President Obama — having built his political career on his ability to deliver a well-crafted speech — should be well aware of the power of words. Does he regret his statement last Thursday that the United States doesn’t “have a strategy yet” for how to deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Or could it possibly be that he was telling the truth, and our country has, up to now, failed to develop a strategy to deal with a murderous group of Islamic fanatics who are attempting to establish a full-fledged terrorist state and who believe they can behead Americans with impunity and did so, again, yesterday?
We live in weird time right now, when America seems to be more self-absorbed than a teenager posting countless selfies on a Facebook page. After President Obama made his “we don’t have a strategy yet” statement, some commentators focused on the tan suit he was wearing and talked about whether it projected a sufficiently powerful image. Others saw the statement as a “gaffe” and immediately began to speculate about the potential political repercussions. Still others were quick to declare the comment as President Obama’s “malaise” moment, recalling President Carter’s ill-fated “malaise” speech, when many people believe he finally lost the trust and support of many Americans. And such statements can come back to bite, politically — as the devastating front page photo and headline of today’s New York Daily News demonstrates.
Of course, terrorists don’t care what kind of clothes our President is wearing when he makes a statement, and foreign leaders in faraway lands aren’t obsessed with figuring out whether a President’s comment will affect how Republicans and Democrats are going to perform in midterm elections. Their analysis is a lot more straightforward: what is the President saying, and will he back it up? From that perspective, compare President Obama’s statement to Teddy Roosevelt’s famous threat after a tribal leader in Morocco took a U.S. resident hostage: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” You might call that statement saber-rattling, but you can’t mistake the message or the resolution behind it.
Things aren’t going well for America in the world right now. From Asia to Africa, in Ukraine, in the Middle East, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are seeing a resurgence of terrorism and adventurism that obviously is contrary to core American interests. If a foreign leader is trying to decide whether to work with America, secretly or openly, to try to address these problems, how is that leader likely to react to a dithering statement to the effect that the world’s most powerful country doesn’t know how to respond to barbarism and terrorism? Even if the United States in fact doesn’t have a strategy — and we can all hope that is not true — there is absolutely no value in announcing that to the world.
President Obama has made a bad misstep here, not because of its potential impact on internal American politics but because of its potential impact on broader American interests in the world.