On August 1, President Barack Obama turned the White House into the Whine House. Thwarted in Gaza, the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, Obama noted that the state of the world is "difficult ... it's not neat, and it's not smooth." He urged Americans "to have some humility about what we can and can't accomplish. We have to recognize," he said, "that our resources are finite." This plaintive press conference made Obama sound like a declining power's chief excuse-maker not a superpower's commander-in-chief.
Obama's limited power doctrine ends debates about projecting hard power or soft power. He just wants an A for effort. "Part of the reason why America remains indispensable, part of the essential ingredient in American leadership is that we're willing to plunge in and try, where other countries don't bother trying," he said. Praising his Secretary of State as energizer bunny rather than closer, Obama resented the "nitpicking" about John Kerry's hamhanded Gaza ceasefire negotiations -- offering to bring Christmas to Hamas's Islamists' month early - "before he's had a chance to complete his efforts. Because, I tell you what, there isn't any other country that's going in there and making those efforts."
The world is a tough, unforgiving place demanding actual results not noble intentions. Presidents don't just get an "A" for effort in international affairs and call it a day.
Barack Obama still has not learned the importance of inducing fear as a managerial tool, especially for the leader of the free world. At home, partisan Republicans and renegade Democrats cross him repeatedly. Abroad, Islamist terrorists and brutal dictators all believe he can be defied with few consequences.
Obama's foreign policy flaccidity is a far cry from Theodore Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick," reflecting America's willingness to reinforce idealistic rhetoric with military power. Obama's awkward phrasings appear farcical when compared to John Kennedy's elegant yet muscular 1961 inaugural vow "that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." And Obama's responses to Hamas attack tunnels, ISIS fanatics, Russian strongmen and their Ukrainian separatist allies lack the directive crispness of Ronald Reagan's legendary 1987 challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall.
Sounding weary and thwarted, Obama has muted America's moral voice. Not every challenge poses a dilemma requiring an evenhanded, you're-right-and-you're-right-too, balancing act. Sometimes anger is the rational response to international events, with clear labeling of dangerous threats, outrageous acts, and evil actors. And sometimes America's big presidential stick must be a blunderbuss.
Unfortunately, Obama's bleating obscures rather than clarifies. He criticized Hamas's housing of "rocket launchers right in the middle of civilian neighborhoods" as "incredibly irresponsible." Is that the best he can do? "Irresponsible" suggests being scatterbrained, shiftless, unreliable. It's the defining failure of basically good teens like his daughters not the rocket launchers and tunnel burrowers of Hamas trying to murder innocent Israelis en masse.
Similarly, when describing the fear following September 11, Obama said "after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen." The World Trade Center and United Airlines Flight 93 did not just "fall." The Pentagon was not just "hit" by debris. Al Qaeda's Islamist terrorists deliberately targeted and destroyed them - Obama's passive voice absolves terrorists of blame.
Post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan America does not want to be globocop enmeshed in every dispute, or globo-ump, judging every international player. But America's republic is rooted in clear notions of right and wrong, on an expansive journey seeking individual and national virtue. Muffling American moralism and limiting American ambitions violates our collective instincts. Our ambitious quest to do good triggered America's greatest achievements, from launching the Revolution and the Constitution in the eighteenth century, to defeating the Slaveholding Confederacy in the nineteenth century, to triumphing over Nazism and Southern Racism in the twentieth century, to engineering the high-tech revolution today. We did not create the first mass middle class democratic civilization by emphasizing our "finite .. resources," what "we did ... wrong," or the world's messiness.
In 2008 Obama ran with the slogan "Yes We Can" not "to be or not to be." He promised to lead not channel Hamlet. Americans need more moral clarity and courage from their president. The world needs muscular leadership, using the White House as both bully pulpit and power base, too.