President Obama’s Long Summer

Official Washington’s war hawks continue to dominate the U.S. political/media debate, always hyping foreign “threats” and saying, “do something.” President Obama thus gets accused of being “weak” if he fends off demands to escalate confrontations, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

President Barack Obama has been having a rough summer, reflected in poll numbers that are as low as they have been during his presidency. Clearly a concatenation of developments overseas that appear to most Americans to be to some degree threatening accounts for much of the sour public mood and the broadsides being directed at the President and his administration for how they have responded to those developments.

Go beyond the broadsides and look at specific available policy options, however, and one quickly sees that this negativity is not primarily the consequence of Mr. Obama’s policies. In the public debate there is a surplus of dissatisfaction being expressed about nasty happenings abroad and a shortage of constructive ideas about what the United States can or should do differently about such happenings, much less any analysis about all the ramifications of trying to follow any conceivable alternative course.

President Barack Obama and President-elect Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine talk after statements to the press following their bilateral meeting at the Warsaw Marriott Hotel in Warsaw, Poland, June 4, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and President-elect Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine talk after statements to the press following their bilateral meeting at the Warsaw Marriott Hotel in Warsaw, Poland, June 4, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Typical of the complaining and criticizing is, for example, a Washington Post editorial the other day that bemoans what it labels as “big holes” in the administration’s Middle East strategy but whose recommendation is basically, well, to do something more about regional problems such as ISIS and preferably something forceful.

Issues of Mr. Obama’s style and salesmanship are partly, though only partly, to blame for the negativity. A meticulous and careful (and sometimes necessarily time-consuming) approach to policy-making is good for making good policy (and is much more likely to turn out good policy than the no-process, go-by-the-gut approach that Mr. Obama’s predecessor applied to some major issues), but it doesn’t sell very well. The President also hurt himself with his verbal gaffe about not yet having a strategy, a line that could have been written in the war room at the Republican National Committee.

The negativity is partly a function of the domestic political season, although only slightly so because in American politics today every season is a hyper-partisan political season. We may be seeing slightly more broadsides about foreign affairs than we otherwise would have from the President’s political opponents because opponents who thought they could base an entire political campaign on berating Obamacare have had to confront increasing evidence that the Affordable Care Act is actually working rather well.

A more valid, as well as being the biggest and broadest, explanation for how this President has become a punching bag for so much of the current discourse about foreign affairs involves where history has happened to place Mr. Obama on the ever-changing American continuum of assertiveness vs. retrenchment, and where history also has placed him in this regard in the ever-changing push and pull between presidents and the American public.

The historical role for some presidents has been to energize into action overseas an American public that was not especially inclined to be energized in this way. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in the months leading up to the U.S. entry into World War II, before the attack on Pearl Harbor sealed his case, is a leading example. Mr. Obama’s necessary role is in many ways the opposite: to keep a nation that is energized to do some stupid things from actually doing them.

Although the blunder of the Iraq War and fatigue with the war in Afghanistan are still reflected in poll numbers showing most of the American public disinclined to get immersed in another Middle Eastern war any time soon (and in this respect the President has been acting in accord with public preferences), two developments in particular have provided the stimulus and the energy to do more things and do more forceful things, and to express impatience with Mr. Obama for holding the anti-stupidity reins as tightly as he has.

One is the Ukrainian crisis, along with all of Vladimir Putin’s shenanigans, which has gotten Cold War juices flowing in the veins of people who do not stop to realize how this isn’t really the Cold War any more. The other development is the dramatic rise of ISIS and its bone-chilling behavior, which has gotten post-9/11 juices flowing in many Americans who are uttering “if we don’t stop them over there we will surely face them here at home” platitudes without realizing the lack of basis for such fears.

Barack Obama carries the heavy burden not only of reining in such amygdala-driven responses but of having to do so amid an asymmetric debating environment in which the side favoring doing more or doing something more forceful always has a rhetorical advantage over the side favoring restraint. This means the President gets little benefit, as a counterweight to the “do more” broadsides, either from the general public reservations about involvement in another war soon or from more specific criticisms from his left flank that he already is doing too much kinetic stuff such as drone strikes.

The rhetorical asymmetry has several bases. One is the mistaken habit of thinking of strong leadership as always involving doing more rather than doing less, and especially doing more visible and especially more forceful things. That is an unfortunately skewed view of true leadership, which does not entail that type of bias regarding action vs. restraint.

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.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

18 comments for “President Obama’s Long Summer

  1. September 7, 2014 at 12:33

    Good article, Mr. Pillar. I agree with your basic premise, that The People, politicians included, have a fairytale view of heroic romance, where nuance is unheard of.

    Another, more prosaic point I would mention is, you should have quoted David Kennedy with [sic] as, “in which we no longer yield [sic] the power we once had”, because he clearly meant to say, “wield”. Big difference.

  2. Hillary
    September 7, 2014 at 06:26

    Probably the bottom line is that Al-Qaeda as an organization, nor any of its known affiliates – much less the 19 named Arabs supposedly on those four planes – possessed the expertise, or anything even remotely close to it to carry out the “Pearl Harbor” attack on the US on 9/11 and turn the US into such an active belligerent.

  3. jer
    September 6, 2014 at 22:14

    ‘O’ ain’t no saint by a long shot, but he has maintained some measure of an acceptable job negotiating a way between not hurling the whole world into the Great Abyss while fending off his handlers and surrendering totally to (the whims of ) Washington’s global conquistadors (warmongers) cabal.

  4. Yar
    September 6, 2014 at 18:28

    By the way, exceptionalism = fascism (one nature), so american supporting Nazis (in all times) is not surprising. Regardless to any neocons it’s entertaining for (almost) whole nation. (Or it is a hole nation in humanity… er… humankind… sorry for my English…)

    • September 7, 2014 at 12:41

      The ruling class has always preferred Fascism to Socialism — not having to deal with those pesky Labor laws

  5. Abe
    September 6, 2014 at 15:10

    The Reverse Brzezinski: The Ultimate Eurasian Dilemma
    By Andrew Korybko

    Brzezinski has gone back to his basics of luring America’s adversaries into strategic entanglements from which they cannot retreat. His history of instigating the Soviet-Afghan War by having the CIA train and arm the Mujahideen before the Soviet intervention must never be forgotten. The concept of the Eurasian Balkans has largely overshadowed this chapter of Brzezinski’s past, but it does not mean that it is no less important for America’s contemporary strategic doctrine. As the US’ unipolar moment approaches dusk, the dawn of the multipolar era is around the corner. This necessitates a fundamental shift in the US’ previous pattern of offensive advancement into Eurasia, hence the revival of the Lead From Behind strategy.

    To accentuate the fact that this strategy is currently being employed by American decision makers, one must look no further than the case studies of Syria and Ukraine. These are the two battlegrounds that are at the forefront of this strategy’s official ‘coming out’, and they also represent real-time testing grounds for this idea to become perfected. Recent statements illustrate that the US’ primary goal is to lure Russia and Iran into the Eurasian snares of Ukraine and Syria/Iraq. Brzezinski himself has advised that the US directly arm the powers in Kiev in order to bunker down any ‘invading’ Russian forces that he is convinced are on hair’s edge to storm across the border. Likewise, the US is now talking about ‘cooperating’ with Iran to defeat the Western-backed ISIL in Iraq. The thinking goes that American airstrikes would provide cover for Iranian Revolutionary Guard offensives (in coordination with the Iraqi Army), but in reality, what this amounts to is the US conditionally choosing when and where to insert itself in the battle (from afar) while the Iranians and Iraqi troops are used as cannon fodder on the ground. The offers of cooperation are nothing more than a feint to trick the Iranians into getting caught up in mission creep in Iraq. The “Iranian Reset” is just as fake as the US-Russian Reset – a deceptive trick to buy valuable time for setting up a strategic betrayal.

    While the Eastern European and Mideast snares have already been deployed, the Asian version is still in development.

    • Abe
      September 6, 2014 at 15:23

      Those pesky neo-con “children of the night” keep dumping guano and making the staircase slippery for Zbigula (aka Dracobama).

      • F. G. Sanford
        September 6, 2014 at 15:33

        Abe, I’m laughing my ass off – I didn’t even have to click the link because I remember the scene. My opinion is that MH-17 was supposed to be the Archduke Ferdinand moment to “kick off the festivities”, but they muffed it. Maybe far-fetched, but I think they may have overlooked the IFF code. In some missile systems, a civilian IFF will prevent the warhead from arming, so they had to use the 30mm chain gun, leaving a lot of telltale evidence. That explains the mutual agreement to veto release of the evidence if any party objects. So, now they’ll need a new international incident. Could be hostages, a suitcase nuke, or God knows what. Beheadings haven’t worked yet, because they somehow edited out the blood. A real one would look like:

        Youtube: Dracula Dead and loving it DEATH SCENE (funny) Look it up on your own – I don’t want to offend anybody!

    • Abe
      September 6, 2014 at 17:45

      F.G. Agreed. The Ukrainians muffed MH-17 much the same way that the al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam muffed Ghouta.

      It’s a sad day when a hegemon can’t even find a decent proxy to do establish its casus belli. What’s the world coming to?

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 6, 2014 at 20:09

      Brzezinski’s family is of the szlachta nobility class. I’ll leave it to you to learn more about this group, but Zigbigula would probably be a fitting name. Nice going Abe. May the fang be with you.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    September 6, 2014 at 13:45

    Phil Giraldi, Ph.D. and former CIA Officer writes at, “In the case of Ukraine the judgment would be somewhat stronger than that, bordering on perceptions that what we are experiencing is an abuse of the intelligence process to serve a political agenda, that the Cold War-style tension is both unnecessary and contrived. Many regard the dubious intelligence that has been produced to implicate Moscow in Crimean developments as both cherry picked and unreliable.” The United States has absolutely NO national security interests, NONE whatsoever, that would be harmed by total disengagement in Ukraine. But, there must be an agenda, right? Otherwise, we would not have financed, engineered, propagandized and militarily enabled a violently installed putschist regime spearheaded by neo-Nazis. This article is a “big word bonanza”, so to those of you who feel intimidated, I encourage you to trust your common sense, and don’t be duped. Professor Pillar is relying on your amygdaloid response to reinforce a desired response to propaganda. If you look them up in Gray’s Anatomy (nucleus amygdalæ), they come right before “anal canal”. The amygdalae belong to the basal ganglia – lower brian function responses to fear and emotion occur here and they participate in mediation of aggressive behavior. I couldn’t find my copy of Robbins’ “Pathologic Basis of Disease”, but I bet it contains a definition under “Anal Cranial Inversion, see Neocons”. Then, there’s “concatenation”. The middle part comes right from the latin catena, for “chain”. This administration, its advisors, its cabinet, its analysts, its diplomats and its mainstream media sycophants represent an unbroken chain of Neocon flunkies, liars and finance oligarchs who have subscribed to an unbroken chain of overt and clandestine provocations aimed at near world-wide destabilizations from Venezuela to the Baltics. So, what’s the agenda? Most Americans have little idea why the terms “White Russian”, “Polish Aristocrat”, or “Ukrainian Nationalist” inspire fear in some circles, but in a roundabout way, there is a connection among them. These are the asset strippers, resource extractors, labor exploiters, financial rapists and purveyors of serfdom who were booted out in previous generations for their bloodthirsty criminal pursuits. A few of them are still around, and they think that the only thing standing between them and getting it all back is Vladimir Putin. They’re probably right. But if Mel Brooks rises from the dead and needs to make another Dracula movie, he’ll have no problem casting Zbigniew Brzezinski in Leslie Nielson’s role. Personally, I’m holding my breath for an Archduke Ferdinand moment. I guess they haven’t found a patsy yet!
    Dracula Dead and Loving it – They Had It Coming

  7. Epiphany
    September 6, 2014 at 13:32

    Warning to the World: Washington and its NATO and EU Vassals are Insane

  8. Abe
    September 6, 2014 at 11:48

    Strange voices are saying
    (What did they say)
    Things I can’t understand
    It’s too close for comfort
    This heat has got
    Right out of hand

    It’s a cruel, (cruel), cruel summer
    Leaving me here on my own
    It’s a cruel, (it’s a cruel), cruel summer
    Now you’re gone

    – Bananarama, “Cruel Summer” (1983)

  9. Zachary Smith
    September 6, 2014 at 11:21

    President Barack Obama has been having a rough summer, reflected in poll numbers that are as low as they have been during his presidency.

    It’s so sad. BHO is unappreciated by the unwashed masses because they don’t appreciate good presidenting when they see it. The poor man has been unlucky, and needlessly spoken a few times with his foot in his mouth. But basically the black guy is a swell POTUS.

    He’s hardly ever screwed up, except for that trivial instance of Libya being destroyed. Blaming Ukraine on Putin, ignoring the fervent Oval Office desire to smash Syria, and blaming the rest on Bush keeps everything simple.

    Hell, even ObamaCare is the greatest thing since the introduction of Cooking With Gas.

    It’s a total mystery why the Banker President doesn’t get more respect.

    • stan
      September 7, 2014 at 21:11

      You do make a point and some of his policy’s have shown that he has some great ideas. However these ideas are worthless when you lack the courage to actually use them.

      Obama closely resembles John f Kennedy. But the major difference being that Obama, it seems is fearful of being derided as weak. While Kennedy wasn’t afraid of this. He even said that if he backed away from Vietnam he would be dammed by everyone as a communist appeaser and he would be one of the most unpopular presidents in history. But he didn’t care. He would do it if it meant saving America from an unwinnable war.

      But unfortunately Obama doesn’t have that courage, and while he has definitely has steered america down safer path he will never achieve an enduring legacy.

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