"I do not want to put the cart before horse and we do not have a strategy yet on how to confront ISIS!" (Obama's comments, or words to that effect, in a press briefing prior to leaving for Estonia and Wales and a meeting of NATO leaders.)
Republican critics and the American media jumped with glee over such a "communications blunder" as many described Obama's misstep.
We would like to offer a different view from the one taken by Republican critics and the U.S. media.
American culture, especially corporate and political culture unfortunately aspires to be in the Lexus mode: striving for and achieving perfection, without making any mistakes.
Pride, nationalism, exceptionalism, and positive rhetoric, directed to children in classrooms, to the point where it drives home such exuberant confidence as to exceed performance expectations. American children, for example, rank relatively quite low in international testing in math, science and literacy while scoring very high on a scale that measures self-confidence. Leadership within the American culture can be easily and accurately defined as classical conditioning using exclusively positive reinforcement as motivation. Sadly, and even tragically, such conditioning is a form of entrapment.
Obama, striving to be a transformative president, in the model of Lincoln and Reagan, F.D.R. and even J.F.K. is attempting to transform the American culture from one based almost exclusively on "hard power" and "positive reinforcement" and dominance that issues from both of those self-deceptions, is attempting to work WITH the rest of the world. Clearly, he is circumscribed by ten years of very expensive and highly inconclusive wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, (which some are arguing are the very reason for the tidal wave of Islamic terrorism we all now face!) and an American public who are suffering both budget fatigue and war fatigue. He cannot simply solve the world's problems, in Africa, in Ukraine, in Iraq and Syria by ordering the Pentagon to bomb the hell out of all enemies. (Remember former presidential candidate John McCain, he of prisoner of war fame from Vietnam, singing "Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran," while imitating the Beach Boys' hit, "Barbara Ann".)
Obama, fortunately, both for Americans and for the rest of the world, is committed to working with his allies to seek and to find solutions to the world's conflicts, including the economic crisis of 2008-9, knowing full well that alone both he and the U.S. are (and will remain) powerless, especially given the complexity and the danger and the relatively little intellectual research into the issues at the heart of the problems. Only by making the case for a shared perception and reality of these issues can and will Obama provide the kind of leadership still expected from America, while at the same time drawing and encouraging his western allies, including the Arab states in the Middle East in the fight to degrade and destroy ISIS, into a coalition that might have some chance of success.
When seeking allies, "convert" to a cause, if you will, leaders must not lay out an already prescribed and proscribed agenda, to which those not yet committed to the cause will conform. It is fine for the current leader of NATO to prescribe a "spearhead force" to be ready and deployed within days, and not weeks for his meeting in Wales. He is speaking to and providing leadership to member states already signatories to a document that commits them individually and collectively to the defence of other members states, in the event of an external threat.
However, Obama's comments at the press conference were made without a public acknowledgment of any sign of commitment from his western allies to the fight in Iraq and Syria, and his open admission that he and his administration had not yet found or settled on a strategy to combat the terrorists left open a piece of the strategy to which those considering joining the fight might and likely would contribute, both in brain power and in material for the conflict, up to but not including "boots on the ground".
Another of Obama's cautions, made repeatedly at the original press conference and latter in Wales, is that he want to take the fight to ISIS but that he also wants to "do it right"...knowing it will take a long time to accomplish, especially if eradication is the ultimate goal. (Retired Canadian military leader in Sarajevo, Lewis MacKenzie, put it on Canadian television this week, "I have never known an ideology to be wiped out militarily in history!")
So opening a window to recommendations on strategy from those leaders in countries whose governments share Obama's angst, as well as America's angst, about the potential threat from ISIS,
is not only pragmatic, in terms of offering them a space in the design of a strategy and thereby demonstrating his openness to listening to such recommendations, but it is also pragmatic in terms of magnetizing the best brains in the world, from a list of potential participating countries to design and develop and then to deliver a strategy that does in fact "get it right".
This was no communications nor no political blunder, as Republicans and most talking heads and editorial writers dubbed it.
It was, once again, a far-sighted president looking down the road past the nano-second of the sound bite he was engaged in, and speaking to the world about the fundamental changes to the American leadership and government that truly means it when it says it wants and seeks a "coalition of the willing" in order to combat this nemesis. (Just for starters, imagine George W. Bush at the same press conference, making an announcement that would clearly have echoed McCain's adolescent and short-sighted "bomb.bomb.bomb" strategy.
In the White House, the American people have a nuanced thinker, a visionary mind and a steel spine fully cognizant of the hard power that is his to command, combined with a perception of the "real politik" of the limits to hard power and unilateralism, and American exceptionalism that may have helped both to bring the United States to its position of economic and political as well as military leadership in the world, but has also generated enemies committed to an ideology, even a phoney faith to which their commitment extends to their own suicidal deaths.
(Just this week, the World Health Organization announced that a suicide occurs every 40 seconds around the world. We can only hope that the statistics for the Islamic terrorists are not included in that data.)
Now with some ten nations signing onto a process of confronting ISIS, and the Islamic terrorist cells infecting other countries (India, for example, as well as Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Yemen) as well as Syria and Iraq, Obama's invitation, with opportunity not merely to "follow the American prescription" but to participate in the design of the strategy, demonstrates its own effectiveness.
The Republicans should be thanking their political "gods" that Obama is not running in 2016, regardless of his current standing in the opinion polls. The fickleness of both the media and the public would and could easily be bent toward a third term, if permitted by the constitution. We are witnessing an extremely intelligent, imaginative and visionary, while pragmatic president operate in circumstances that far outweigh the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War and the Crash of 1929. Obama's footprints can and will lead the American story in paths never before contemplated by his political opponents and the frivolous, feckless and ratings-driven media scribes and talking heads.
And, from the perspective of the north side of the 49th parallel, we are extremely grateful that Obama is the occupant of the Oval Office in this period of exceptional turbulence.