In her recently published memoir Hard Choices, former Senator Hillary Clinton recounts the meeting, nine days after the election of 2008, when President-elect Barack Obama first asked her to be his secretary of state. He “presented a well-considered argument,” she writes, “explaining that he would have to concentrate most of his time and attention on the economic crisis and needed someone of stature to represent him abroad.”
No doubt he meant that sincerely -- the U.S. financial system was still deep in crisis — but in the context of events this summer, Obama’s assumption that he would be focused mainly on domestic concerns suggests how little even a president of the United States can claim control of world events. The murders of American journalists James Foley and now Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State have put a very fine point on that.
Few U.S. presidents have faced as many disparate foreign-policy challenges as those that confronted Barack Obama this summer. Last month alone, he managed to help remove the too-sectarian leader of Iraq, helped to stand up a more inclusive government there, then launched a campaign of air strikes to support efforts to keep it from folding further into the Islamic State. The month began with a “green on blue” attack in Afghanistan that cost the life of a U.S. general (the first such casualty in 44 years) and ended with a resumption of political hostilities between presidential candidates that took the Afghan government to the brink of collapse on the eve of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Meanwhile “liberated” post-Gadaffi Libya slid further toward chaos, Israel waged war with Hamas in Gaza, and Russia more or less invaded Ukraine.
Last week, while most of that was still going on, the president was asked at a press conference whether he would seek congressional approval to take action against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq. He said yes but it would have to wait until specific plans were fully developed in light of all possible variables: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Widely and in some places willfully taken out of context to mean “I have no idea what we should do”, that quote was the headline everywhere, the talk of the Sunday morning news shows. Of all the many politicians and pundits to castigate Obama for lack of a detailed battle plan, perhaps the most remarkable was Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian deeply suspicious of U.S. military action, someone who opposed punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons and who has advocated cutting off all foreign aid. “If the president has no strategy,” he said, “maybe it’s time for a new president.” If that new president were himself, he said, he would call a joint session of Congress and ask for authorization to “destroy ISIS militarily.”