An event that invokes widespread fear and confusion, such as the Paris attacks, is also an occasion for leadership. The resulting intense public focus opens a brief window for explanation and inspiration. In moments of crisis or challenge, a leader can figuratively speak from the ruins.
The president I served, George W. Bush, did so literally after 9/11: “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” At the 2005 Gleneagles G-8 meeting, I saw Prime Minister Tony Blair, ashen and subdued, just after receiving news of the London bombings. Returning to London, his public response was steady and unifying.
So what has been President Obama’s response to a series of Islamic State terrorist attacks — a Russian plane in Egypt, suicide bombings in Beirut, the Paris massacre — that demonstrate an uncontained global threat? His Nov. 16 news conference in Antalya, Turkey, provides a full picture of Obama’s wartime leadership in its seventh year: petulant, divisive and reluctant.
Under close questioning about the effectiveness and urgency of his strategy to fight the Islamic State, Obama quickly pulled out the big guns — against his American critics. They are “talking as if they’re tough” and playing “political games,” which would betray “a 25-year-old kid who’s paralyzed or has lost his limbs.”
It is almost beyond belief: A commander in chief, in a time of national testing, deploying limbless soldiers as a rhetorical trump card against his political opponents. In Turkey, Obama expressed more obvious relish for his own partisan battles than for the nation’s military goals. The United States has a president whose wartime leadership is apparently inspired not by Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt but by Rachel Maddow. His military strategy in Iraq and Syria may be questionable, but Obama is the Eisenhower of political polarization, the Napoleon of the partisan low blow.