Obama’s war and the wimp factor

by H.B. Koplowitz

If Democratic control of the Senate weren’t in jeopardy this November, President Barack Obama may have been able to resist the siren calls of the electorate, whipped up by neocons and the media, to go back to war in the Middle East. The president says he wants to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State group, but his real goal may be to counter the “wimp factor.”

Off-year elections are often a referendum on the president’s popularity, and Obama’s numbers are underwater. A September Washington Post-ABC News Poll found 42 percent — less than half — approved of the job he was doing, while 51 percent disapproved. Only 38 percent liked how he was handling international affairs, with 52 percent saying he has been too cautious dealing with Islamic insurgents in Iraq and Syria. About 71 percent supported US air strikes in Iraq and 65 percent in Syria.

From the beginning, Republicans have portrayed Obama as weak on foreign policy, and the media have bought into that narrative. No matter what the president does — kill Osama bin Laden, rid Syria of weapons of mass destruction, snuff terrorists with drones — the narrative is that he is a feckless wimp with a latte salute who leads from behind and has no strategy except to not do stupid stuff. That he’s a reluctant warrior, as if that were a bad thing. As if getting America out of two wars were a bad thing.

Until recently, this hasn’t been a major political problem for the administration, because other issues, like the perception that Obamacare has been a failure when it has been a success, or that a lot of people don’t believe the economy is better, even though it is, have been more pressing. But then came the media frenzy over ISIS, an especially brutal Sunni extremist offshoot of al-Qaida that was part of the Syrian opposition. In June, thousands of ISIS fighters stormed out of Syria into Iraq, where they slaughtered “infidels,” routed the Iraqi Army, captured scads of US weapons and declared a caliphate in a swath of desert the size of Great Britain. It was a stunning development no one expected, but the narrative was that Obama “took his eye off the ball.” That by not arming so-called moderate rebels in Syria or keeping 10,000 US troops in Iraq, he had enabled ISIS to metastasize.

In a measured response to the ISIS offensive, Obama authorized a humanitarian mission to rescue a Christian sect besieged on a mountain top and deployed several hundred special forces to protect American facilities. US air power also helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces reclaim a strategic dam and slow ISIS’ advance. Then ISIS beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, sending the media into hyperdrive. Not only was ISIS a regional problem, it was also a threat to the homeland. According to the narrative, ISIS’ social media prowess was so adroit that it was recruiting and training wannabe jihadists from all over the world, including the United States, who would return to their home countries to spread mayhem. As Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox News, Obama needs to stop ISIS “before we all get killed here at home.” Really?

Comic Bill Maher described the recent media coverage of the ISIS beheading videos as a “terrorist delivery system,” helping to scare the bejesus out of people. Every day another horror story — an imminent attack on the New York subway, a beheading in Oklahoma, intruders in the White House, lone wolves, copycats, paint-on bombs — ginning up fears of terrorism. The media sold their narrative well. According to the Post-ABC poll, a whopping 91 percent of voters felt ISIS was a serious threat to the vital interests of the United States.

What’s a president to do? Down in the polls, Democratic candidates avoiding him like ebola, the GOP needing to pick up just six seats in the Senate to leave his legacy in shambles, Obama put on his war paint. He addressed the nation and announced air strikes against ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. He went before the UN and called ISIL a “network of death.” He bombed some other group few had heard of. The Pentagon released shock and awe video, and the media took a victory lap, proclaiming Obama had made the final transition into George W. Bush — from a peacetime president to a wartime president. As if that were a good thing.

The politics of Obama’s war are dicey. Republican and Democratic candidates alike don’t want to appear soft on terrorism, but they don’t want to appear to be too cozy with the president, either, and Congress adjourned before even debating whether to authorize the war. So far, the more warlike Obama has been getting boffo reviews in the media, although some are complaining he shouldn’t have ruled out US boots on the ground.

As Alastair Crooke notes in two recent articles in the Huffington Post, “Obama Is Wrong That ISIS Is Not Islamic” and “How ISIS Is Using Us to Get What It Wants,” the president launching air strikes may help Democrats in the midterms, but in the long term, he may be playing into ISIS’ hands. By bombing Muslims, he might unite the Islamic opposition, undermine the regimes of allied Arab leaders, and become enmeshed in another unwinnable war with no end game.

In June I wrote that Obama shouldn’t ratchet up the war on terror and instead let the Middle East sort out its own problems, ugly as that may be. ISIS is brutal, but so far, it’s committed less violence against the homeland than the NFL.

© H.B. Koplowitz 10/1/14

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