U.S. President Obama was mostly cool, careful and calculated at his Antalya press conference on Monday, in response to repeated questions about American policy towards ISIS in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. That’s why he probably disappointed those whose concerns were encapsulated in the unusually blunt question posed by CNN’s Jim Acosta: “Why can’t we take out those bastards?”
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At a time when American and global public opinion is anxious and alarmed by the massacre in Paris, Obama stayed cerebral and, as usual, somewhat aloof. The masses may yearn for bluster and bombast but Obama is giving them details and nuance instead; the public may want quick fixes and instant responses, but Obama insists it’s a complex issue that needs to be carefully considered; people are looking for something daring and new but Obama is offering “intensification,” or much more of the same. The unusually impatient tone of the journalists who grilled him on Monday is a clear indication that Obama may be sparking impatience and frustration far beyond the usual circles of his knee-jerk critics.
Obama described the Paris killings as a “terrible and sickening setback” but stuck to his basis strategy to “degrade and destroy” the group now known as Daesh. “It’s going to take time,” he cautioned, though supplies of patience tend to run short in stretches of panic and anxiety. Obama solidly rejected renewed demands for “boots on the ground,” which, thanks to ISIS, have become legitimate again in mainstream American discourse for the first time since George Bush’s embroilment in Iraq. The human and financial cost is too high for us to “shoot first and aim later”, Obama says. That’s the platform on which I was elected, he didn’t add, and I’m not changing it now.
Obama finds himself hampered by his self-made web of unfortunate statements about ISIS, which seem hasty if not arrogant in retrospect. In January 2014, after the fall of Fallujah, he famously described so called offshoots of Al-Qaida in the post-Osama bin Laden era as “junior varsity”; several months later White House spokesperson Josh Earnest added what would turn out to be insult to injury by explaining that Obama was only saying that such terrorists don’t have the will or the capability of attacking the West.
Last week Obama prematurely declared that ISIS had been “contained,” reminding many of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner that flew behind George Bush’s back when he spoke on the deck of the aircraft carrier Lincoln in May 2003, just before the fall. Now Obama’s spinners are saying, without batting an eyelid, that what he meant was that ISIS had been “contained” on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t attack the West.
Obama’s Republican rivals can sense his weakness and are overjoyed anyway by the shift of the public focus, away from their disturbingly amateurish frontrunners in the presidential race to the GOP’s bread-and-butter comfort zone: the “war of civilizations” as Marco Rubio was quick to label it, implicitly branding all of Islam as the enemy of the West. In the 72 hours following the carnage in Paris, right-wing rhetoric has escalated and deteriorated, alienating Muslims far faster than the terrorists could have hoped for, with Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz openly and unabashedly urging America to forget Muslim refugees from Syria and concentrate on absorbing the Christians alone. That’s shameful, that’s not American, that’s not who we are, Obama rightfully said, prompting his increasingly agitated detractors to proclaim that he gets angry only at Republicans, not Islamic terrorists.
Obama disdains the kind of politician, all too prevalent in Israel, who thrives on the public’s fear and thus makes sure to feed it regularly by themselves. His otherwise admirable calm under fire is in line with Rudyard Kipling’s elementary motto: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” As a politician, however, Obama surely knows there are times when public opinion needs to be reassured and emboldened by leaders who speak loudly and seem to be putting their foot down, even if it’s all false bravado and their policies don’t really change. If ISIS strikes again in the near future, God forbid, and Obama carries on with his semi-detached didactic tone of words, he may endanger not only his own legacy but his party’s chances of retaking the White House as well.