It’s difficult to overstate how poorly Barack Obama performed at Monday’s press conference from the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey. As France deals with the aftermath of an ISIS attack leaving 132 dead (so far), hundreds wounded, and thousands of lives shattered, the ersatz leader of the free world responded with an embarrassing display of indifference, peevishness, and open contempt. He was less “President Obama” and more “Petulant Obama.”
As reporters lobbed obvious questions about Obama’s dismissive description of ISIS as a JV team, his broken promise to degrade and destroy the group, and the massive intelligence failure that rocked Europe, he seemed annoyed at all the fuss.
“There will be setbacks and there will be successes,” Obama said calmly. “The terrible events in Paris were a terrible and sickening setback.”
“Setback.” Many are shocked to see the US president use such a bloodless term for such a bloody war crime, but this was no improvisation. It was part of Obama’s prepared opening statement.
He quickly shifted to happy talk. “Even as we grieve with our French friends, however, we can’t lose sight that there has been progress being made.” American flags are at half-staff. We’re working closely with our French partners. A new agreement will streamline processes.
The bureaucratic boredom with which Obama delivered the lines was reminiscent of Michael Dukakis airily dismissing a debate hypothetical in which his wife was raped and murdered. Yes, Paris is a setback but we’ve lowered our flags. Next question.
“Isn’t it time for your strategy to change?” Jerome Cartillier of Agence France-Presse asked.
“Well, keep in mind what we have been doing,” he said without hesitation. “We have a military strategy that is putting enormous pressure on ISIL through airstrikes.… On the military front, we are continuing to accelerate what we do…. On the counterterrorism front, keep in mind that since I came into office, we have been worried about these kinds of attacks…. And every few weeks, I meet with my entire national security team and we go over every single threat stream that is presented…”
I meet with a team every few weeks. What more do you people want?
“There are going to be some things that we try that don’t work; there will be some strategies we try that do work,” Obama said. “And when we find strategies that work, we will double down on those.” Positively Churchillian.
The next question was from CBS: “A more than year-long bombing campaign in Iraq and in Syria has failed to contain the ambition and the ability of ISIS to launch attacks in the West. Have you underestimated their abilities? And will you widen the rules of engagement for US forces to take more aggressive action?”
“No, we haven’t underestimated our abilities,” he said immediately, barely masking his annoyance. “There has been an acute awareness on the part of my administration from the start that it is possible for an organization like ISIL… [to] have the capabilities to potentially strike in the West.”
“But understand that one of the challenges we have in this situation is, is that if you have a handful of people who don’t mind dying, they can kill a lot of people.”
Sigh. Next question.
Jim Avila: “In the days and weeks before the Paris attacks, did you receive warning in your daily intelligence briefing that an attack was imminent? If not, does that not call into question the current assessment that there is no immediate, specific, credible threat to the United States today? And secondly, if I could ask you to address your critics who say that your reluctance to enter another Middle East war, and your preference of diplomacy over using the military makes the United States weaker and emboldens our enemies.”
Obama: “Jim, every day we have threat streams coming through the intelligence transit. And as I said, every several weeks we sit down with all my national security, intelligence, and military teams to discuss various threat streams that may be generated.”
By this point, it was obvious that Professor Obama was very disappointed with his class:
“But what we do not do, what I do not do is to take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough, or make me look tough. And maybe part of the reason is because every few months I go to Walter Reed, and I see a 25-year-old kid who’s paralyzed or has lost his limbs, and some of those are people I’ve ordered into battle. And so I can’t afford to play some of the political games that others may.
“We’ll do what’s required to keep the American people safe. And I think it’s entirely appropriate in a democracy to have a serious debate about these issues. If folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan. If they think that somehow their advisers are better than the Chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them. And we can have that debate. But what I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France. I’m too busy for that.”
We should be thankful he wasn’t making the statement from a golf course.
Most jarring about all the answers was President Obama’s blasé tone, as if he were discussing a zoning dispute in Poughkeepsie. Normally friendly journalists, whose networks had spent the weekend awash in harrowing details from Paris, kept rephrasing the question as if to say, “here’s one more chance to help you get this right.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta: “This is an organization that you once described as a JV team that evolved into a force that has now occupied territory in Iraq and Syria and is now able to use that safe haven to launch attacks in other parts of the world. How is that not underestimating their capabilities? And how is that contained, quite frankly? And I think a lot of Americans have this frustration that they see that the United States has the greatest military in the world, it has the backing of nearly every other country in the world when it comes to taking on ISIS. I guess the question is — and if you’ll forgive the language — is why can’t we take out these bastards?”
Obama, with a sigh: “Well, Jim, I just spent the last three questions answering that very question, so I don’t know what more you want me to add. I think I’ve described very specifically what our strategy is, and I’ve described very specifically why we do not pursue some of the other strategies that have been suggested.”
When NBC News’s Ron Allen tried yet again, Obama wasn’t having it: “All right, so this is another variation on the same question. And I guess — let me try it one last time.”
It wasn’t until the final question from an international journalist that the President finally showed some emotion and even anger at the truly horrible enemy he faces. Of course, Obama was talking about Republicans and their un-American thoughts about Syrian refugees.
The United States has to step up and do its part. And when I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims; when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution — that’s shameful. That’s not American.
ISIS might be responsible for setbacks, but only Republicans cause Obama shame.