08/10/2014 09:55 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2014

The Obama Paradox

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's extended interview with President Obama shed some light on how Obama can be well-informed, thoughtful, prudent -- yet still be seen as faltering as a foreign policy president.

If you compare Obama with George W. Bush (okay -- a low bar), Obama wins, hands down. Unlike Bush, Obama inhabits the reality-based foreign policy space, with no apologies. Unlike Bush, he has no messianic zealots among his advisers. He gives the kind of well-considered responses that suggest a president who carefully engages with truly difficult policy conundrums.

Yet at the end of the day, he often comes across as vacillating and indecisive -- an impression that can be fatal in his dealings with allies, adversaries, and of course electorates.

In the case of Iraq and ISIL, American air power got drawn in to the conflict despite Obama's wishes and against the wishes of most Americans, who are quite weary of our decade-long Iraq misadventure. Though some on the left and the right may oppose these air strikes, the president really had little choice.

But as Obama's Republican critics have demanded, what's the policy going forward? It's fine for Obama to declare that he doesn't want to "get into the business of being the Kurdish air force," but ISIL will not be stopped with a few waves of air bombardments. Both the Bush and Obama administrations made a huge mistake tolerating the Nuri al-Maliki regime, with its opportunistic all-Shiite complexion.

Here's the practical dilemma: Either Obama re-inserts American power, both in forcing a more representative regime in Baghdad and in repelling the ISIL invading force, or a power vacuum persists, inviting more Islamist radicalism and more Sunni disaffection from the Iraqi government.

It's not a pretty situation for any U.S. president. But ISIL was on the move weeks ago. It was clear to U.S. intelligence that this force was not going to be stopped by Iraqi's ragtag military, much less by 500 U.S. advisers. Had Obama moved earlier, both against Maliki's arrogance and against the ISIL invasion, he would have at least appeared more decisive and maybe made more of a difference on the ground.

Friedman wrote "Obama made clear that he is only going to involve America more deeply in places like the Middle East to the extent that the different communities there agree to an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished." That sounds both cautious and idealist, almost Wilsonian. But is this principle a practical guide for urgent action when ISIL is at the gates of Mosul and Baghdad? Sunnis and Shiites are not going to embrace each other any time soon.

Freedman also quoted Obama to the effect that "in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not 'squandered an opportunity' to share power with Sunnis and Kurds." Well, of course. But was the U.S. without leverage over Maliki?

Obama, oddly, told Friedman that:

"[W]e did not just start taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as ISIL came in was because that would have taken the pressure off of [Prime Minister Nuri Kamal] al-Maliki." That only would have encouraged, he said, Maliki and other Shiites to think: 'We don't actually have to make compromises. We don't have to make any decisions. We don't have to go through the difficult process of figuring out what we've done wrong in the past. All we have to do is let the Americans bail us out again. And we can go about business as usual.'"

In effect, Obama is saying, we will let ISIL do the dirty work that America is unwilling to do in forcing out Maliki, while keeping enough military pressure on ISIL to prevent them from overrunning Iraq altogether. That tactic might work, but it is risky as hell, and it hardly adds up a policy of "no victors/no vanquished."

America faces a similar conundrum with respect to Israel and Palestine. The Israelis are existentially dependent on the alliance with the United States, but at the end of the day no American president has been willing to apply necessary leverage over inflammatory Israeli actions on settlements on the West Bank or normalization of civilian life in Gaza.

Obama used the Friedman interview to bemoan his lack of leverage. He praised "the ingenuity, energy and vision of the Jewish people," and quipped that Prime Minister Netanyahu's "poll numbers are a lot higher than mine" and "were greatly boosted by the war in Gaza," Obama added, "And so if he doesn't feel some internal pressure, then it's hard to see him being able to make some very difficult compromises, including taking on the settler movement."

All true, but the U.S. has been reluctant to use the leverage it has. In fairness to Obama, no American president has been willing to push the Israel alliance to its breaking point. But once again, this president appears disengaged and weak.

It is Obama's bad luck to be chief executive at a moment when the consequences of several bad policies of the past century are blowing up, on his watch. His answers to particular questions are thoughtful, prudent, and mindful of the limits of American power. But taken together, missteps like taking a little too long to move on Iraq, stumbling in his effort to define bright lines in Syria, and failing to dissuade the Israelis from brutal air strikes on civilian neighborhoods in Gaza, turn salutary prudence into the perception of weakness.

In his conversation with Friedman, Obama tried to connect the theme of partisan dysfunction at home to tribalism in the Mid-East. We Americans, he told Friedman, "will never realize our full potential unless our two parties adopt the same outlook that we're asking of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or Israelis and Palestinians: No victor, no vanquished and work together."

Something is wrong with that analogy. It begins to sound like an alibi for Obama's inability to win bipartisan cooperation at home and it seems an impossible objective in the Middle East. As nasty as Republicans can be, our politics are not at the level of Sunnis versus Shiites, Israelis versus Palestinians, much less ISIL versus the Enlightenment.

Thus the Obama paradox. He is one of the best-informed and most thoughtful foreign policy presidents we have had in a long time, but his very appreciation of complexity often comes across as indecision.

No president ever wins points for being Hamlet. In today's foreign policy crises, there are few good choices. Somehow, this president needs to hold on to his prudence while finding more decisiveness.

Robert Kuttner's latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and is a professor at Brandeis University's Heller School.
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