A Horrible Day for American Leadership

In response to terror, a petulant president and a xenophobic GOP presidential field.

President Obama.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Monday was a horrible day for American leadership. First, our petulant, tone-deaf president showed more anger toward his political critics than toward ISIS. Second, the Republican presidential hopefuls turned their backs on Syrian war refugees in a xenophobic frenzy.

At a news conference in Turkey for the G-20 summit, Barack Obama bristled in defense of his ISIS strategy, his initial dismissal of the terrorist state, his military response, his diplomacy, and his willingness to accept refugees from Syria.

“And,” wrote my colleague George Condon, “there was no hiding his frustration.”

Which was a shame, because nobody cares about Obama’s precious feelings.

What the people of France and its freedom-loving allies care about is defeating ISIS. They wonder about the commitment of a U.S. president who dismissed ISIS as a “JV team” before it beheaded Americans, who declared ISIS “contained” before it attacked Paris, and whose advisers now say ISIS can’t attack the United States. Nobody believes that.

“No,” Obama insisted, “we haven’t underestimated [their] abilities.” Nobody believes that, either.

For all his skills as an orator, Obama is a lousy communicator. He doesn’t lead, he lectures. He argues rather than educates. His rhetoric is self-focused, not uplifting toward a cause greater than himself. He spins and shifts blame, rarely admitting fault.

Obama tries to show steely resolve, but his affect is stubborn arrogance.

Even his supporters slammed the president’s performance. “Obama’s tone in addressing the Paris atrocity was all wrong,” wrote Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. “At times he was patronizing, at other times he seemed annoyed and almost dismissive. The president said, essentially, that he had considered all the options and decided that even a large-scale terrorist attack in the heart of a major European capital was not enough to make him reconsider his policy.”

Which brings me to the GOP, the source of Obama’s frustration and an obstacle to the safety of Syrian refugees.

“Wake up and smell the falafel,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, using a slur to argue against the settlement of refugees.

How does a party that proclaims the sanctity of life risk the deaths of so many innocents because it is difficult—not impossible—to screen refugees? How can the party of religious freedom include at least three candidates who would admit Christian refugees from Syria, but no Muslims?

A religious test is contrary to this nation’s founding principles. This brings to mind one of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history, when a ship of Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich was turned away from Florida in 1939.

The National Association of Evangelicals gets it. Shortly before the Paris attacks, the group’s leader authored a column titled, “Where’s the Compassion on the Campaign Trail?” that made a faith-based argument for settling refugees. It deconstructed the scariest of GOP talking points.

“Candidates do the nation a disservice if they propagate misinformation designed to instill fear,” wrote Stephan Bauman, president and CEO of the association’s humanitarian arm, World Relief.

“Instead,” he continued, “I hope that each candidate will present a compassionate, informed plan for how our great nation can do more to welcome carefully-vetted refugees from Syria and elsewhere who have fled persecution; how we can better equip our allies in the Middle East and Europe to respond to the much larger numbers of refugees they are receiving; and how to bring about peaceful resolutions to the desperate conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere that have displaced so many.”

The column was full of grace and compassion and so much of what it means to be an American. I wonder if Bauman has woken up and smelled the falafel.