A pol­icy de­vel­oped in spurts

The Covington News - - OPINION - Richard Co­hen is a writer with the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group. He can be reached at co­henr@wash­post.com.

Of all the ex­perts I have read or con­sulted lately about the sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East, the one who made the most sense was quoted re­cently in The New York Times. She’s Jen­nifer Shel­ton-Arm­strong, iden­ti­fied as a 45-year-old Demo­crat in Mis­sion Viejo, Cal­i­for­nia, who par­tic­i­pated in a poll about Pres­i­dent Obama’s han­dling of for­eign pol­icy and ter­ror­ism. This is what she said: “He is am­biva­lent, and I think it shows. There is no clear plan.”

Why isn’t she on “Meet the Press”?

Now, other ex­perts will ar­gue that there is a clear plan, that it has been enun­ci­ated time and time again by the pres­i­dent, the vice pres­i­dent and var­i­ous other mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion. All this is true, yet the im­pres­sion the Amer­i­can peo­ple have is that Obama has lurched into some­thing of a war as a re­ac­tion to the be­head­ings of two Americans.

The poll in which Ms. Shel­ton-Arm­strong par­tic­i­pated was bad news for Obama. The pub­lic, by 48 per­cent to 39 per­cent, dis­ap­proved of “the way Barack Obama is han­dling the sit­u­a­tion with ISIS [Is­lamic State] mil­i­tants.” In fact, Obama got poor marks for for­eign pol­icy in gen­eral. And no doubt the poll would have been even worse had it been con­ducted after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he might ul­ti­mately have to rec­om­mend putting boots on the ground: “If we reach the point where I be­lieve our ad­vis­ers should ac­com­pany Iraqi troops on at­tacks against spe­cific [Is­lamic State] tar­gets.” In a flash, the White House said, no — never, never, never! But the dam­age had been done. The ad­min­is­tra­tion looked con­fused.

The prob­lem for Obama — ac­tu­ally, the prob­lem for us all — is that the lat­est it­er­a­tion of his for­eign pol­icy seemed to come out of nowhere. It lacks what we all now rec­og­nize as a back story — a use­ful Hol­ly­wood term. If for­eign pol­icy was a movie, crit­ics could fault Obama for a script that does not pre­pare the au­di­ence for a stark change of character. He was above all a pres­i­dent who only wanted out of Iraq. He fairly fled the place. His pol­icy was to unin­stall, as the techies might say. Even his Cairo speech of 2009 promised “a new be­gin­ning be­tween the United States and Mus­lims around the world.” Out with the old. In with the new. Re­boot.

We all could ap­pre­ci­ate the sheer hor­ror of the de­cap­i­ta­tions and the threat posed by the Is­lamic State — to the re­gion but not, re­ally, to the United States. I think Obama is on the right course now — just as he was right to thwart what seemed like an im­mi­nent geno­cide, the vowed ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the Yazidis in north­ern Iraq. If you can save 10,000 lives with an air cam­paign with­out re­ally risk­ing any of your own, why not do it? (The U.S. lost no lives in the Libyan or Bos­nian air cam­paigns.)

I also fa­vored an early in­ter­ven­tion in the Syr­ian civil war back when there were mod­er­ates and a lit­tle as­sis­tance could have gone a long way. Obama ruled that out. More than 200,000 peo­ple have been killed and mil­lions made refugees. Maybe this would have hap­pened any­way, but there was no real harm in try­ing — in do­ing, re­ally, what is be­ing done now ... pa­thet­i­cally late.

I re­cently watched the mar­velous PBS se­ries “The Roo­sevelts” — TR, FDR and the equally as­ton­ish­ing Eleanor. What comes through is the per­sis­tent and me­thod­i­cal way Franklin Roo­sevelt pre­pared the na­tion for war. He could see it com­ing; he had a worldview; he had a pol­icy and he had a course of ac­tion. Any doc­u­men­tar­ian look­ing for some­thing sim­i­lar with Obama would go mad.

The cam­paign — I shall not say “war” — that Obama vows against the Is­lamic State will be dif­fi­cult but not im­pos­si­ble. The en­emy can hide in towns and ci­ties and take cover in the veg­e­ta­tion along the banks of the Ti­gris, Euphrates and Diyala rivers. And vic­tory, if it comes, will present its own prob­lems. Newly ro­bust Shi­ite, Kur­dish and other mili­tias, lack­ing a common en­emy, may turn on each other. As much as oil, the re­gion is rich in en­mi­ties.

Things may yet get worse — and even more com­pli­cated. (Are there any more eth­nic groups yet to be heard from?) In that event, Obama has to ready the Amer­i­can peo­ple for what­ever may come. Yet, he op­er­ates in spurts — a speech here, a speech there and then a round of golf. What he needs — what we need — is con­sis­tency of mes­sage and, above all, a will­ing­ness to re-ex­am­ine his own as­sump­tions. Ms. Shel­ton-Arm­strong, among oth­ers, de­serves clar­ity.

RICHARD CO­HEN

COLUM­NIST

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