The Danger of Obama’s Wobbling Rhetoric

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U.S. President Barack Obama comments on recent statements by Republicans as he and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn hold a news conference after their meeting at the National Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 27, 2015. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama has a habit of asserting strategic nonsense with such certainty that it is at times embarrassing and frightening. Nowhere is that more evident than in his rhetoric about the Middle East.

Not long ago, Obama reassured the world that, despite evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, “Chlorine itself is not listed as a chemical weapon.” What could he have meant by that?

Obama apparently was referring to the focus on Sarin gas by the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the U.N. watchdog agency that was supposed to monitor Obama’s Syria red line warnings against further gas attacks. To reassure the public that the United States would not consider chlorine gas a violation of its own red line about chemical weapons use in Syria—and, therefore, to assure the public that his administration would not intervene militarily in Syria—Obama said: “Chlorine itself, historically, has not been listed as a chemical weapon.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Chlorine was the father of poison gas, the first chemical agent used in World War I—and it was used to lethal effect by the Germans at the Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Subsequently, it was mixed and upgraded with phosgene gas to make an even deadlier brew and employed frequently throughout the war—most infamously at the Battle of the Somme.

The president was clearly bothered that he had boxed himself into a rhetorical corner and might have had to order air strikes against the defiant Assad regime—lest he appear wavering in carrying out his earlier threats. One way out of that dilemma would be to deny that chlorine constituted a serious weapon used to kill soldiers and civilians. Another would simply be to claim that he had never issued such a red line to Bashar al-Assad at all. That refuge is exactly what Obama fell back upon at press conference on September 4, 2013: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”  

Here is what the president had earlier stated on August 20, 2012, in threatening Assad: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

The use of the presidential pronouns “we” and “my” are synonymous with the voice of his administration. Indeed, Obama had doubled down on his 2012 red line with the clarification that, “When I said that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn’t unique to—that wasn’t a position unique to the United States and it shouldn’t have been a surprise.”

In the summer of 2014, Obama had dismissed the emergence of ISIS with colorful language about its inability to project terrorism much beyond its local Iraqi embryo: “I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

ISIS, remember, had already conducted terrorist operations across the Mediterranean. Both organized and lone-wolf terrorists, with claims of ISIS ties or inspiration, would go on to attack Westerners from France to Texas.

Obama compounded his obfuscations by later claiming to Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd that he had never said such a thing at all about ISIS—an assertion that was deemed false by even the liberal fact-checking organization PolitiFact. More recently, in July 2015, Obama claimed that the now-growing ISIS threat could not be addressed through force of arms, assuring the world that “Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas.”

Such a generic assertion seems historically preposterous. The defeat of German Nazism, Italian fascism and Japanese militarism was not accomplished by Anglo-American rhetoric on freedom. What stopped the growth of Soviet-style global communism during the Cold War were both armed interventions such as the Korean War and real threats to use force such as during the Berlin Airlift and Cuban Missile Crisis—along with Ronald Reagan’s resoluteness backed by a military buildup that restored credible Western military deterrence.

In contrast, Obama apparently believes that strategic threats are not checked with tough diplomacy backed by military alliances, balances of power and military deterrence, much less by speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Rather, crises are resolved by ironing out mostly Western-inspired misunderstandings and going back on heat-of-the moment, ad hoc issued deadlines, red lines and step-over lines, whether to the Iranian theocracy, Vladimir Putin or Bashar Assad.

Sometimes the administration’s faith in Western social progressivism is offered to persuade an Iran or Cuba that they have missed the arc of Westernized history—and must get back on the right side of the past by loosening the reins of their respective police states.

Obama believes that engagement with Iran in non-proliferation talks—which have so far given up on prior Western insistences on third-party, out of the country enrichment, on-site inspections and kick-back sanctions—will inevitably ensure that Iran becomes “a successful regional power.” That higher profile of the theocracy apparently is a good thing for the Middle East and our allies like Israel and the Gulf states.

In his well-publicized Cairo speech of June 2009, Obama declared that Islam had a hand in prompting the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment, as well as offering other underappreciated gifts to the West, from medicine to navigation. Obama’s tutorial was offered to remind the Muslim Brotherhood members in his audience that the West really does owe much to the Muslim World—and thus by inference should expect reciprocal consideration in the current war on terror.

In his February 2, 2015 outline of anti-ISIS strategy—itself an update of an earlier September 2014 strategic précis—Obama again insisted that “one of the best antidotes to the hateful ideologies that try to recruit and radicalize people to violent extremism is our own example as diverse and tolerant societies that welcome the contributions of all people, including people of all faiths.” The idea, a naive one, is that because we welcome mosques on our diverse and tolerant soil, ISIS will take note and welcome Christian churches.

One of Obama’s former State Department advisers, Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks, recently amplified that reductionist confidence in the curative power of Western progressivism. She urged Americans to tweet ISIS, which, like Iran, habitually executes homosexuals.

Brooks hoped that Americans would pass on stories about and photos of the Supreme Court’s recent embrace of gay marriage: “Do you want to fight the Islamic State and the forces of Islamic extremist terrorism? I’ll tell you the best way to send a message to those masked gunmen in Iraq and Syria and to everyone else who gains power by sowing violence and fear. Just keep posting that second set of images [photos of American gays and their supporters celebrating the Supreme Court decision]. Post them on Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and in comments all over the Internet. Send them to your friends and your family. Send them to your pen pal in France and your old roommate in Tunisia. Send them to strangers.”

Such zesty confidence in the redemptive power of Western moral superiority recalls First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to persuade the murderous Boko Haram to return kidnapped Nigerian preteen girls. Ms. Obama appealed to Boko Haram on the basis of shared empathy and universal parental instincts. (“In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters. We see their hopes, their dreams and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”) She then fortified her message with a photo of her holding up a sign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has added Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to his earlier acquisitions in Georgia. He is most likely eyeing the Baltic States next. China is creating new strategic realities in the Pacific, in which Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines will eventually either be forced to acquiesce or to seek their own nuclear deterrent. The Middle East has imploded. Much of North Africa is becoming a Mogadishu-like wasteland.

The assorted theocrats, terrorists, dictators and tribalists express little fear of or respect for the U.S. They believe that the Obama administration does not know much nor cares about foreign affairs. They may be right in their cynicism. A president who does not consider chlorine gas a chemical weapon could conceivably believe that the Americans once liberated Auschwitz, that the Austrians speak an Austrian language and that the Falklands are known in Latin America as the Maldives.

Both friends and enemies assume that what Obama or his administration says today will be either rendered irrelevant or denied tomorrow. Iraq at one point was trumpeted by Vice President Joe Biden as the administration’s probable “greatest achievement.” Obama declared that Iraq was a “stable and self-reliant” country in no need of American peacekeepers after 2011.  

Yanking all Americans out of Iraq in 2011 was solely a short-term political decision designed as a 2012 re-election talking point. The American departure had nothing to do with a disinterested assessment of the long-term security of the still shaky Iraqi consensual government.

When Senator Obama damned the invasion of Iraq in 2003; when he claimed in 2004 that he had no policy differences with the Bush administration on Iraq; when he declared in 2007 that the surge would fail; when he said in 2008 as a presidential candidate that he wanted all U.S. troops brought home; when he opined as president in 2011 that the country was stable and self-reliant; when he assured the world in 2014 that it was not threatened by ISIS; and when in 2015 he sent troops back into an imploding Iraq—all of these decisions hinged on perceived public opinion, not empirical assessments of the state of Iraq itself. The near destruction of Iraq and the rise of ISIS were the logical dividends of a decade of politicized ambiguity.

After six years, even non-Americans have caught on that the more Obama flip-flops on Iraq, deprecates an enemy or ignores Syrian redlines, the less likely American arms will ever be used and assurances honored.

The world is going to become an even scarier place in the next two years. The problem is not just that our enemies do not believe our president, but rather that they no longer even listen to him.

Victor Davis Hanson is a Martin and Illie Anderson senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. This article first appeared on the Hoover’s Defining Ideas site.