The National Circus: Obama’s Foreign-Policy Critics Are Wrong

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Photo: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Obama's restrained response to ISIS and Putin, the White House contemplates an immigration executive order, and the revolving door continues to spin.

The end of the summer has been a remarkably bleak time in international affairs. ISIS has beheaded two American journalists — James Foley and Steven Sotloff — and Russia has grown more brazen in its backing of separatists in Ukraine. President Obama has been criticized for his cautious reaction to the two crises, especially after he said last week that "we don't have a strategy yet" to deal with ISIS. Has Obama over-learned the lessons of the "shoot first, ask questions later" Bush years?
I have my share of quarrels with President Obama. And, like most other Americans, I find the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff so savage on so many different levels that I fully concede there is an ugly part of me that would like to bomb any country that harbors ISIS terrorists back into the Stone Age, as the American general Curtis LeMay, the prototype for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, once proposed for North Vietnam. But Obama’s deliberateness in the face of ISIS’s provocations as well as Putin’s — his refusal to follow the trigger-happy foreign policy of the Bush-Cheney era — is to be applauded.

You will notice that the crowd of pundits and (mostly Republican) politicians insisting that Obama “do something” about these horrors never actually say what that “something” is. They offer no strategy of their own beyond an inchoate bellicosity expressed in constructions along the lines of “we must more forcefully do whatever it is that Obama is doing.” That’s because Obama is already doing the things that can be done (and that some of his critics redundantly suggest): bombing ISIS positions wherever it is feasible; searching for allies to join action that might defeat them on the ground; trying to rally Europe to tighten the economic noose on Putin and Russia. There will surely be more actions to come when America’s ducks are in a row, and if the president were to delineate them, you can be certain he’d be condemned for tipping off our enemies in advance. 

Contrast his deliberateness with his critics, most of whom have in common that they were completely wrong in endorsing the disastrous Iraq War that precipitated the current crisis. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has gone on record of late saying that she, unlike Obama, would have armed moderate forces in Syria to bring down Assad. But as Thomas Friedman, these days a much-chastened Iraq War enabler, has pointed out, there’s a reason why even Israel didn’t take up that tactic: Those “moderate” forces, to the extent they could be identified, were doomed to fail, and chances are that whatever arms we got to them would have fallen into ISIS’s hands. (As indeed has been the case with armaments we bestowed upon Maliki’s Iraq government.) As John McCain chastised Obama for not doing enough to fight ISIS last month, he had the gall to brag on CNN that he had “predicted what was going to happen in Iraq.” He had indeed predicted that Iraq might be destabilized by the withdrawal of American troops, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and, besides, McCain is always in favor of more American troops as a one-size-fits-all panacea for international conflicts. His earlier predictions were that we would win the Iraq War “easily,” and that the Sunnis and Shia would “probably get along” in post-Saddam Iraq because there was “not a history of clashes” between them. Why in God’s name should Obama listen to him or Clinton now? Why, for that matter, do Sunday talk shows repeatedly book McCain and repeatedly fail to challenge his long record of wrong calls on the Middle East?

As a corrective, I highly recommend an essay by Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation, published last weekend in the Daily News, that lays out in detail why Obama has a strategy for ISIS, Russia, and other foreign-policy crucibles, and why most of his critics do not. It’s a much-needed blast of reality. As an aside, Cohen also raises another intriguing question: Why are politicians and pundits giving the relatively slender threat of an ISIS attack on America more weight than the “gun violence that takes the lives of an estimated 30,000 Americans every year”?

In late June, President Obama vowed to overhaul America's immigration system through executive action this summer. Now the White House is strongly hinting that the president will delay any action until after the midterm elections. Republicans and red-state Democrats have criticized the president's potential executive action as a massive overreach of his authority, while immigration activists have contended that the potential delay of an executive action would alienate Hispanic voters and continue a regime of mass deportations. Should Obama issue an executive order on immigration at all? And should the electoral chances of Democratic senators in Arkansas and North Carolina affect his timing? 
As my colleague Jonathan Chait has argued, Democrats would not be so thrilled if a Republican president were to try to achieve policy goals by such extra-democratic, if legal, means as Obama has proposed on immigration. Chait is right, but in the current context — a grave humanitarian crisis that begs for alleviation, a GOP-run House that has vowed complete inaction on immigration reform — I feel Obama has a case. But I don’t think he should delay action now to salvage (possibly) some Senatorial candidates who are likely to lose anyway. If his motives are pure — to bring relief to those who are suffering — the timetable should not be determined by the electoral calendar. And I think he’s likely over-thinking the political fallout in any case. A move on immigration would actually aid one Senatorial candidate in a tight race — in increasingly Hispanic Colorado. It would also provoke a round of Republican Hispanic-bashing that will backfire on the GOP’s electoral prospects — perhaps marginally in 2014, but seriously in 2016. Last weekend Ted Cruz likened the border between Manhattan and the Bronx to that between Texas and Mexico — a provocative and preposterous analogy that may end up looking relatively genteel next to what the Iowa hothead Steve King and other GOP Congressional xenophobes will have to say if Obama acts on immigration. King and Marco Rubio have also implied they might try to shut the government down if the president acts — just the gift the Democrats are praying for in this election season. Obama should pull the trigger on his immigration strategy and make their day.

Earlier this week, the boutique investment bank Moelis & Co. announced that it had hired recently deposed Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as vice chairman and managing director. At the same time, word broke that the Russian bank Gazprombank, a target of U.S. sanctions, had hired former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and former Democratic Senator John Breaux to lobby on its behalf. Meanwhile, the Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout is challenging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination on an anti-corruption platform and is considered a hopeless long shot. Why don't Americans in 2014 seem to care at all about corruption and the revolving door?
Americans care, but they have given up. Members of both parties have become inured to the reality that the deck is stacked in favor of corporate interests and the one percent — a cynicism that was heightened not just by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, opening the floodgates for money as “free speech,” but by the failure of government to punish the culprits who greased the skids for the Great Recession and walked away with their loot while their victims suffered. Most voters (and lapsed voters) assume that every politician is on the take from the highest bidder, and they are often right. There are few politicians in office who can resist the entreaties of big donors. There are few out-of-office politicians who can resist the siren call of lobbying, even to the point of signing on with fat cats in Putin’s Russia as the bipartisan team of Lott and Breaux did. And so we shrug about them and Cantor — and about onetime liberal heroes turned influence peddlers like the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. It’s impossible to know what will change this equation. Still, an unexpectedly strong protest vote for Teachout over Cuomo in next week’s primary could rattle the status quo — at least within the confines of blue New York.