A Horrible Day for American Leadership

In response to terror, a petulant president and a xenophobic GOP presidential field.

President Obama.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Nov. 17, 2015, 9:18 a.m.

Monday was a hor­rible day for Amer­ic­an lead­er­ship. First, our petu­lant, tone-deaf pres­id­ent showed more an­ger to­ward his polit­ic­al crit­ics than to­ward IS­IS. Second, the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls turned their backs on Syr­i­an war refugees in a xeno­phobic frenzy.

At a news con­fer­ence in Tur­key for the G-20 sum­mit, Barack Obama bristled in de­fense of his IS­IS strategy, his ini­tial dis­missal of the ter­ror­ist state, his mil­it­ary re­sponse, his dip­lomacy, and his will­ing­ness to ac­cept refugees from Syr­ia.

“And,” wrote my col­league George Con­don, “there was no hid­ing his frus­tra­tion.”

Which was a shame, be­cause nobody cares about Obama’s pre­cious feel­ings.

What the people of France and its free­dom-lov­ing al­lies care about is de­feat­ing IS­IS. They won­der about the com­mit­ment of a U.S. pres­id­ent who dis­missed IS­IS as a “JV team” be­fore it be­headed Amer­ic­ans, who de­clared IS­IS “con­tained” be­fore it at­tacked Par­is, and whose ad­visers now say IS­IS can’t at­tack the United States. Nobody be­lieves that.

“No,” Obama in­sisted, “we haven’t un­der­es­tim­ated [their] abil­it­ies.” Nobody be­lieves that, either.

For all his skills as an orator, Obama is a lousy com­mu­nic­at­or. He doesn’t lead, he lec­tures. He ar­gues rather than edu­cates. His rhet­or­ic is self-fo­cused, not up­lift­ing to­ward a cause great­er than him­self. He spins and shifts blame, rarely ad­mit­ting fault.

Obama tries to show steely re­solve, but his af­fect is stub­born ar­rog­ance.

Even his sup­port­ers slammed the pres­id­ent’s per­form­ance. “Obama’s tone in ad­dress­ing the Par­is at­ro­city was all wrong,” wrote Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Eu­gene Robin­son. “At times he was pat­ron­iz­ing, at oth­er times he seemed an­noyed and al­most dis­missive. The pres­id­ent said, es­sen­tially, that he had con­sidered all the op­tions and de­cided that even a large-scale ter­ror­ist at­tack in the heart of a ma­jor European cap­it­al was not enough to make him re­con­sider his policy.”

Which brings me to the GOP, the source of Obama’s frus­tra­tion and an obstacle to the safety of Syr­i­an refugees.

“Wake up and smell the falafel,” said former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee, us­ing a slur to ar­gue against the set­tle­ment of refugees.

How does a party that pro­claims the sanc­tity of life risk the deaths of so many in­no­cents be­cause it is dif­fi­cult—not im­possible—to screen refugees? How can the party of re­li­gious free­dom in­clude at least three can­did­ates who would ad­mit Chris­ti­an refugees from Syr­ia, but no Muslims?

A re­li­gious test is con­trary to this na­tion’s found­ing prin­ciples. This brings to mind one of the ugli­est chapters in U.S. his­tory, when a ship of Jew­ish refugees flee­ing the Third Reich was turned away from Flor­ida in 1939.

The Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Evan­gel­ic­als gets it. Shortly be­fore the Par­is at­tacks, the group’s lead­er au­thored a column titled, “Where’s the Com­pas­sion on the Cam­paign Trail?” that made a faith-based ar­gu­ment for set­tling refugees. It de­con­struc­ted the scar­i­est of GOP talk­ing points.

“Can­did­ates do the na­tion a dis­ser­vice if they propag­ate mis­in­form­a­tion de­signed to in­still fear,” wrote Stephan Bau­man, pres­id­ent and CEO of the as­so­ci­ation’s hu­man­it­ari­an arm, World Re­lief.

“In­stead,” he con­tin­ued, “I hope that each can­did­ate will present a com­pas­sion­ate, in­formed plan for how our great na­tion can do more to wel­come care­fully-vet­ted refugees from Syr­ia and else­where who have fled per­se­cu­tion; how we can bet­ter equip our al­lies in the Middle East and Europe to re­spond to the much lar­ger num­bers of refugees they are re­ceiv­ing; and how to bring about peace­ful res­ol­u­tions to the des­per­ate con­flicts in the Middle East and else­where that have dis­placed so many.”

The column was full of grace and com­pas­sion and so much of what it means to be an Amer­ic­an. I won­der if Bau­man has woken up and smelled the falafel.

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