Obama’s Leadership Incompetence, Now Getting Dangerous

Bad poker bluff

Nice hand, Mr. President.

Not everybody should be a leader, and it is no shame if you have no talent for it.  It is tempting to think that all intelligent, educated, articulate people within a certain range of emotional stability and sanity can learn to be effective leaders, but history and experience tell a different story, and it has many tragic chapters.

I know many readers think that I get great joy out of criticizing President Obama for his lack of leadership skills and instincts, but in truth I find myself consciously avoiding writing about this almost every day, because the problem is on display that regularly*, and this isn’t a Bash Obama blog. I do find it remarkable that such an obviously intelligent man is so immune to leadership instincts, and that he hasn’t resolved to at least try to learn from his more naturally leadership-gifted predecessors. For example, the White House made a point of noting that the President was a great admirer of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” which recounts how Abraham Lincoln assembled a Cabinet made up of political enemies, adversaries and rivals whose perspective and abilities he managed and used to great advantage. Yet Obama’s choice of Cabinet members and advisors, as even his supporters have pointed out, is unusually insular, passive and narrow, with the same loyalists being recycled into position after position (Hillary was the exception). True, this may reflect the President’s recognition of his own leadership limitations, for Abraham Lincoln, a once-in-a-century example of a born leader, is a daunting model. This is a pattern, however. When various voices in the Obama-worshiping media, such as did the New York Times last week, lament that Lyndon Johnson would have been able to get gun control measures through Congress, they are commenting on the same phenomenon. LBJ was a natural leader, and Obama, whatever his other virtues, is not.

Yes, I was dubious about Obama’s leadership credentials from his candidacy (Sarah Palin is a more talented leader, goof though she is), because he had literally led nothing, but also hopeful, because other Presidents, not just Lincoln but also JFK and Truman, showed a natural talent for leading once they were in office. Then President Obama began using his predecessor as an excuse for every failure, attacking media figures and outlets by name, injecting himself into local matters and law-enforcement, refusing to hold under-performing or incompetent subordinates accountable for their actions, and eroding his own credibility and likability with gratuitous examples of deceit and dishonesty. Worst of all, he seemed, and seems, incapable of learning from his mistakes, the most damning deficit of all. I am anything but a Bill Clinton admirer (I only know one ethicist who is), but he understood leadership, and with the exception of that one fatal flaw of not being able to restrain his libido, he never made the same mistake twice.

All of which is prelude to pronouncing President Obama’s “red line” fiasco involving Syria’s use of chemical weapons an epic leadership botch that risks deadly and perhaps cataclysmic consequences. A President cannot bluff in foreign affairs. If and when such a bluff is called, a retreat will be taken as proof of weakness, both personal and national. If a President talks tough, he had better be tough. Like the rest of the international community, which the President believes that the U.S. should no longer attempt to lead, the U.S. has stood by as approximately 70,000 Syrians have been killed by their own government while the U.N., true to its nature, has issued various toothless warnings and resolutions. Then, on August 20, Obama said,

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation….We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.” 

Now, lawyers and grammarians may argue over what “a red line” means, what constitutes “use” and “a whole bunch,” and what the President considers “enormous consequences.” None of that matters. What matters is what the statement was understood to mean around the world, and it was widely understood to mean this: If chemical weapons are used against the Syrian people by Assad, the United States will act decisively. Last week, reliable evidence indicated that indeed chemical weapons had been used, and that the “red line” had been crossed.

Obama’s response? Double-talk, backtracking and word-parsing:

  • The President to reporters Friday with Jordan’s King Abdullah in the Oval Office:  “What we have right now is an intelligence assessment. And as I said, knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used. Obtaining confirmation and strong evidence, all of those things we have to make sure that we work on with the international community. And we ourselves are going to be putting a lot of resources into focusing on this. And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime. But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists — all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region. So we’re going to be working with countries like Jordan to try to obtain more direct evidence and confirmation of this potential use. In the meantime, I’ve been very clear publicly, but also privately, that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues. So this is not an on or off switch.”
  • A White House official to reporters Thursday: “I think what the Assad regime needs to know is that we are watching this incredibly closely. Were he to undertake any additional use [of chemical weapons], he would be doing so under very careful monitoring from us and the international community. There should be no mistaking our determination not just to get to the bottom of these reports, but to send a message … that Bashar al-Assad and his regime will be held accountable for these types of actions. We’re going to be methodical, rigorous and relentless … so we can establish exactly what happened…all options are on the table in terms of our response…If we reach a definitive determination that the red line has been crossed … what we will be doing is consulting closely with out friends and allies … to determine what the best course of action is.”

So those “enormous consequences ” of the “red line” being crossed is that the United States will start consulting with friends and allies? Former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams correctly pointed out the danger in such waffling and obfuscation:

“The problem today is not only that this may leave Assad free to use chemical weapons again. A related issue of great consequence is what the administration has said about the use of chemical weapons: that it would be  a game changer, that it is a red line, that it is unacceptable, and that all options are on the table for a U.S. response. Sound familiar? The administration has used exactly such language–”unacceptable,” “all options are on the table”– about the Iranian nuclear program. If such terms become synonyms for “we will not act,” the regime in Tehran will soon conclude that there is no danger of an American military attack and therefore no need to negotiate seriously. They may have reached that conclusion already. What is at stake here is not only the future of Syria, but our own government’s credibility.”

Abrams could have added North Korea and Russia to the list of adversaries gauging whether the United States will back up its ultimatums, threats and warnings, as well as Israel and our allies in the Middle East and across the globe. Based on President Obama’s past and current performance, I can’t imagine why enemies of the U.S. would be anything but emboldened, and allies anything but alarmed. Post online columnist Jennifer Rubin was, sadly, on target, if a bit hysterical, when she wrote today:

“If the United States is undependable, even when the president personally gives his assurance, then it is every nation for itself. Unilateral strikes? They’re better than waiting for Obama to act. A regional nuclear arms race? Washington won’t going to be there in a pinch, so any prudent country would want their own. And that is the likely reaction of our allies. Can anyone not employed by the White House or part of his public spin squad truly believe the president would use a military option to prevent Iran from going nuclear? No modern president (not even Jimmy Carter, I think) by word and deed (or lack thereof) has done more to invite aggression by our foes. No president has been so cynical in his willingness to bend the facts and backtrack on his own assurances so as to avoid action. And no president has put in power an entire crew of national security advisers as weak as the one we now have. Responsible Democrats and Republicans should deplore this behavior and urge the administration to live up to the president’s warning. But even that I fear will be too little and too late. Tehran has already figured out that this president does bluff, ineffectively.”

This is not to say that I think the President has an easy call to make in Syria. For better or worse, the previous national ethic that the United States should be the world’s superhero and policeman is in full retreat, and Syria, despite the passionate argument by some that it is the equivalent of Rwanda, a disgraceful human rights abdication, poses many of the same dire risks and uncertainties that Iraq did. I can understand, and agree with, the President’s reluctance to do anything major regarding Syrian intervention unless it is unavoidable; among other reasons, there is that little debt problem we have, and wars are expensive.

If, however, the President was not prepared to follow through on his warning when he drew the “red line,” he shouldn’t have used those words, and it was irresponsible and incompetent to do so—as any of the four other living Presidents he saw last week could have told him.

But then, as a world leader with five years on the job, he should have learned that by now anyway.

* After I posted this, James Taranto devoted his WSJ blog to another example, here.


Sources: Israel National News, Council on Foreign Relations, Newsbusters, Investors.com, Atlantic, NY Times, Washington Post 1, 2

Graphic: That Poverty Project

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

30 thoughts on “Obama’s Leadership Incompetence, Now Getting Dangerous

  1. I think, that with every other “ultimatum” or “major initiative” Obama has proclaimed, we should all realize that what he really draws is a “pink line,” not a red one, since the former would then give him, once again, the option of backing out of any true national or international leadership. A disgrace.

      • For anyone who asked me during the 2008 campaign, not that anyone did, certainly not my thirty-something kids, I assured them Barack Obama would make Jimmy Carter look like Winston Churchill. Although I have to say that anyone who could preside over the massive egos at the Harvard Law Review editorial board and staff must have some leadership capabilities? Talk about herding cats. But maybe that was just indicative of a tremendous facility with getting elected to a position rather than governing. Are there any tales of leadership blunders during his tenure at Harv. L. Rev?

    • ‘Then, he will inherit the world.’

      That was my original post. Why did you take it down? That seems a bit under-handed to me, not to mention disingenuous.

      Keep what I wrote up this time (read for context / comprehension, if you can).

      Don’t play chicken**** games with the First Amendment. – N

      • 1. I took it down because it was attached to no comment, and made no sense to me. I still don’t know what you are trying to say, but I’ll give you a chance to explicate.
        2. Don’t order me how to moderate my blog. You’re my guest, and if you don’t make sense to me, I’m not letting your comments stay up. Comprehend?
        3. Please learn some civics. The First Amendment has absolutely nothing to do with your blog post—you have no right, Constitutional or otherwise, to post here…only a privilege that is contingent on your civility and conduct.
        4. Read the Comment policies.

        • I posted it because a guy above me said the US would collapse in flames around Obama’s shoulders, and he wouldn’t even notice….so I responded with:

          ‘Then, he will inherit the world.’

          Maybe I should have been clearer.

          I meant no offense. Just used to liberal site managers not posting my stuff.

          Thanks for getting back with me. – N

  2. Should anyone have anticipated anything different from a cliched and idiomatic person?

    The man used the phrase “will be a game changer” in regards to this…

    Ladies and gentlemen, no other nation I’ve heard of is out there playing a game. They are in it for survival. Could you imagine any other president speaking casually in regards to potential war?

    This is pathetic comedy and the only people laughing are our enemies.

  3. I guess folks just don’t realize what “competent” means? He probably thought they didn’t have “chemicals” or that they would use them against their fellowman so he chummed up what he thought was a power phrase…. “red line”. I’m just glad he didn’t use “draw a line in the sand”.

    Really I think he lost his train of thought about that new cocktail the White House bartender had created and he needed one.

    What else would one expect from a “narcissistic”? Leadership? Nah.

  4. And to make it worse. There are three and two thirds more years of this lack of leadership to work it’s magic on our foreign policy. There is no one who can fix it but Obama and he is demonstrably not able to do it.

  5. Oh, he doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction. That is just made-up as a pretense for war. It is no reason to invade a country, anyway. It is foolish and arrogant to try to impose Western European values like human rights to a diverse world population. To force human rights and democratic ideas on them in imperialism and rejects diversity. It will never work, anyway because those people are just like that. The president is just being racist and he is a warmonger.*

    OK, now that I have summarized President Obama and his party’s objections to Bush’s policies, how can he possibly intervene in Syria?

  6. It’s always heartening to see liberal and Democratic commentators with the integrity to admit the obvious even when it goes against their favored figures. Here is long-time Post house liberal (there are a lot in that house, it’s true) and iconoclast/curmudgeon Richard Cohen this morning on the “red line” fiasco and Syria generally. His conclusion:

    “Obama must have known that sooner or later he would have to act on Syria. His plan, if it can be called one, is to let events force his hand. He’s issued red lines and virtual ultimatums, so sooner or later he’ll have to do something. He gives the appearance of prudence, but looks can be deceiving. It’s actually an abject failure of leadership.”

    The comments to his piece are predictable but depressing, as the Post’s resolute liberal readership insist that their choice for President can do no wrong, mixing up the issue of whether intervention in Syria is wise with Obama’s feckless way of refusing to lead…like this one:

    “Obama is doing the right thing for the people of this country. I trust his handling of these delicate, complex international situations. Steady as you go. ! How glad, that crazy uncle McCain did not win the presidency. We’d bombed and occupied the whole Middle East by now.”

    What a sad deterioration in US ideals—letting helpless civilians be killed is “doing the right thing for the people of this country.” I’m sure this is a direct quote from some of the large chorus that opposed the US doing anything to stop the Holocaust, too. And making empty threats and taking weasel stands is “steady” leadership to this fool….and many, many more. She’s ready for her own show on MSNBC.

    • What do you mean? This has been a staple of ‘liberal’ ideals for a long time. How many protested the first Iraq war, despite the brutality done to the people of Kuwait? How many volunteered to act as human shields at key Iraqi facilities to prop up a brutal dictator? Did they like Sadaam Hussein, or were they afraid of him? How many died when they let the safe zones fall in Yugoslavia? Did they like Slobodan Milosovic, or were they afraid of him? How many went to honor Hugo Chavez? How many went to support and prop up the Sandanistas? Hasn’t support for Fidel Castro been a staple of the liberal creed for my entire lifetime? What about Mao? Didn’t the Clintons go to Russia to study the ways of their idols, the Soviets? It isn’t like these people stood up to rebuke Assad when he destroyed entire towns with tanks during Intifada. They were too busy chastising the Israelis. It goes on and on.

      Oppressed people shouldn’t expect any help from us as long as we have a liberal in charge. Remember, the good liberals in the UN thought it was a grand idea to vote us off the Human Rights Commission and put Mommar Gaddafi in charge of the Human Rights Commission. Only three countries objected to that. If we had had a liberal in charge at the time, the number would have been zero. Liberals have been running Europe for a long time. When was the last time Europe tried to help the cause of democracy without our prodding? When have they every stepped in to help the oppressed? When was the last time they tried to fight terrorism?

      We have our problems helping the right people all the time. We don’t do what we should to help the oppressed most of the time. We are a complete failure at doing the right thing, unless you compare us to everyone else.

      • It’s unfair to tar all liberals with this particular brush. Democrats supported Dessert Storm; Democrats authorized the invasion of Iraq. They just have a tendency to slide into isolationism and pacifism when the casualties are totaled, like the public as a whole.

        • Who wouldn’t support Dessert Storm?

          I know the entire elementary school-aged children’s lobby unanimously signed a bipartisan accord that endorsed Dessert Storm.


          Ok, sorry, I know the statute of limitations has worn off, but I just re-read this post and comments.

          Don’t hate me.

  7. I’ve always found it fascinating watching industrial strength professional feminists eagerly turn their backs on tribal abuse of women and condemn any western attempts to stop it. Diversity and pacifism evidently trump equal rights for women if they’re in a really backward foreign country. Bizarre.

  8. The White House’s posturing has already put itself in a predicament: As you rightly pointed out, a White House staffer said this: ““I think what the Assad regime needs to know is that we are watching this incredibly closely. Were he to undertake any additional use [of chemical weapons], he would be doing so under very careful monitoring from us and the international community. There should be no mistaking our determination not just to get to the bottom of these reports, but to send a message … that Bashar al-Assad and his regime will be held accountable for these types of actions.” Doesn’t this statement acknowledge that the ‘red line’ has already been crossed? If so, then why has the White House not acted? Why does it need to do further ‘careful monitoring’? What good is that going to do? Doesn’t say, “well, don’t do it again and we really mean it this time”? White House inaction will clearly show indecisiveness and bluffing, both of which are highly problematic in international affairs.

  9. Pingback: President Obama and the Bill of Rights | The Daily with Coleburt2

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  12. Some quotes by our ‘President’ that should have us most worried of all:

    “We understand that we’re in divided government right now. Republicans control the House of Representatives; in the Senate, this habit of requiring 60 votes for even the most modest piece of legislation has gummed up the works there.”

    This “habit” as he so condescendingly puts it *was* put in place to ensure that the ‘works’ (what we in rational world like to call a DELIBERATIVE process) *ARE* ‘gummed up’.

    You see, Mr. President, those of us in our Constitutional, Republican democracy like the process to be deliberative. It requires detailed and careful consideration and isn’t at the whims of a simple majority that may have been whipped into a frenzy by the likes a demagogue such as yourself. Of course, to someone who doesn’t care for a deliberative system designed around protecting the people from the very evils that come from hasty legislation, then yes it is better to refer to deliberation as “gumming up the works”.

    “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign companies — to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”

    Further betraying that he has no faith in the constitutional system of checks and balances or the role of the Supreme Court in it. Never mind the absolute lack of decorum. Attempting to chastise an EQUAL branch in the Federal government during the State of the Union. Who does he think he is?

    • My post’s sentiments regarding Obama’s leadership deficits have been subsequently echoed in multiple columns and blog posts by liberal commentators, most recently today by the Post’s Dana Milbank, mocking Obama’s tone in his press conference. I had this handicap called three years ago, and I’m not taking any bows—it was there for any objective observer to see. Even now, Milbank writes as if all Obama needs to do is decide to lead, and he’ll be able to do it. It’s like saying that if I put my mind to it, I’ll be able to perform a kidney transplant tomorrow. They just don’t get it, or refuse to admit it.

      • I appreciate your correspondence, tex.
        And no, I don’t hate you….lol.

        Although I was relatively ambivalent about Desert Storm at the time, I just really meant to commend that one guy on his service there (even if I disagreed with his other sentiments-which were unrelated to that war).

        Pardon if I gave the wrong impression. I still don’t know enough to fully decide if that war was worth it or not, but I honor our veterans. – N

  13. Can we revisit this topic?

    About why leaders should know what the hell their words mean other than tough talk?

    I heard this joke of a President actually invoking “Sweden”, declaring that he and the prime minister of Sweden were in full agreement on Syria.

    Spiffy. Sweden.

    Doesn’t this amateur know that if you are going to invoke international support for anything in this world and at least one of the following nations — England, France, or Germany — is not in that list, then you don’t have international support (that is to say, meaningful international support).

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