The urgent need for Obama to lead

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2014 - 6:14 PM

At the very least, the troubled world needs a “great explainer.”

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In remarks last week, President Obama observed that “if you watch the nightly news it feels like the world is falling apart.”

Well, yes. There’s the terrifying emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a murderous band that is both medieval and Twitter-savvy. Then there’s the nationalist bluster and naked aggression of Vladimir Putin, a character right out of a bad 1930s newsreel. And there’s the lengthy string of lower-profile horrors, like the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the troubles in Libya and Pakistan, the reawakening of tribalism in Europe (even the prospect of a breakaway Scotland), and, of course, the eternal bloodshed in Palestine.

The president was right to suggest that social media amplifies the world’s messiness. But he failed to acknowledge his own complicity. Obama, himself, stands as a prime reason for the world’s confusion. Another of his remarks last week, that “we don’t have a strategy yet” against ISIL, also known as ISIS, adds greatly to a gnawing sensation that the civilized world is missing a leader capable of articulating a way forward against what seems like mounting chaos. As NATO begins its summit today in Wales, the world is waiting for a leader — maybe even Obama — to step forward and make sense of it all.

This page twice endorsed Obama for president and, considering the options, he was and remains the right choice. Americans are better off with his realistic approach to world affairs than they were with the neoconservative policies of the Bush-Cheney era, a span that contributed greatly to the world’s current troubles.

But Obama, for all his skill as a campaigner, has been astonishingly inept at telling his story as president. Americans know almost nothing of his considerable accomplishments (a vastly fairer health care system, an impressively recovering economy), owing to his painful inability to construct a policy narrative at home and to articulate a program abroad. One begins to wonder if any coherent foreign policy exists.

Maybe it’s too much to hope that Obama could become the great communicator, but the world and nation badly need him to become the great explainer. Starting now.

He needs to explain why patience is a virtue, even in the face of ISIL’s vile beheading of a second American captive. He needs to explain that revenge lies at the root of the Middle East’s problems and that getting sucked into a cycle of careless retribution only plays to the enemy’s strength.

He needs to make clearer the mistakes of his predecessors in launching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that only strengthened Iran’s influence and opened the way for Sunni jihadists.

Obama needs to take a cue from New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and demystify the three civil wars now tearing the region apart — one between radical and moderate Sunnis, another between Sunnis and Shiites, and a third between radical Sunnis and region’s minorities, including Kurds, Christians and Jews.

He needs to explain that the American model of secular pluralism can’t work everywhere. Syria, for example, may not offer a side for the U.S. to be on — and, indeed, in much of the region no side may fit American interests. Even our so-called allies (the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Qataris) are indirectly funding ISIL, whose grievances, by the way, date back to the treachery of other allies (Britain and France) who betrayed Arab aspirations after World War I by carving the region into faux states for their own colonial benefit.

There’s much more to lay out, including why isolationism isn’t the proper response to chaos, even though Americans seem increasingly weary and wary of foreign adventure.

Obama embodies a refreshing and admirable sense of honesty about the limits of American power and influence in a world that defies easy explanation. But that doesn’t let him off the hook. Americans need confidence that their president grasps the complexities and has a firm hand on the wheel.

His comments in Estonia on Wednesday helped to clarify his objective — to “degrade and destroy [ISIL] so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.” Moreover, he urged patience, saying, “This is not going to be a one-week or one-month or six-month proposition because of what’s happened in the vacuum of Syria. It’s going to take time for us to be able to roll them back.”

That’s a start, but he has a lot more explaining to do.

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