WASHINGTON — President Obama is not worried. And that is unnerving.
British Prime Minister David Cameron presented to Parliament on Monday the alarming conclusions of European leaders who had met in Brussels over the weekend: “The European Council believes the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the Islamist extremism and export of terrorism on which it is based is a direct threat to every European country.”
Cameron added: “To confront the threat of Islamist extremism, we need a tough, intelligent, patient and comprehensive approach to defeat the terrorist threat at its source. We must use all the resources at our disposal, our aid, our diplomacy and our military.”
But three days earlier — the day Britain raised its terrorism threat level to “severe” — Obama delivered a very different message when he spoke to donors at a fundraiser in New York’s Westchester County. “Yes, the Middle East is challenging, but the truth is it’s been challenging for quite a while,” he said. “I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago. This is not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War.”
Speaking to another group of contributors that same day in Newport, R.I., the president said that the post-9/11 security apparatus “makes us in the here and now pretty safe” and that the threat from ISIS “doesn’t immediately threaten the homeland.”
I hope Obama’s chillax message turns out to be correct, but the happy talk is not reassuring. It’s probably true that the threat of domestic radicalization is greater in Europe than in the United States (hence the British plan to confiscate some passports) but Obama’s sanguinity is jarring compared with the mood of NATO allies.
Obama has been giving Americans a pep talk, essentially counseling them not to let international turmoil get in the way of the domestic economic recovery. “The world has always been messy,” he said Friday. “In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.”
So we wouldn’t have fussed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if not for Facebook? Or worried about terrorists taking over much of Syria and Iraq if not for Twitter? This explanation, following Obama’s indiscreet admission last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for military action in Syria against the Islamic State, adds to the impression that Obama is disengaged.
In short, Americans would worry less if Obama worried more.
A poll released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of the public thinks Obama is “not tough enough” in foreign policy. Americans are not necessarily asking for more military action — Pew’s polls also have found a record number of Americans saying the United States should mind its own business — but they seem to be craving clarity. As National Journal’s Ron Fournier put it: “While people don’t want their president to be hawkish, they hate to see him weakish.”
Obama’s remarks to donors about the troubles in Ukraine and in the Middle East were in the context of explaining why the mood of Americans isn’t improving as the economy recovers. He cited three factors: The economic gains haven’t reached everybody; Washington is broken; and “if you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.”
He’s right about the first two, and it’s true that Americans are worried about international threats. But the solution is not to tell them to keep calm — it’s to reassure Americans that he’s got a plan.
The president’s happy talk is contradicted even by fellow Democrats (“I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is he’s very cautious, maybe in this instance too cautious,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell) and by figures in his own administration (Attorney General Eric Holder said the reported work in Syria on undetectable explosives is “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general”).
In his pep talk to the donors, Obama spoke optimistically about U.S. influence in the world. “The good news is that American leadership has never been more necessary,” he said, “and there’s really no competition out there for the ideas and the values that can create the sort of order that we need in this world.”
Yes. And the necessity of American leadership is precisely why Obama needs to show more of it.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.