On a couple of occasions, President Obama has challenged the media’s assumption that Russian President Putin was acting from a position of strength. The first was in response to a question from Jonathan Karl at a news conference in The Hague not long after Russia’s incursion into Crimea.
Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And we have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don’t need to invade them in order to have a strong, cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.
The President basically made the same point when Steve Kroft tried to insinuate that Putin’s involvement in Syria was a challenge to his leadership.
When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally…
Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.
With those examples in mind, I think that Peter Beinart has done a good job of describing the difference between how Republican presidential candidates and President Obama assess the threat from ISIS.
Because the GOP candidates see violent jihadism as a powerful, seductive ideology, they think that many American Muslims are at risk of becoming terrorists, and thus that the United States must monitor them more aggressively. Because Obama sees violent jihadism as ideologically weak and unattractive, he thinks that few American Muslims will embrace it unless the United States makes them feel like enemies in their own country—which is exactly what Donald Trump risks doing.
Obama…believes that powerful, structural forces will lead liberal democracies to triumph over their foes—so long as these democracies don’t do stupid things like persecuting Muslims at home or invading Muslim lands abroad. His Republican opponents, by contrast, believe that powerful and sinister enemies are overwhelming America, either overseas (the Rubio version) or domestically (the Trump version).
All the chest-thumping coming from Republicans is based on an elevated assumption of the real threat posed by ISIS. But that’s what happens when the only card you have to play is fear. Behind all the bravado, their message makes America look weak and easily intimidated. President Obama isn’t buying into that for a minute.