Out on a Limb

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on September 3, 2014

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal.com’s “Best of the Web” written by the editor, James Taranto.

Out on a Limb
“EDITORIAL: IRS Excuses for Obstruction Suggest Cover-Up”–headline, Las Vegas Review-Journal, June 20

The Ultimate Unilateralist
Glenn Reynolds, quoting a “modest” and hence anonymous Facebook friend, sums up the unsettled state of the world by enumerating events of just the past year: “the Chinese ADIZ [air defense identification zone], the Russian annexation of Crimea, the rise of ISIS, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fall of Mosul, the end of Hungarian liberal democracy, the Central American refugee crisis, the Egyptian-UAE attacks on Libya, the extermination of Iraqi Christians, the Yazidi genocide, the scramble to revise NATO’s eastern-frontier defenses, the Kristallnacht-style pogroms in European cities, the reemergence of mainstream anti-Semitism, the third (or fourth, perhaps) American war in Iraq, racial riots in middle America, et cetera and ad nauseam.”

To be sure, things are otherwise going well. There is, however, a further reason to feel unsettled, namely the response to all this from President Obama.

The president held a press conference Thursday, conveniently timed so that we wouldn’t write about it for five days. But others did. The sarcastic headline from Investor’s Business Daily’sAndrew Malcolm sums the matter up: “Obama Warns ISIS: ‘We Don’t Have a Strategy Yet.’ ” We’re sure that “yet” has them trembling.

Some commentators praised Obama for his honesty. “Rarely has a president spoken so plainly,” exulted Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post. Pollster John Zogby, who issues a weekly presidential “report card,” gave Obama a B, arguing that he “should get extra credit for slowly, thoughtfully, developing a strategy in Syria. . . . There are no easy solutions here and it is wiser to wait to get it right.”

We suspect Zogby was being facetious, as he also praised the president for “wearing a bold beige suit.” But DeYoung seemed genuinely determined to rationalize away Obama’s mistakes, including a year-old one: “Many in the region were dismayed last year when Obama ordered U.S. airstrikes against [Bashar al] Assad’s chemical weapons program, and then hesitated long enough for Congress to refuse to approve them.”

That characterization is highly misleading, if not out-and-out inaccurate. What actually happened was that Obama announced “that he would consult with lawmakers and ask for a vote before launching a military strike in Syria,” even though in that announcement he declared: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” Those quotes come from a Sept. 4, 2013, piece by none other than Karen DeYoung.

So Obama wasn’t hesitant and indecisive, as DeYoung now suggests; he was decisively hesitant. He didn’t merely give Congress time to refuse; he passed the buck to Congress. What’s more, Congress didn’t actually refuse; the president changed course once it was clear the votes weren’t there.

Obama had a high-minded explanation: He said “the country will be stronger . . . and our actions will be even more effective” if Congress approved. But we remember Obama supporters’ cheering on his tactical brilliance in putting Republican warmongers in a position where they’d have to put up or shut up. How’d that work out? So well that Karen DeYoung’s second draft of history leaves it out.

The “we don’t have a strategy yet” gaffe came in response to a reporter’s question on this very subject, to wit: “Do you need Congress’s approval to go into Syria?” His bottom line in response: “There’s no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.”

The New York Times’s Mark Landler translates: “Seeking a congressional imprimatur remains a politically tricky undertaking”:

It is not just that many Democrats and even some Republicans are wary about endorsing a new American military venture. The White House is also wrestling with how to define the president’s war-making authority in a way that does not undermine his claim last year that he had finally taken the United States off a permanent war footing.

A broad authorization–like those passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and before the Iraq war–would carry echoes of the George W. Bush administration, outrage Mr. Obama’s antiwar liberal base and raise the specter of an open-ended conflict in Syria.

So Obama is reluctant to ask Congress for authorization because he’s afraid he’ll get it. Of course even a broad authorization is not a mandate to use force: The 2002 Iraq authorization is still in effect, and that didn’t stop Obama from executing a full retreat in 2011. So what explains Obama’s hesitation? One possible answer is that he does not care to be burdened with the responsibility that would accompany broad discretion. That hypothesis would explain both his effort to avoid congressional approval now and his decision to seek it a year ago.

For a deeper look into the president’s thinking about world affairs, let’s consider a passage from afundraising speech he delivered Friday in Purchase, N.Y. After briefly touting his accomplishments, he acknowledged that “a lot of people still feel anxious.” He asked why and said there were three reasons. The second, he said, “is that if you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.”

At that point, the crowd laughed, according to the official White House transcript. Whereupon the president elaborated:

Now, let me say this: We are living through some extraordinarily challenging times. A lot of it has to do with changes that are taking place in the Middle East in which an old order that had been in place for 50 years, 60 years, 100 years was unsustainable, and was going to break up at some point. And now, what we are seeing is the old order not working, but the new order not being born yet–and it is a rocky road through that process, and a dangerous time through that process.

So we’ve seen the barbarity of an organization like ISIL that is building off what happened with al Qaeda and 9/11–an extension of that same mentality that doesn’t reflect Islam, but rather just reflects savagery, and extremism, and intolerance. We’ve seen divisions within the Muslim community between the Shia and Sunni. We continue to see an unwillingness to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist and its ability to defend itself. And we have seen, frankly, in this region, economies that don’t work. So you’ve got tons of young people who see no prospect and no hope for the future and are attracted to some of these ideologies.

All of that makes things pretty frightening. And then, you turn your eyes to Europe and you see the president of Russia making a decision to look backwards instead of forward, and encroaching on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their neighbors, and reasserting the notion that might means right. And I can see why a lot of folks are troubled. . . .

The truth of the matter is, is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.

Are we living through “extraordinarily challenging times” or has “the world . . . always been messy.” Take your pick, just so you know Obama is responsible for none of it. All of which fits right in with this observation from Charles Kesler in the Claremont Review of Books;

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, observed, “The President subscribes less to a great man theory of history and more to a great movement theory of history—that change happens when people force it or circumstances do.” Obama later corrected his aide. “I believe in both,” he said. A cynic might think, the great man theory for when things go right, and the great movement theory for when they don’t. But aren’t great men supposed to overcome, to transform unfavorable circumstances?

For an answer to that, let’s return to Karen DeYoung (along with her colleague Dan Balz), who observe in a lengthy analysis for the Post that “as he tried to engage the world on his terms, Obama quickly found out that the world had thoughts and plans of its own.” (Of course during the Bush administration when “the world” and the president were at odds, the press by and large took the world’s side.)

DeYoung and Balz’s elaboration of the point tracks Obama’s Friday remarks:

Far from the reset Obama sought with Russia, President Vladimir Putin sought a new balance of power through aggression in Ukraine. While Obama offered a fresh start for the United States in the Muslim world, the Arab Spring headed toward destabilization rather than democracy.

Six years later, events seem to have spun out of his control, and Obama must react to the actions of others.

The real problem is that Obama’s worldview seems impermeable to the world’s reality. He is the ultimate unilateralist, almost to the point of solipsism.

For more “Best of the Web” click here and look for the “Best of the Web Today” link in the middle column below “Today’s Columnists.”