Back in 2008, campaigner Barack Obama was full of promises of the glories to come if he were elected President of the United States. He would usher in the next utopia on the domestic front. He vowed to increase respect for America on the world stage. According to a Gallup poll taken the week after the election, 76% of the responders believed his global assurance. The international crowd was much less easy to convince, except the Nobel Committee, which gave him the Peace Prize for saying all the right things.
But, big promises are difficult to fulfill. By mid-October 2014, only 31% of U.S. voters gave Obama’s actual foreign policy the thumbs up. In fact, the approval of his handling of ISIS and Syria ranks last among crises dealt with during the last three decades by sitting Presidents.
Obama’s admission in late August 2014 that he had no strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria didn’t help his ratings. Or the fact that on September 4 he stated more generally that he did not have any ISIS strategy. Or the fact that the next day his administration began using the meaningless “degrade and ultimately destroy” slogan as its response to the strategy question.
If Obama does have an ISIS strategy, no one in the know is willing to talk about it. He did emphasize in October that the campaign against ISIS will be a “long-term effort”. How long? At least until he can hand it off to the next President.
Not all strategies are illusive. We do know the President has at least one strategy in the ISIS fight. It is meant to meet the goal of insolating Islam from the atrocities committed by ISIS.
Obama’s first, and preferred, version of his defense of Islam strategy, pressed for many months, was to deny any religious motivation for the ISIS actions. This transparent falsehood accomplished something that had eluded the President for six years. It unified criticism across the political spectrum both here and abroad fulfilling, if briefly, his 2008 campaign promise to end bi-partisan bickering. Probably not what he had in mind when he made the promise.
Learning from this failure, Obama trotted out a new and improved strategy version last Thursday. It claims that ISIS behavior is predicated on an utter perversion of Islam. As Obama put it at the National Prayer Breakfast,
“[W]e have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism… and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
The President should have used the perversion-of-religion strategy from the outset. While nothing is universally accepted, it’s an easy sell to the rational mind. He also should have stopped at that point. But, not content with a better argument, he went on to admonish,
“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
His persistent practice of lecturing people on the shortcomings of predecessors in order to shame them into accepting his views is one of his biggest strategy failures. He’s not likely to learn from it.