the televised pictures he and his advisors see –whether from Libya as Qaddafi marched towards Benghazi with the intention of slaughtering his opponents or of ISIS trapping children on mountains– persuade him that, if only because the poor, emotional American people won’t put up with such picture, he has to pretend to do something.
It isn’t really “appeasement” which at least recognized evil and tried to buy it off, though it issues in policies that look like those that were produced by appeasement. It is rather a child-like anti-intellectualism, an academic’s withdrawal from reality into endless faculty meetings where debates about parking spaces and tenure displace the reality of the world outside of the 90-minute meeting committee process.
Because this worldview is fully in control of the American military, national security and diplomatic powers, we will do nothing about al-Baghdadi for at least two more years when, hopefully, an heir to Reagan arrives to reintroduce American power and influence in the world. American power does not always and everywhere mean military power, but it does include it and it ought to be used, especially when a long standing ally like the Kurds are threatened by barbarians at their gates, and not in a haphazard, half-gesture of concern from the skies. A reflexive horror of “boots on the ground” gripped Carter as it grips Obama, and the president who follows Obama will have to reintroduce the world to the prospect of dealing with American military might.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi understands he is up against a paper mache president right now, and is acting accordingly, as are his arch enemies –the mullahs in Iran– and their half-brothers in Hamas and their generous uncle in Moscow. As do the Chinese. The good news is that there are Abbotts and Harpers about, and especially Netanyahu. They have their counterparts within the GOP and those men and women are finding their voices. Even this pretend-to-be-president president may be obliged to act if the ISIS fanatics go too far and too fast. They lack brakes because they believe God is on their side. What they might do that might wake even this president is pretty horrible to consider but if you have seen what they are doing in Iraq, you must understand they’d gladly do whatever they could to deeply injure America again.
It is an ongoing, never-ending-in-our-lifetimes global conflict and it isn’t going away, no matter how many iPads we produce or where LeBron plays or how Johnny Football does. I like most Americans treasure my diversions from the reality of this awful situation, but presidents don’t get to live a life disconnected from them and deeply connected to fairways and greens.
It is hard to imagine how far ISIS will have spread its evil by the time January 2017 brings a new resolve to the White House. Hopefully the seriousness of this situation adds to the repudiation of the president and his party of go-along yes men and women at the polls in November, and a rebuilding of the Department of Defense can begin in earnest in January 2015.
It didn’t have to be this way. W’s generals and their troops won the war in Iraq. President Obama booted away the peace and the intricate coalition that held it in place when he abruptly pulled a residual American force from Iraq in 2011. This is a sequel to what happened in Vietnam in 1975. This time there are no boat people because there is no ocean and there are no boats. Just slaughter. And this time the enemy isn’t going to stop with conquering their country and incursions into a few local countries.
“This is evil incarnate,” as Ambassador Crocker put it so succinctly and well. Evil incarnate doesn’t fill out brackets, or rest or grow weary. It marches on and sneers at the delusions of its enemies who don’t even know they are the target.
MY TWO SENSE
Normally I would insert the direct link to this post of Hugh Hewitt’s, however, due to malfunctioning that was impossible. This article is easily found on the “Townhall.com” website.