I was overseas when Obama gave his momentous Isis address, but figured I could pretty much guess how things would go. Despite being the greatest orator of the last thousand years, he's a complete bust at selling anything but himself, as comprehensively demonstrated in his first couple of years: see his rhetorical efforts on behalf of ObamaCare, or Massachusetts Senate candidate Martha Coakley, or Chicago's Olympics bid. When it comes to war, he suffers from an additional burden: before he can persuade anybody else, he first has to persuade himself. And he can't do it. So he gave the usual listless performance of a surly actor who resents the part he's been given. It's not just the accumulation of equivocations and qualifications - the "Islamic State" is not Islamic, our war with them is not a war, there'll be no boots on the ground except the exotic footwear of a vast unspecified coalition - but something more basic: What he mainly communicates is that he doesn't mean it.
That's what the jihadist militias now in control of Tripoli understood about his "leading from behind". That's what Putin grasped about Obama's "red line" in Syria. And that's what any Isis member who took time out of his beheading schedule to watch the President on CNN International will have taken away from this week's speech.
As for the "coalition", they seem to intuit that, with a leader leading from this far behind, you want to stand even further back. From the mellifluously named Jacaranda FM:
Turkey will refuse to allow a US-led coalition to attack jihadists in neighbouring Iraq and Syria from its air bases, nor will it take part in combat operations against militants, a government official told AFP Thursday.
So much for the only Nato member to border Isis. What of the other Atlantic allies?
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told journalists on Friday that Germany will not take part in US-led air strikes against Islamic extremists Isis in Syria.
The United Kingdom's position is more, ah, nuanced. First, the Foreign Secretary:
Asked about plans for an open-ended bombing campaign, Mr Hammond said: 'Let me be clear â€“ Britain will not be taking part in any air strikes in Syria. We have already had that discussion in our parliament last year and we won't be revisiting that position.'
On the other hand, the Queen's first minister:
Hours after Mr Hammond's appearance in Germany, the Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted Mr Cameron was 'not ruling anything out'.
What about American allies closer to the action?
There is a disinclination to believe his promises, said Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
"We have reached a low point of trust in this administration," he said. "We think in a time of crisis Mr. Obama will walk away from everyone if it means saving his own skin."
Different countries are suspicious of the United States for different reasons, but all feel betrayed in some way by recent U.S. policies, said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Institute in Qatar.
They, too, take "the leader of the free world" at face value: If he can't sell it to himself, why should they buy it? The good news is that there is one nation state interested in signing on in a big way:
US Opposes Iran Role in Coalition Against Islamic State
One sympathizes with Obama at having to pretend to be interested in tedious briefings about which set of unlovely ingrate natives we should back against the other. He was elected to be the post-war president - Clement Attlee to Bush's Winston Churchill, an analogy that's almost perfect except for the minor detail that in this case the enemy did not acceot that the war was over. Still, it takes two to tango, and Obama's principal dance move is to stand at the side of the floor looking cool. The Obama Doctrine - "Don't do stupid sh*t" - has been rendered in non-PG version as "Don't do stupid stuff". But it should be more pithily streamlined yet: Don't do. The Obama "Doctrine" attempts to dignify inertia as strategy. As Noemie Emery writes:
It implies in effect that wisdom is measured in negative energy, that by declining to act one can stay out of trouble, that passivity is the key to a guilt-free existence and a serene and an untroubled world.
Never use force, don't threaten force, and no one will blame you for anything. Pull out of wars and your foes will stop fighting. Don't send men to war and your hands will be clean.
And so the President assures us that his determination to "destroy" Isis won't be anything like Iraq and Afghanistan, but more on the lines of Yemen and Somalia - that's to say, one more failed state we'll drone now and again. Can you really treat one of the world's deepest pools of oil as just another piffling fringe-of-the-map basket-case? Don't worry about it. For the modern progressive, the entire planet is fringe-of-the-map. Real politics is about free contraceptives for thirtysomething college students, and transgender bathrooms for grade-schoolers. "Foreign policy" is something old bitter white men do.
And so it was that Barack Obama observed the anniversary of 9/11 by visiting something called Ka-BOOM!, a non-profit that helps build playgrounds for children. Neither the President nor the First Lady nor anyone else in the 40-car motorcade appears to have thought it odd that, on the day the Twin Towers went Ka-BOOM!, America's Commander-in-Chief should be helping put children's toys in backpacks marked Ka-BOOM! From Kabul to Madrid, Bali to London, a lot of backpacks have gone Ka-BOOM! over the past 13 years, but evidently the thought did not discombobulate those who manage what the President calls his "optics". And so a day in which Islamic imperialists killed thousands of Americans by flying planes into skyscrapers has somehow devolved into a day for raising awareness of the need for better play facilities for children. Did he also visit Habitat for Humanity and help hang a new window treatment? Did he plant a tree?
In the land of micro-aggressions, macro-aggressions are so last century.