President Obama’s troubling messages on the Middle East

His detachment poses significant risks.

Why This Matters | Perrin Brown | March 28, 2016

  • Copied

After the grizzly attacks on Brussels last Tuesday, the mistake President Obama made was not, as critics posed, in attending the planned Cuba-Tampa Bay Rays baseball game. The mistake he made was not flying to Brussels the next morning. A symbolic image of transatlantic unity in the fate of barbarism would have made for a powerful gesture. While it’s true, as the president is fond of saying, that ISIL does not pose an existential threat to the U.S., it does pose an existential threat to the European Union. The EU needs all the support from the United States that it can get. Alas, this is not something that President Obama realizes. This mistake, combined with weak rhetoric and a frustratingly disengaged resolve, is emblematic of the president’s troubling messaging on the Middle East that does a disservice to the American people and our European allies.

In Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine,” one of the year’s most interesting and talked about articles, one gets a clearer image of the complicated, often puzzling way that President Obama views the world and America’s place in it. A self-described “internationalist-realist,” the president concedes that there are conflicts the U.S. cannot solve without the international community and conflicts the international community cannot solve without the U.S.

Despite the many foreign policy successes of the Obama Doctrine—the nuclear deal with Iran, new relations with Cuba, and a strategic “pivot to Asia,”—there is a key part of the president’s foreign policy that continues to baffle critics and supporters alike: his perceived emotional detachment from the conflicts in the Middle East and a perceived lacking sense of urgency. If he could abandon the region entirely, it seems that he would.

After both attacks on Paris last year, and the attacks on Brussels this past week, the world heard a detached, canned statement: “America’s thoughts and prayers are with the people of ____, and we are doing everything we can to degrade and destroy ISIL.” A day later, in another press conference, we always hear another puzzling statement: “ISIL is not an existential threat to the United States.”

What President Obama fails to realize, though, is that he isn’t addressing the National Security Council or members of Congress. He is addressing the frightened American people, as well as governments around the world. Instead of admitting that Americans are rightfully scared and explaining what the U.S. is doing to defeat ISIL, the president says Americans shouldn’t be scared in the first place. From a communications standpoint, this is poor messaging that fails to generate any sense of reassurance. From a political standpoint, as described in a paper published by Third Way, this is emblematic of how “Democrats’ current messaging [fails to] address the fears of the public.”

Make no mistake; President Obama has kept the country safe, increased defense budgets, and taken decisive military action that has greatly bolstered national security. Osama Bin Laden is dead, and Obama’s strategic use of drones has made him the most successful “terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency.” However, as noted by Third Way, “this has not translated into votes” for Democrats due to the president’s poor messaging on national security issues.

President Obama, however, does not suffer from “blame America first” syndrome, something that has plagued Democratic candidates since the 1980’s. Rather, he seems unsure of his own goals as he equivocates on issues involving the Middle East.

Much of the president’s poor messaging stems from his own uncertainties and ambivalence about the Middle East. Most notably is Syria. Obama’s greatest foreign policy blunder remains failing to act when the Syrian people needed us. The president’s self-imposed paralysis of inaction in the conflict bewildered aides and allies, damaged our credibility, and created a vacuum to be filled by ISIL or Bashar al Assad.

But instead of regretting this, the president spends a painstaking amount of time defending his decision, indeed calling it one of his proudest moments. What he fails to address, however, is that the conflict in Iraq and Syria does pose an existential threat to European security and political stability, which is of the upmost American concern.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times writes that “the E.U. is America’s most important economic and strategic partner and the other great center of democratic capitalism. It amplifies U.S. power, and if it is hobbled, we will have to do so much more on our own to defend the free world… history will not be kind to Obama if he just turns away.”

Moreover, the president seems to feel that much of the Syrian conflict can be solved without American leadership. Recently, it was reported that Assad’s government, aided by Russian airstrikes, had retaken the city of Palmyra from ISIL. While this is welcomed news, particularly for all those trapped in the city, it also highlights a more frightening prospect: Assad is taking over more territory, and will now have even less reason to relinquish power.

President Obama seems comfortable delegating our Syria policy to the Russians, a prospect that will only lead to more bloodshed and chaos. While it’s true that ISIL is losing significant amounts of territory, the group’s ideology will never be fully extinguished while Bashar al Assad remains in power. The group did not appear out of nowhere, after all, but out of continued “Sunni Arab grievances,” as former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has said. This will continue to fracture the region, sending thousands of refugees to Europe’s shores and sending shockwaves through the European Union’s political system.

Ted Cruz, perhaps by accident, was actually right about something: Obama needs to strengthen our ties with Europe. As described in The Atlantic’s article, he has very little interest focusing on Europe or the Middle East — he didn’t mention the EU once in hours of interviews. He needs to reassure the world that the U.S. is completely in line with Europe in fighting ISIS and in solving the Syrian conflict. Messaging and symbolism matter, and CNN sound bites can do wonders.

Hillary Clinton needs to break with the president’s messaging on the Middle East and reassure voters and Europeans that she believes in America’s ability to lead on these issues. Every attack that doesn’t get a strong, forceful response from President Obama fuels candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Democrats are never viewed favorably on national security, and Obama’s poor messaging reinforces that. At the end of his column, Thomas Friedman ended with a remark that could prove to be prescient: “Obama seems so obsessed with not being George W. Bush in the Middle East that he has stopped thinking about how to be Barack Obama here — how to leave a unique legacy and secure a foothold for democracy … without invading.” Let’s hope Mr. Friedman is wrong.