The time has come, say the critics, for Barack Obama to “man up” and face the threat presented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “His response is pathetic and childish, but [Obama] thinks that’s enough and is up playing golf at Martha’s Vineyard,” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol told TV host Steve Malzberg. Obama’s response was “pusillanimous and ad hoc,” wrote pundit Tammy Bruce in a Fox News op-ed. Even Hillary Clinton, perhaps trying to assert her masculine bona fides prior to the 2016 Democratic primaries, chided the president, noting “great nations need organizing principles” and concluding that only “containment, deterrence, and defeat” will stop ISIS.
Tough, manly talk is a staple of political discourse, yet Barack Obama has scrupulously avoided it in most of his public statements. The former Harvard Law Review editor has instead, like predecessor Jimmy Carter decades earlier, emphasized the limitations of his office. Also like Carter, Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize, albeit much earlier in his career and with far less justification; unlike Carter in 1980, Obama faced a weak, uncharismatic challenger and managed to secure a second term. In both cases, their candid rhetoric—Obama’s desire to repair the damage done to America’s global reputation by decades of bullying, go-it-alone tactics, and Carter’s admission that “our people are losing faith” in their ability to govern themselves—has made them appear far more liberal than the pragmatic, center-left policy records established by their administrations would otherwise suggest.
Some point to the need for a John Wayne (or at least Ronald Reagan) type with swagger, and the “biggest dick” diplomacy favored by Vladimir Putin. But this would amount, in the end, to fighting fire with gasoline.
ISIS, on the other hand, understands full well the value of hyper-real, hyper-masculine rhetoric. A weak power in the grand scheme of things, yet temporarily thrust into a position of prominence, the Islamic State specializes in grand guignol theatrics: suicide attacks, massacres, and lurid videotaped beheadings of foreigners given titles such as “A Message to the Allies of America.” The war they are waging, which observes no artificially imposed national boundaries or standards of military conduct, is an all-male affair which has little use and even less respect for women; many of those unfortunate enough to have been caught in the path of the fighting have, according to various accounts, been raped, sold into sex slavery, or passed from soldier to soldier.
Here, then, we have a strange contradiction: The most powerful country in the world, at least by conventional military metrics, is perceived as weak and ineffectual; and a group of religious fundamentalists with (as yet) no drones or tactical nuclear weapons has paralyzed the world foreign policy elite. ISIS, to its credit, has grasped the significance of what Jean Baudrillard described as the “simulacrum,” a world of intentional and incessant media distortion, where words pile atop words (my own included) and no one has any fixed understanding of reality. The terrorist group’s leaders, in recognition of this fact, have conducted their horrific activities in as gruesomely newsworthy a manner as possible. If footage of Ray Rice kayoing his future wife in an elevator was enough to reduce a huge and powerful former football player to tears on national television, what will be the cumulative effect of dozens and perhaps hundreds of beheadings?
As a historian, it puzzles me to hear critics accuse Obama of greatly expanding the powers of the executive branch. Various extra-constitutional measures implemented since 2001, including extensive domestic surveillance, have continued apace under his administration, but for the most part he and the legislators with whom he is supposed to work are more hemmed in by institutional and partisan constraints than ever before. At this point, the persuasive authority of the “bully pulpit” is the president’s greatest remaining source of power—and here Obama’s shortcomings are manifest.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Theodore Roosevelt told an audience at the 1901 Minnesota State Fair. The remark’s poignancy (coupled with Roosevelt’s willingness to reuse it) has allowed it to linger in the popular imagination, but the Roosevelt administration’s military victories were few and far between; in fact, two of the more notable successes of his time in office, the successful negotiation of a conflict between Venezuela and two European powers and the resolution of the Coal Strike of 1902, didn’t involve the deployment of troops. Instead, Roosevelt relied heavily on a carefully crafted public persona to help project America’s rising prestige to the rest of the world.
Too often, manliness—already a fraught and value-laden term—is conflated with ISIS’s brand of aggressive self-presentation.
Barack Obama has favored candor over bluster in his dialogue with the American public, but he boasts a less-than-complete understanding of the media apparatus manipulated so skillfully by ISIS. How else could one possibly explain Obama’s puzzling tête-à-tête with mustachioed op-ed guru Thomas Friedman in August, when he admitted to botching the reconstruction of “liberated” Libya (Friedman is no stranger himself to such misjudgments), or the statement in his recent contradiction-riddled speech about how the forthcoming U.S. campaign to remove the ISIS “cancer” will somehow “not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil?” At his worst moments, Obama’s candor is perhaps rightly perceived as indecision; a line like “American power can make a difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region” fits well among the sort of cautious, cover-all-bases remarks that abound in lawyers’ briefs, but it is unlikely to raise flagging public confidence in the Commander-in-Chief’s leadership ability.
What, then, would be an acceptable alternative approach? Some might point to the need for a John Wayne (or at least Ronald Reagan doing his best John Wayne impression) type who will swagger in and lay it all on the line, combating the “big stick” diplomacy played by our rivals with the “biggest dick” diplomacy favored by the likes of Russia’s oft-shirtless Vladimir Putin. But this would amount, in the end, to little more than fighting fire with gasoline. And no U.S. executive, not even a prime-period John Wayne, could project a more hyper-masculine front than ISIS, with its innocent-bystander beheadings and take-no-prisoners assaults on ethnic and religious enemies.
Too often, manliness—already a fraught and value-laden term—is conflated with this brand of aggressive self-presentation. It is seen as an easy fix when things have gotten too lax, such as when an easygoing “players’ manager” of a professional sports team is replaced by a vicious screamer who is expected to instill harsh discipline. ISIS has this market cornered; they are screaming as loudly as possible, and the discipline they are attempting to enforce is extraordinarily harsh. But such a show of furious hyper-masculinity, although frightening in its surface-level implications, also amounts to something else: it is a secret confession of vulnerability, of personal insignificance, of looming defeat. It is the frantic rebel yell of the doomed and damned.
Obama should take a lesson from another center-left pragmatist forced into dire circumstances: Franklin Roosevelt.
Such a clash of styles informed my own life. Of the two men who raised me, the first, my father, was an angry and abusive individual who grew ever angrier as his fortunes declined. His displays of impotent rage and senseless violence increased as his own place in the world shrank. The second, his brother, approached life with a longer-term perspective: he had a plan for himself, and carried it out with patience and firmness. Setbacks were temporary and entailed slight readjustments of course, but there was no room for displaying indecisiveness or irrational anger in front of the children in his care.
The presidency is the role of a lifetime, and Obama, pragmatic to the core and altogether too eager to share his ratiocinations with the rest of us, seems unwilling to play it to the hilt. He should take a lesson from another center-left pragmatist forced into dire circumstances: Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, who ran against Herbert Hoover on a platform built around budget-balancing and ending Prohibition, transformed himself from a mediocre student and a run-of-the-mill New York politician into a stabilizing force during a time of crisis. Even when reform programs devised by Roosevelt’s advisors failed to effect economic recovery or pass constitutional muster, Roosevelt himself used recorded speeches and live radio addresses to convey a sense of calm resolution. Compare Obama’s speech on ISIS to Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” radio address, in which Roosevelt, still committed to a “national policy not directed toward war” nevertheless urged Americans to do their part for the European war effort by putting aside partisan differences in “the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.”
Jimmy Carter and Obama have taken turns playing the Hamlet role: Indecisive and honest to a fault. Carter went so far as to tell the American people they had lost their resolve; Obama, who has taken bloodless drone warfare to unimagined heights, appears altogether unwilling to force the public to endure the bitter with the sweet. While there is much to praise about this sort of candor, it offers an inviting target for individuals and groups willing to combat such perceived weakness with phony, violent, and stage-managed displays of strength. An equally violent and hyper-masculine response (“we’ll bomb them back into the Stone Age!”) is no solution, either—only a weak nation, a nation on the losing side of history, would lash out in that manner.
What the United States needs is a political actor—emphasis on actor, as most of what he or she will be doing amounts to performing a particular role—willing to demonstrate firm resolve in the face of meaningless opinion polls and competing advisors. Such an approach, the sort of gentle but steely stoicism all too often coded feminine in the gendered nature of our public discourse, has outlasted the furious, frantic depredations of wounded opponents, and will again.