Barack Obama and the ‘Wimp Factor’

Americans think the president lacks "toughness." But does showing strength really matter?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

More than ever, Americans think that President Barack Obama lacks toughness. He is "not tough enough" on foreign policy and national security, according to 54 percent in a Pew Research Center poll released in August. By comparison, in June 2009, only 38 percent believed he was not tough enough.

Not only is the president’s perceived strength in decline, but Americans now believe that he’s not even the toughest Democratic Party leader. In a March CNN/ORC poll, 64 percent of Americans thought Hillary Clinton was "tough enough to handle a crisis," versus just 53 percent for Obama. Even senior Democrats are calling out the president for being, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) termed it, "too cautious." On Sunday, Sept. 7, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), vice chair of the House Intelligence Committee, declared: "He should’ve stood up and very strongly said, ‘We’re not going to take it; we’re going to come after you.’… I think the president realized that he had to be stronger."

Much like "leadership," "strength" is one of those imprecise characteristics that presidents are mandated to exhibit with exaggeration when it comes to foreign affairs. Its appeal is obvious, at least in theory: If the nation’s leader is the personification of strength, then the United States purportedly will have greater leverage and influence over its allies and adversaries around the world. As the logic follows, whenever foreign leaders refuse to obey America’s stated wishes, it is the president’s personal obligation to simply show more determination, steel, backbone, or resolve (pick a synonym). Of course, then the noncompliant foreign leader recognizes the error of his ways and quickly falls back into line.

This ideal-type concept of strength — whereby sufficient White House machismo can reverse foreign noncompliance — is nonsensical. Yet, it has tremendous political salience in foreign-policy debates: Just look at Vice President Joseph Biden’s fiery screed that Obama’s strategy for the Islamic State was neither containment nor destruction, but rather a form of vengeance: "We don’t retreat; we don’t forget.… We will follow them to the gates of hell … because hell is where they will reside!" If such blowhard pronouncements make you wince, you’re catching on. But when we talk about demonstrations of "strength" and "toughness," what does that really mean?

Let’s be honest: Presidential toughness is most often associated with either bombing people or threatening to bomb them. As I have noted, this outlook is belied by the fact that nobody is scared of U.S. presidential proclamations despite the United States’ having led three regime-change military operations over the past dozen years. World leaders should be deeply aware that America is unmatched in its ability and propensity to start wars. For more discreet uses of force, Obama administration officials routinely tout the president’s authorization of drone strikes against suspected terrorists and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Just last week, when asked about emboldened enemies, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest stated that the president would not be "shy about ordering the use of military force if he thinks it can be impactful." Meanwhile, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes reminded everyone, "It’s always worth noting that, look, the United States made clear our willingness to use military force."

If using force bestowed the president with a reputation of toughness, then Obama would be the John Wayne of presidents. He has authorized 431 targeted killings against suspected militants and terrorists who have killed over 3,300 people. The problem is that Americans correctly recognize that killing people from a safe distance with robots — with no immediate political risks for the White House — is not at all tough. Even the operation to kill bin Laden was far less risky than many imagine — certainly less so than President Jimmy Carter’s authorization of the April 1980 hostage rescue mission in Iran, which the commander then estimated had a zero percent chance of success. As retired Adm. William McRaven noted of the bin Laden raid, it "was a standard raid and really not very sexy." He also told reporters, "We did 11 other raids much like that in Afghanistan that night."

Another way that presidents can display determination is through spending money to buy the troops and weapons required to bomb things. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney published his latest "size matters" op-ed last week, which warned, among other things, that "Russia’s nuclear arsenal is significantly greater than our own and that, within six years, China will have more ships in its navy," adding, "China already has more service members." By this logic, the sheer existence of a large and growing U.S. military should prevent terrorism and warfare. (Romney also wrote that the military is currently "tasked with … preserving order and stability around the world," which would be surprising to conflict-prone regions where a limited U.S. military presence is preventing it.)

Unfortunately, evidence demonstrates that this is not the case. When comparing incidents of terrorism worldwide to U.S. defense spending by year, there is no correlation supporting the claim that more spending on defense results in a decrease in terrorist attacks. In fact, between 1991 and 2001, and again from 2004 to 2011, terrorist attacks rose during years when there was an increase in Pentagon spending and decreased during years when spending was reduced. Similarly, when compared with Uppsala University’s data set, increased defense spending is not correlated with a decrease in armed conflicts (of over 1,000 battle-related deaths) worldwide.

You should dismiss arguments tying increases in defense spending to decreases in conflict — because they are nonsense. And please do so when politicians or pundits make this false correlation in the future as well.

Finally, there is always the least meaningful action of all — tough talk. Indeed, one consistent criticism of Obama is his unwillingness to emulate the swagger and persona of a professional wrestler when he makes demands of a foreign leader. There is no evidence that this type of political theatrics would have an impact on, say, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, but apparently there is a continued appeal for such antics. The New York Times reported that Gov. Chris Christie told Republican activists in March, regarding Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, "I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment." Note that Christie is implying that there is something inherent in his very person that would deter Russian interference in Ukraine. As the always-sharp foreign-policy observer Matt Duss asked on Twitter last week: "Is anyone, anywhere, impressed by politicians trying to talk like action movie stars?" Sadly, the answer remains yes.

The reason why presidential candidates talk tough, but then quiet down once in the Oval Office, is that the more extreme and concrete the demand placed upon a foreign leader, the greater the president’s credibility is tied to achieving it. For more than three years, Obama has declared that Assad must voluntarily step down from power. That was an unwise demand to place on the Syrian leader, given that the United States — and any potential coalition — was never going to expand and deploy its resources to ensure that the regime in Damascus was toppled.

Strangely, when critics of toughness are asked what specific alternative policies they would support, they generally offer two responses. First, they claim that had the president simply been tougher against someone in the past, the current bad situation would never have happened. Here, toughness itself is not just enough to compel all allies and adversaries to fulfill America’s wishes, but it also has an expiration date and must be refreshed as a continuous reminder to non-Americans.

Alternatively, they offer recommendations wholly insufficient to achieve their stated objectives. For example, in response to Russia’s support for the armed uprising in Crimea, congressional members demanded that the Pentagon send Ukraine fuel, tires, food, sleeping bags, and light arms. This could have nicely furnished a camping trip, but it was absolutely insufficient for preventing Russia from defeating the Ukrainian military. Obama has not intervened militarily in Ukraine for the same reason that wimps like Eisenhower and Nixon refrained from directly countering the Soviet Union with military force when it effectively took over Hungary and Czechoslovakia: The costs gained from militarily securing their sovereignty were not worth the likely risks of escalation and a great-power war.

Presidents are not psychically endowed with a coercive energy that can be transmitted over the world’s airwaves. Rather, they develop prioritized and plausible objectives in regards to foreign countries, based upon the powers and interests of affected parties. Moreover, the declared objectives should be matched to the resources and political will to achieve them. Foreign policies should not be judged upon the tone and tenor of their announcements, but rather upon their merits and their success. It is an old bipartisan practice to critique an opposing party’s president for lacking toughness. And it is time that rational, peace-loving Americans see through it for the war cry it usually is.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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