Judging by the way he holds his cards so close to his vest, President Obama must be an awfully good poker player. Here we are halfway through his second term, and few observers can claim to know with any precision exactly what he thinks about critical matters of war and peace.
Or what he might do if push came to shove, an eventuality he appears entirely determined to avoid.
Obama often appears disdainful of the theatrical aspects of the presidency. He avoids playing dress-up. No aircraft carrier landings or make-believe ranching for him. Pretty much all the time, the president carries himself as the middle-aged husband, father, former law professor and professional politician that he is. He avoids confrontation whenever possible.
Even when he speaks out on issues of critical national importance, Obama can sound kind of dorky. Witness last week’s qualified endorsement of CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan had been forced to apologize to Congress because (apparently unknown to him) agents spied on Senate Intelligence Committee staffers investigating what the Bush administration euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation.”
“Even before I came into office,” Obama said, “I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
We tortured “folks”?
Mr. President, you invite folks to picnics or welcome them to Jimmy Buffett shows. You torture “terrorist suspects,” “prisoners,” or “captives.” Calling them folks makes it sound like no big deal.
Which may be exactly what Obama intended. Because the other folks he talked about were the CIA agents who did the waterboarding.
“It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had,” the president said. “A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots, but having said all that, we did some things that were wrong.”
Just not wrong enough to get too upset about.
Even Obama’s closest aides, it appears, often can’t tell what he’s thinking. According to David Remnick’s vivid account of Vladimir Putin’s metastasizing authoritarianism in the New Yorker, former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul still can’t figure out if the president’s a “realist” or an “internationalist” in foreign policy. That is, should the United States favor national self-interest or promote democratic values around the world?
Both, basically. Obama gives ringing speeches endorsing democracy, but in practice acts with cool calculation. McFaul himself made a show of meeting publicly with anti-Putin activists. He lasted only two years in Moscow.
Another example: A while back, the president explained to “CBS This Morning” why arming “moderates” in Syria’s civil war was a bad idea.
“When you get farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad,” he said, “the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.”
“Folks” again. But almost cynical this time.
Then soon afterward Obama asked Congress for $500 million to arm and train “appropriately vetted” Syrian rebels.
So was the president craftily calling Republicans’ bluff, as he’d done by asking Congress’ permission to bomb Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2013? Permission Obama didn’t really want and knew he couldn’t get, given public resistance to yet another Middle Eastern war.
If so, why repeat the gesture? Could Obama be hearing footsteps, as they say in the NFL? That is, listening to the rising chorus from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to Darth Cheney that wants a manly, decisive president who’s more enthusiastic about starting wars?
Indeed, before that drunken cast of Dostoyevsky characters under Putin’s sponsorship shot down a Malaysian passenger jet in eastern Ukraine, murdering 298 innocent civilians, it had become common to hear GOP partisans wish we had a president more like the virile Russian.
“Putin decides what he wants to do and does it in half a day,” Rudy Giuliani declared. “He makes a decision and executes it quickly and everybody reacts. That’s what you call a real leader.”
Dowd even wrote a snarky column about Obama the girly-man based on a remark he’d made about hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy instead of more masculine (to Dowd) three-run home runs. She appeared not to grasp the metaphor: Like baseball, foreign policy requires patience. Nobody can hit three-run bombs unless somebody gets on base.
The problem, of course, is that foreign policy isn’t poker, football or baseball, and it has a definite theatrical aspect whether Professor Obama likes it or not. Perceptions of character have a way of becoming reality; the perception of weakness can become the most dangerous reality of all.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.