This week in Hannover, Germany, President Obama told our European allies, who have been repeatedly attacked by Islamist terrorists, that they weren’t doing enough to battle ISIS. Then he had the nerve to announce he’d be sending a paltry 250 additional military personnel to Syria. His call to arms falls flat because of his own unwillingness to commit sincerely to the fight. Why should Europe take what he says seriously or contribute more money and blood to an effort that the president of the United States doesn’t seem to think is all that urgent?
More importantly in these last months of his presidency, moments like these prove that despite Obama’s campaign promise of change, he can’t see when it’s most important for a president to be able to alter course. The sign of a great leader, and a great man, is the capacity for change, especially in the face of new facts and realities. We were lucky enough to have just such men in command of our country during the first and second world wars. The American people were willing to change with them.
Other Presidents Changed with Necessity
President Woodrow Wilson was against joining World War I and even won re-election in 1916 under the slogan “He kept us out of the war.” But he was willing to change course when events called for it. In January 1917, Germany announced it intended to recommence submarine assaults on all allied passenger and merchant ships. Although this issue had been a concern previously in the war (131 U.S. citizens had died on the British liners Lusitania and Arabic in 1915 when Germany attacked them), it wasn’t until the 1917 resumption of these aggressions that Wilson had seen enough. In April of that year, he went before the Senate and requested a declaration of war against Germany.
By the time World War II came along, America had just emerged from the Great Depression and was rebuilding the economy. There was little appetite for involvement in another war in Europe because of the financial burden and suspicions of profiteering by banks and arms manufacturers. A strong isolationist streak also straddled the political aisle, with Charles Lindberg coining the phrase “America first.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself not an isolationist, was nevertheless focused on domestic issues and his New Deal, and was reluctant to go against the will of the people.
He, too, took some convincing. Clementine Churchill’s biography reveals the years-long task to woo American diplomats and FDR into providing aid to Britain and joining the war. Of course, the bombing of Pearl Harbor was the final straw; however, it took a flexibility of ideology both for FDR and for Congress to understand that what made sense a decade earlier no longer did. They responded to a shifting world and heightened aggressions.
Accelerating a War Obama Refuses to End
Obama doesn’t seem to have that same ability. When he took office, America once again had no taste for war. After eight years of the Bush administration and the war on terror, Americans were sick of military intervention. They wanted to stay out of other countries’ problems—especially in the Middle East. Obama campaigned on his promise to get troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to put an end to our “meddling” in the Middle East. But when the situation changed, he was unable to adapt.
In 2011, the Arab Spring brought massive unrest to the region and instability to Libya and Syria, allowing Islamist groups, most notably ISIS, to flourish. Obama’s own withdrawal of troops from Iraq left a power vacuum that the Islamic State has now filled. By pledging to send troops to Syria, Obama is walking back his promise of no “boots on the ground” in the region; however, the small number he has deployed makes it clear he still hasn’t come to grips with the facts on the ground. Things have changed, and the Middle East is once more a very unstable region. Military force of the kind only America can provide may once again be required.
In Syria, where ISIS has taken advantage of the ongoing civil war, Obama refused to alter his “lead from behind” policy when Bashar Assad began using chemical weapons on his people. This sent a message not just to Assad but also to ISIS that the United States wouldn’t be coming to anyone’s rescue any time soon. That was when Obama should have reflected on his campaign promises, ideology, and stubbornness, and acknowledged that life doesn’t always deal you the cards you want.
The Real World Versus Obama’s Fantasy World
That was the moment when a great leader would have stopped to think about why he is still following the course he set out years earlier, and whether that course of action still makes sense in the world today. If that wasn’t enough, ISIS has launched or inspired attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, and all over the Middle East, Africa, and across the globe.
But Obama’s ideological desires not to sully himself with military action in the Middle East have clouded his vision. He can’t let go of the world in which he imagined he’d be president when he ran for office seven years ago. This proves him to be a poor commander-in-chief. Despite the fact that ISIS’s ability to take over huge swaths of the region was a direct result of Obama’s foreign policy, he still refuses to acknowledge his responsibility for it and take meaningful military action.
Obama talked recently about ending the suffering of the Syrian people, but what is he willing to do about it? How sincere is he when he implores Europe to act? Based on his actions, not very.
As Obama’s term winds down and we elect our new head of state, it behooves us to reflect on the qualities that make a great leader. Part of those include a man’s character and his ability to change. On Wednesday, Donald Trump made a foreign policy speech in which he evoked Lindberg’s “America first” isolationist rhetoric. If he should be our next president, and a need to go to war should arise, let’s hope he’d be willing to reflect on his beliefs and policies and do what’s right in the moment.
Not feeling very hopeful? Me, neither.