Terrorist attacks have a long history of pulling the United States together, with the President playing the dual role of comforter and commander in chief. The horrific attacks Friday on Paris, however, have led to a different result.
Barack Obama began the first Wednesday after the attacks in the same way he began the first Monday, with a verbal assault on Republicans at a press conference on foreign soil. “We are not well served when in response to a terrorist attack we descend into fear and panic,” he said at a press conference in the Philippines. “We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. The refugee debate is an example of us not being well served by some of the commentary taking place by officials back home and in the media.”
Then his comments became even more pointed. He accused Republicans of aiding in Islamic State recruitment by suggesting that there be a religious test for refugees that would give preference to Christians. “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “It’s counterproductive and it needs to stop.”
“They’ve been playing on fear to score political points or to advance their campaigns and it’s irresponsible,” he continued, in reference to the candidates seeking the Republican nomination. “It needs to stop because the world is watching. I was proud attacks in Boston take place and we did not resort to fear and panic. Boston Strong.”
Just hours earlier, in an interview with MSNBC, White House communications director Jen Psaki argued that critics should not question President Obama’s judgement on the rules of engagement in the fight against the Islamic State. “It’s an issue I would really warn people against playing backseat driver on,” she said.
In Turkey on Monday, Obama took a similarly hard line, calling out his political opponents as working against the national interest. “What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France,” Obama said, amid repeated questions about why he wasn’t adjusting his strategy. “I’m too busy for that.”
For Republicans soul searching in an election year, the statement played into a half-decade of attacks over his “leading from behind,” strategy in the Middle East, offending Republican sensibilities about the role the U.S. should play in the world—leading at all times. The attacks have rallied a fractured party to oppose the President, and Obama’s engagement with Republican candidates offered a clear opportunity to elevate their own profile by jabbing back.
“Today in Turkey, President Obama signaled absolutely no change in course and confirmed what we already knew: He doesn’t believe in American leadership,” Jeb Bush wrote in an email to supporters Monday. “He couldn’t be more wrong. We are at war with radical Islamic terrorists and what we need more than ever right now is American leadership and a strategy for success. That’s the only path forward.”
Obama’s aides acknowledge the difficulties they’ve faced in communicating an intensely complicated issue to the American people and the world. The fight against the Islamic State doesn’t lend itself to sound bites or headlines, with the tactical mission taking years, and the roots of the problem needing a generation to address properly.
The administration sees its critics as exploiting the complications to score political points. They argue that Obama’s “contained” comments and “no strategy” line were taken out of context by opponents who are refusing to engage in a substantive debate on the policy, instead distracting Americans with the “gotcha” of Obama’s supposed verbal miscues.
In the days and weeks ahead, Obama and his team plan to do more to educate the American people about the fight. Officials acknowledge that the fight is difficult, but say they’re going to keep trying and believe that the majority of American people are supportive of what the administration is actually doing.
But the messaging problems are likely to continue as well. On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry awkwardly suggested that there was a “rationale” to the January Charlie Hebdo attacks. “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that,” he said at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. “There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’ This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate.”
Bush, once again, pounced at Kerry’s choice of words. “We should have no empathy and there is no rationale for barbaric Islamic terrorism,” he said.
So it continues. Though the Paris attacks occurred an ocean away from American shores, they have deepened and exposed the nation’s divisions at home. This time, the response to terror has been partisanship, not yet unity or resolve.