If you watched 60 Minutes Sunday, you know that President Obama had quite the verbal joust with CBS News reporter Steve Kroft about the crisis in Syria. If you care about scoring talking-point type hits, it seemed to me that Kroft came out on top. If you care about trying to explain to the American people why or whether they should care about this mess to begin with – which strikes me as a heck of a lot more important – Mr. Obama prevailed.
Not that his margin of victory was big – by a long shot. But at least the president briefly tried to focus the conversation on the paramount subject of advancing and protecting American interests, as opposed to Kroft’s preoccupation with treating the Syria conflict as a personal duel between the president and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. What’s frustrating is that this outburst of presidential common sense is an isolated incident, rather than part of a long pattern of statements aimed at keeping the nation focused on what it needs in foreign policy as opposed simply to what it wants. Moreover, Mr. Obama spent way too much time taking Kroft’s bait – trying to refute his premises instead of challenging them.
Kroft was entirely justified in calling attention to what are at least the terrible recent optics of U.S. policy toward Syria – and indeed, in the Middle East as a whole. After all, there is indeed a chasm between administration pronouncements on the region and what’s been happening on the ground. Further, Mr. Obama’s claim that Russia’s newest intervention in Syria reflects weakness rather than strength sounds especially unconvincing – and all the more so when juxtaposed with what looks like simple inaction from Washington.
Yet however wide and potentially damaging the resulting credibility gap – since perceptions can influence and in fact create diplomatic reality – that’s far from the main issue facing Americans in Syria. In fact, such problems only matter crucially if Americans and their leaders decide that Syria itself is intrinsically important to begin with, or that its fate will affect broader intrinsically important U.S. interests in the region as a whole.
So contrary to Kroft, it’s ultimately not particularly important in and of itself that the death toll in and refugee flow from Syria are rising or not; or whether the United States is succeeding or failing in destroying ISIS; or if Washington is making progress fast enough; or how much territory the terrorists control; or how dismally the president’s efforts to aid the moderate Syrian opposition have failed; or whether Russia is back militarily in the Middle East; or whether – as Kroft emphasized so dramatically – Putin is “challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership-….”
What’s ultimately important, and justifies attention on the above developments, is identifying whether Syria’s fate can impact U.S. security and prosperity – and Kroft never sought the president’s views on whether it does, and if so, why.
As for Mr. Obama, he never proactively tried addressing this question. He spent much too much time insisting that the facts on the Middle East’s bloody ground are better than they look; that “Syria has been a difficult problem for the entire world community”; that military action alone won’t stabilize that country; that if you doubt that, look at the war in Afghanistan – which still hasn’t quelled the Taliban after 13 years – and that real leadership actually consists of fighting climate change, (temporarily) denying Iran a nuclear weapon, and assembling a broad anti-ISIS coalition.
It wasn’t until mid-way through this foreign policy segment that the president touched on what could have been a game-changing contention: “America’s priorities [have] to be number one, keeping the American people safe. Number two, we are prepared to work both diplomatically and where we can to support moderate opposition that can help convince the Russians and Iranians to put pressure on Assad for a transition.” A few minutes later, he elaborated a bit further: “[T]he problem that I think a lot of these critics never answered is what’s in the interest of the United States of America and at what point do we say that, ‘Here are the things we can do well to protect America. But here are the things that we also have to do in order to make sure that America leads and America is strong and stays number one.'”
Exactly – safeguarding U.S. national security and exercising American world leadership (however that’s defined) are two different missions, and the former doesn’t necessarily require the latter. In fact, that view would logically explain the president’s insistence that “we are not going to do is to try to reinsert ourselves in a military campaign inside of Syria.” It would just as logically explain his repeatedly stated, evident satisfaction with the goal of destroying ISIS “over time” (that is, once you recognize that the United States can fend off an ISIS threat to the homeland by keeping it too busy defending against attacks to plan, much less launch, September 11-like attacks).
Except Mr. Obama never made this or similar connections last night on 60 Minutes. Moreover, he’s never made them throughout his presidency. And he’s certainly never come close to taking the natural next step and articulating the advantages of replacing the current strategy (at least by default) of aiming to eliminate threats to the United States emanating from the Middle East by trying to manage or transform the region with one of countering these threats through domestic policies like fostering further progress on energy self-reliance and securing America’s borders.
What he’s done instead is talk in general, often abstract terms about the need to “degrade” terrorism, and about the imperative of reforming the Middle East by eradicating the alleged socio-economic roots of extremism, and about the importance of preventing the region’s political and broader dysfunction from worsening by relying on military force excessively, and using it ham-handedly.
Further, he doesn’t link these objectives to America’s safety and well-being in concrete and specific ways not because, as his domestic adversaries insist, he’s a radical or an apologist for America or a defeatist or a dreamer. The president fails to make these links because he’s something quite different. He’s a card-carrying member – including a buy-in on the importance of “global leadership” – of the left wing of an American internationalist establishment that has long viewed as shamefully pedestrian, and unworthy of powers deserving the label “great,” foreign policies that aim first and foremost at keeping their countrymen (and women!) adequately secure and provided for.
What the 60 Minutes interview also makes clear, of course, is that Kroft – like most of the rest of the Mainstream Media – also enthusiastically endorses demonstrating national greatness through foreign policymaking. In other words, although the press is supposed to serve as democracy’s watchdog, its views of America’s world role are as remote from Main Street’s prime, and decidedly un-grandiose, concerns as those of the leaders it’s supposed to be holding accountable.