Boring Like a Fox
Obama's first press conference in weeks was a study in blandness. But the president was boring with a purpose.
A deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan. An incipient civil war in Libya. Historic uprisings across the Arab world. A looming regional conflict in West Africa. The world is not a boring place. So why is Barack Obama so dull?
This is not exactly a new critique of the U.S. president, who has been called everything from “bloodless” to “professorial” to “coma-inducing.” But we live in interesting times. Is it too much to ask that the leader of the free world show a little passion once in a while?
Today’s press conference was a study in blandness. As the world watched in horror at images of entire neighborhoods in Japan being swept away by 30-foot waves, in some cases the houses on fire as they washed across the landscape, Obama offered only a few words of condolence before pivoting awkwardly and rather coldly to discuss what he had expected to talk about on Friday.
How’s this for a segue? “Now, before I take a few questions, let me say a few words about something that’s obviously been on the minds of many Americans here at home, and that’s the price of gasoline.”
Obama then went on to dryly recapitulate his energy policy, which, near as I can tell, consists of a grab bag of initiatives that come nowhere close to fulfilling his repeated promises to “break our dependence on oil.” For a man who campaigned on the idea that he was a different kind of leader, one who wasn’t afraid of making hard choices — like raising gas taxes — he really didn’t offer any: The main pillars of his energy policy appear to be pandering to the farm lobby, doling out vast amounts of cash in the hopes that technology will save us, and drill, baby, drill.
As Japan drowned, the president waxed philosophical. “We’ve been having this conversation for nearly four decades now,” he said. “Every few years, gas prices go up; politicians pull out the same old political playbook, and then nothing changes. And when prices go back down, we slip back into a trance. And then when prices go up, suddenly we’re shocked. I think the American people are tired of that. I think they’re tired of talk.” Prompting the question, of course, of why Obama was giving them more talk.
On Libya, being boring suited Obama’s purpose. Since the uprising began on Feb. 15, the United States has proceeded cautiously: expressing concern about the Libyan regime’s use of violence against its own people, isolating its leader Muammar al-Qaddafi diplomatically and moving to freeze his assets, avoiding outrunning regional Arab opinion, and exploring options that reportedly range from supplying the rebels to imposing a no-fly-zone.
But the Obama team knows that Libya could be a disaster, a mini-Iraq in the waiting. After decades of misrule, the country is a deeply scarred, tribal society that has been decimated and hollowed out by a rapacious tyrant. There is literally zero civil society to speak of in Libya: no independent NGOs, no political parties, perhaps not even a bowling league. Lurking beneath the surface is an angry, radicalized population that wants freedom — but also sent hordes of jihadists to fight the Americans in Iraq. None of these are ironclad reasons not to intervene, but they are certainly reasons to pause. Add to this the clear and unmistakable please-don’t-ask-me-to-do-this signs being sent by Defense Secretary Bob Gates and the Pentagon, and you can see why Obama isn’t rushing to man the barricades in Benghazi.
Indeed, his description of the horrific violence in Libya — on Friday, March 11, Qaddafi loyalists literally bulldozed the graves of townspeople in the recently recaptured town of Zawiya — was almost clinical:
I continue to believe that not only the United States but the international community has an obligation to do what it can to prevent a repeat of something like what occurred in the Balkans in the ’90s, what occurred in Rwanda. And so part of, for example, maintaining 24-hour surveillance of the situation there is for us to have some sort of alert system if you start seeing defenseless civilians who’re being massacred by Qaddafi’s forces.
But obviously we’re going to have to look at what develops on the ground on a case-by-case basis. I don’t want to generalize right now and say that’s what’s happening and we’re prepared to step in. It’s going to require some judgment calls, and those are difficult ones. But we have sent a clear warning to the Qaddafi government that they will be held accountable, particularly when it comes to assaulting civilians. And some of the rhetoric that you’ve seen — for example, the idea that when Qaddafi said that they’d be going door to door hunting for people who are participating in protests — you know, that implied a sort of lack of restraint and ruthlessness that I think raises our antenna.
Hopes that the rebels could oust Qaddafi without outside help appear to be fading. Only a day before the president’s bloodless press conference, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the U.S. Congress that Qaddafi was likely to stay in power — never mind that Obama has already called on him to go.
“This is kind of a stalemate back and forth,” Clapper said, “but I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail.”
Asked about that assessment Friday, Obama flashed suddenly forceful as he explained that Clapper “was making a hardheaded assessment about military capability” — not “stating policy.”
“I believe that Qaddafi is on the wrong side of history,” he continued. “I believe that the Libyan people are anxious for freedom and the removal of somebody who has suppressed them for decades now.” But as he made clear, they are largely going to have to do it on their own.
Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
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