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If You Are Not Using the Presidency, Do You Mind If We Borrow It?


President Lincoln once said to an over-cautious general, “If you are not using the army, I should like to borrow it for a short while.”

After yesterday’s press conference, I think we might need to say, to our disengaged, apathetic commander-in-chief: if you’re not using the presidency, would you mind if we borrowed it?

When asked what he intended to do about the biggest foreign policy crisis of the moment, the rise of the “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, here is what the commander-in-chief had to say.

I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet. I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are. And I think that’s not just my assessment, but the assessment of our military, as well. We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress and make sure that their voices are heard. But there’s no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.

Surely, isn’t this is an emergency? With the Islamic State hacking off the heads of American journalists, planning attacks with weapons of mass destruction and spreading its influence to Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, we have to act quickly, don’t we? Nah, it can wait until after Obama’s golf vacation, and then until after Congress gets back from its recess, and then for who knows how long.

Moreover, Obama hinted that whatever he does will not really be a strategy but a reaction to events, an attempt merely to limit or contain the Islamic State.

[T]he options that I’m asking for from the joint chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq…. [M]y priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself.

And it won’t really be his strategy. It won’t be a plan for what the United States will do. As with most of Obama’s foreign policy, it will be a plan for what he hopes others will do. In this case, he’s hoping for “strong regional partners” whom he can lead from behind.

I’m encouraged so far that countries in the region, countries that don’t always agree on many things, increasingly recognize the primacy of the threat that ISIL poses to all of them. And I’ve asked Secretary Kerry to travel to the region to continue to build the coalition that’s needed to meet this threat….

This should be a wake-up call to Sunni, to Shia, to everybody that a group like ISIS is beyond the pale; that they have no vision or ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people. And as a consequence, we’ve got to all join together—even if we have differences on a range of political issues—to make sure that they’re rooted out.

That part about “countries that don’t always agree on many things” and those with whom “we have differences” may be a veiled reference to Iran, with whom Obama has been not-so-subtly seeking a de facto alliance. But ISIS has a lot in common with Iran, and there’s evidence that Iran’s satellite, the Assad regime in Syria, deliberately fostered the rise of ISIS because it serves their interests.

Obama shows a similar lack of interest in developing a strategy when it comes to the second big foreign policy crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Obama and his State Department have refused to call an “invasion.”

What is his plan for countering Russia?

Next week, I’ll be in Europe to coordinate with our closest allies and partners…. At the NATO summit in the United Kingdom, we’ll focus on the additional steps we can take to ensure the alliance remains prepared for any challenge.

In case you missed that, he concluded his answer to a follow-up question with: “I look forward to, you know, the consultations that we’ll have when I see [our European partners] next week.”

So Russian armor is rolling into Ukraine, but we’re not going to do anything until next week. And then we’re not going to do something, we’re going to “focus on additional steps we can take,” i.e., we’re going talk about what we might do. And those steps won’t even be about taking actions. They will be about “ensuring we remain prepared” in the unlikely event that we decide to do something sometime in the future.

So no—no strategy there, either.

After the press conference, there was a lot of talk about Obama’s tan suit, which made him look small, tired, grey, washed out, and unserious. So it was a perfect sartorial choice.

It is the president’s job—in fact, it is his primary job—to choose strategies for countering the various threats that arise around the world. In the case of Ukraine and the Islamic State, he’s had months to think about it and weigh options. Russia annexed Crimea in March, and ISIS overran Mosul in early June, nearly three months ago. But instead Obama spent his time golfing and fundraising and downplaying the threats, so that only now is he beginning the task of thinking about them.

The Constitution allows Congress to remove a president for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Does that allow us to remove him for simple abdication of the responsibilities of his office? Certainly, Congress needs to begin taking these issues in its own hands and doing as much as they can to lay down markers for what they think the president ought to do. But for better or worse, in our system they have little power to force the commander-in-chief’s hand.

If only it were so simple to borrow the executive authority he has dropped, because someone needs to address our foreign policy crises if the man elected to the job won’t do it.

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