A small question on an otherwise big day: Will the editors of the conservative flagship magazine National Review question the perspicacity of the cover illustration on their Sept. 22 issue – the one in which President Barack Obama is depicted placing a rose in the barrel of a tank flying an Islamic State flag?
You get it, right? Obama, the man who has now launched air strikes on targets in seven Muslim countries (and who had already been attacking Islamic State in Iraq), is some kind of pacifist hippie.
I’m sorry to be preoccupied by a magazine cover when actual important issues are at stake. But I can’t help but think that it says a great deal about a specific Obama conundrum. In Obama, the United States has a president who has killed the world’s most notorious terrorist (and many other notorious terrorists), and is now the only man standing between the civilized world and a particularly barbaric and powerful group of murderers. Yet he does not seem to be able to shake the image of a terrorist-enabling flower child.
The most recent, Oct. 6, National Review cover makes something of a concession, but not much. It boasts a caricature of Obama, wearing an absurd uniform, his eyes either closed or looking down at his crossed fingers. The headline reads: “Reporting For Duty (Sort Of).” The man could punch Vladimir Putin in the face, and his critics would ask why didn’t use a knife.
Does this actually matter? Yes, in that characterizations of Obama have consistently corrupted and distorted the debate over the U.S.’s role in the Middle East. (One example: The idea disseminated relentlessly by Obama’s adversaries that he is anti-Israel has created an atmosphere of intense mistrust in the now-moribund peace process, which was already undermined, of course, by high levels of mistrust.)
The crucial debate we should be having at this moment concerns the shape and scope of the long-term campaign against Sunni Islamist terrorism and against Iran’s expansionist dreams. Misrepresentations of who the president is, and what he wants, don’t help our understanding of administration policy, and they create costly misunderstandings overseas.
This is not a plea for critics to stop criticizing: There is plenty to criticize in the administration’s approach to the world. But it is a request to the president’s adversaries to understand that cartoonish interpretations of his policies could hurt, among other things, his ability to project American strength and unity of purpose to wobbly allies and mendacious adversaries.
On the matter of coalitions, one argument that should be put to rest for the moment is the idea that Obama, the inveterate loner, is incapable of forging alliances. He has built a formidable alliance of Arab allies to fight Islamic State. Of course these Arab allies are all profoundly threatened by Islamic State and have an incentive to openly align themselves with the world’s only superpower. But the leaders of these countries have until very recently doubted Obama’s commitment to them, and they would not have joined forces with him if they believed he wasn’t in the fight for the long haul.
After long avoiding deeper engagement in Syria and Iraq – for the simple, understandable reason that these countries are seemingly insoluble messes – Obama has pivoted (to borrow a word from another now-dormant foreign-policy debate) in the direction of responsibility.
Now comes the hard part. Obama is fully engaged and fully gripped by the realization that the fight against Islamic State, and against Islamist terrorism more generally, may fill up his remaining years in office and become a crucial aspect of his legacy. The task before him is to figure out what the strategy for success here actually is.
We know that over the past six weeks, the American bombing campaign in Iraq has barely moved Islamic State terrorists from their positions. We know that the U.S. and its allies have limited intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Islamic State’s leadership. We know that without a serious ground component, it will be very difficult to seize back territory from Islamic State.
A legitimate criticism of Obama’s approach to Syria is worth noting here. If he had spent the past three years helping build-up the Free Syrian Army, and other more moderately minded groups opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad, the U.S. might not be on its back foot right now. There would have been risks of potentially catastrophic failure, of course – U.S. weapons falling into the hands of uncontrollable extremists, for instance – but we are now going to be making an enormous effort to build a moderate Syrian force that could have been built much earlier.
Obama also knows something else. The Middle East is one big slippery slope. The U.S. might find itself drawn deeper into a mess that is not of its own making. (Yes, I know, it’s all George W. Bush’s fault, except that it’s not, certainly not the Syria piece of this mess.) The U.S., by engaging Islamic State directly, has made itself a more immediate target of Islamic State. If Islamic State – or another of the al-Qaida-like groups fighting on the Syrian battlefield – manages to launch a successful attack on an American target, well, then the U.S. might find itself in an all-out war.
This wasn’t, of course, Obama’s plan. He was the president who was going to bring the U.S. out of Iraq and “pivot” to Asia. Reality intervened. It is good to know that he is grappling with that reality, eyes open, no roses for Islamic State in hand.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs.