The Wilderness | Issue 58 | 9 . 7 . 2015 | Tweet
Flash back to 2011, and far as presidencies are concerned, it feels like a millennium ago. Barack Obama was basking in the fullness of the Arab Spring, posing as the personal midwife to a New Birth of Freedom as he polished his Peace Prize in front of the world. Truly this was a man who could not lose: it seemed like all he had to do was demand some former ally steeped in domestic conflict bow to his diplomatic omnipotence and boom: Instant Democracy. The media tactfully aided Obama by moving on from covering these international hotspots almost immediately after President Santa had finished gifting them with new regimes, so we wouldn’t have to trouble ourselves with any messy details about their aftermaths (until Ambassador Stevens found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time a year later, that is). The afterglow was unfaded. Barack Obama was still the fresh-faced President Hope and Change. Oprah was still crying. But as it all fell to pieces, Obama received a brutal education in the truth that community organizing on the South Side of Chicago is light years away from an attempt to community organize the Middle East.
Which brings us to Bashar al-Assad, of course.
When Barack Obama demanded Assad step down in 2011, he took immediate ownership of any consequences to follow. Assad — not being much more than a photo-op for Nancy Pelosi or a dinner date for John Kerry, and owing us utterly nothing (unlike Mubarak or Khaddafi) — told Obama to get bent around a tree, and from that point onward the administration’s strategy has been one long assay into the question of how best to manage an Asshole Who May Still Be Preferable To Outright Anarchy. Obama hedged military action against Assad and against his (now obviously disastrous) decision to withdraw from Iraq and the impending nuclear deal with Iran. When his declaration that Assad Must Go went ignored (and thus became problematic), he simply crossed it off his list, told a nefarious Vladimir Putin to handle it, and went golfing. When his administration realized that any military intervention in Syria would complicate his Iran nuclear deal, he folded. Except the world didn’t fold with him.
When reports emerged that Assad had utilized chlorine gas against both rebels and civilians, Obama was suddenly boxed into a world which preceded his ascension and more importantly, didn’t give a damn about what he thought. Obama and his famously anti-war Secretary of State John Kerry reaped the consequences of spending the prior five years demonizing the difficult decisions made by their predecessors, either unaware or unfazed by the idea that they might one day have to rally the country and the world around a “Red Line” they themselves had set, and as it turns out weren’t very good or very interested in necessitating either.
A foreign policy based on hoping that no one will call your bluff is dangerous and disastrous. As it turns out, not only was Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians not a true “red line,” ISIS’s use of them now multiple times doesn’t seem to be either . ISIS’s use of chemical weapons has been barely reported or acknowledged for the same reasons that much of ISIS’s activity overall never makes it to our own media shores — because it’s ugly, it’s inconvenient, and thanks to Obama’s “flexibility” it’s now an unsolvable Problem from Hell.
That’s always been this President’s problem: his complete inability to deal with the world at hand, as it exists right in front of his face. When the world forces Barack Obama off his script, he simply retreats to a golf course, ESPN, or most recently the remote wilds of Alaska.
Nowhere was this more evident than when his habit of diplomatic detachment inconveniently washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Kos last week when a boat carrying Syrian refugees capsized. While President Jor-El embarked on a magical mystery end-of-summer climate cruise to call attention to Alaskan glacier-melt in summer, the world was suddenly captivated by the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi lying face down in front of rescue workers.
Photographs of Aylan Kurdi went viral and his name started trending on Twitter behind the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik which translates to“Humanity washed ashore.” Within the day, several cartoonists and artists began interpreting their own renditions of the young boy rocked in by the surf. Some were very poignant, some unsettling. But the images themselves were no less striking and commanded a viral audience large enough for media to shake themselves out of apathy of reporting the horrors being committed on a daily basis in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Playing upon our visceral reaction, media pounced at the opportunity to show us the tragedy of a dead child, yet, without asking any serious questions about the circumstances behind it (Aylan Kurdi was on a raft with others, including his brother, fleeing ISIS in Kobane). ISIS burning bodies, destroying archaeological monuments, enslaving women and girls as sex-objects, butchering men barely registers enough outrage. When Obama refused to take responsibility for chemical weapon attacks against civilians, the media dutifully let him off the hook. But this was different.
Once again world events inconsiderately interrupted Obama’s semi-retirement and he was left holding a fish and taking selfies for an audience of himself and a business-as-usual press corps just happy to be along for the sights.
It’s fitting in a way: it is the photograph of a young boy washed up on a Turkish beach that encapsulates the consequences of what happens when a coddled President, content to do as little as possible before turning over a world spinning off its axis to his successor, is allowed to distract himself with selfies in Alaska. Barack Obama’s successor will almost certainly bear most of the brunt and the blame of his inaction. In Hillary Clinton’s case it would be most deservedly so.
Up until the point that the pictures of young Aylan, carried in by the tide, were snapped, our media was all too happy to keep Syria and ISIS out of the headlines in the interest of securing their chosen President’s legacy. When accompanying pictures of thousands of refugees marching across Europe also went viral, the administration didn’t even bother to attach a hashtag this time. While Obama hiked his way across (the warmest part of) Alaska, the narrative shaming was once again left to dutiful acolytes in the media, to shine a light on a great human rights crisis just bright enough to stop anyone from asking him any questions about it. As thousands sought asylum in Germany, Austria, Denmark and elsewhere, the leader of the free world sought it in the most remote part of the country for another stop on his ongoing Retirepallooza Tour of Meaningless Firsts.
While Obama was posing for glorious-leader-make-wonderful-country photos in front of mountains, John Kerry, in one of many ongoing reminders of just how right this country got it in 2004, used the occasion not to address this very real catastrophe splashed all over social media and newspapers, but to hedge it against an imaginary possible future migrant crisis due to global warming. Addressing the world as it exists now means confronting more photos of his dinner-date with Bashar al-Assad (“a real reformer” – Hillary Clinton, 2011) and excusing away the faulty campaign promises of a President content to give Iraq up to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It wasn’t climate change that caused refugees, including Aylan Kurdi and several others, to wash up on a Turkish beach. The message is clear — Obama and his State Department are not going to be shaken off their climate paranoia narrative. When Obama vehemently denied he ever called for a red line of action in Syria, he blamed “The world” and he’s content to let “the world” handle it now in any attempt to repudiate any further responsibility. What do 300,000 refugees and the whole of Europe matter when there is a glacier in the Arctic that needs staring at.
As Obama occupies himself with uncertain visions of the how the world will be in the distant future, he ignores it as it exists in the present day at our peril for the conflicts we face now.
There will be a price to pay for this and it has nothing to do with sea levels rising 75 years from now. ISIS (that is, Obama’s JV Squad) is threatening to use the crisis of thousands of faceless and unnamed refugees as a gateway to European and western countries. There are very real security questions about who many of these refugees are as well as their intentions for fleeing. According to reports in the Daily Mail & others there has been for some time. Barack Obama maintains that the United States cannot intervene in every crisis in every part of the world and has the record of complete disengagement to prove he means it. But this is a conflict that has a very real chance of infiltrating our cities. This is a part of the world that, no matter how much we pull away from it, will one way or another find a way to pull us back in.
If this White House can’t address a problem in the world with a Twitter meme or a hashtag, it simply ignores it. And the media, charged with the duty of making sure these things cannot and should not be ignored, gladly tolerates it.
We’re being told by television and web media “not to look away” from Syria’s refugee crisis while they simultaneously celebrate our President for trading in his foreign policy for a selfie-stick in the wilderness of Alaska. The juxtaposition of our Media Gatekeepers piously lecturing us about the shock and horror of the refugee crisis, then flipping instantly to detailed analysis of a Vine of Obama getting spawned on by fish, was a striking and all-too-familiar disconnect. It would have been easy to roll our eyes had their grief-stricken tweets over Aylan Kurdi’s body in the surf not been accompanied by an ongoing shame campaign against their followers and readers. Even as they demanded we not look away, they quietly shifted a news narrative to once again shield a disinterested President from any ongoing responsibility. Overnight, a staggering refugee crisis became a “migrant crisis.” Like magic. By fundamentally changing the definition of the crisis, they were able to change the narrative and obscure how these people arrived at such a point of desperation.
And it matters. For a “refugee crisis” is a problem that awkwardly and inevitably leads to the question of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s foreign policy failures with Libya, Iraq, ISIS and Syria — and with such gauche timing, right as we’re hurtling toward a pivotal Presidential election. A “migrant crisis,” on the other hand, lets us talk about human rights and social justice, open borders and — if we wish to follow the lead of Vox Media and John Kerry — climate change as well. Much better branding. These sorts of framing choices are not accidental: these are the lengths a media, which is otherwise happy to lecture us, will go to in order to shield this President (or a President-in-waiting) from absorbing any responsibility for their own actions and words.
The New York Times, for instance, attributes responsibility to some mysterious governing entity known as “The United States” and scorches the country as whole for ignoring Syria and ISIS, yet manages somehow not to mention the names Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or the terms “JV” and “Red Line” once in about 1,500 words.
It wasn’t “the United States” that let Obama get away with declaring “I didn’t set that red line, the world did” only to have him to walk out the door like a dejected child needing an afternoon snack and media-induced nap. No, that was our media: rather than hold him accountable for his own declarations of removing Assad and setting a “red line,” they simply shrugged, muttered a word or two about how war Totally Sucks Anyway, and went back to writing think pieces on the cultural impact of the President’s NCAA tournament bracket.
Because of DC media’s nerd-prom infatuation at the thought of being a part, any part, of this socially cool West Wing Presidency, we have to turn to other sources in calling out this ridiculous clipboard hashtag foreign policy. Earlier this year in a brief appearance during Jon Stewart’s Night of Too Many Stars, and much to the horror of the crowd, stand up comedian Bill Burr tore into Michelle Obama over the White House’s penchant for doing nothing to stop these events except guilt-shaming us with puppydog eyes:
“She’s sitting there holding up those hashtags, Bring Back Our Girls. Remember that hashtag #BringBackOurGirls? That blew my mind, like, why are you showing me that? I’m a stand up comedian. Like what am I going to do to get back the girls? Why don’t you look across the dinner table — you see that guy? That is the Leader Of The Free World. Tell him to pick up a phone, call some Navy SEALs and solve it….what am I going to do? Show up with a sharpened mic stand? HEY EVERYONE MICHELLE TOLD ME TO BRING THEM BACK”
The whole routine is worth watching, if for no other reason than to see an overly-sensitive politically correct crowd, saturated with social media activism for the past seven years, pucker helplessly in their seats. And yet that’s where we’re at. Using Twitter to hold up signs — it’s exasperating precisely because the one “Red Line” that actually seems to still exist is the one forbidding the media from holding the one guy who can do anything about these foreign policy meltdowns and humanitarian crises responsible.
Our media collectively demands accountability for these conflicts from every single person…except the one person who has any real power to stop or mitigate it. This has always been the anecdote in Obama’s foreign policy: 1) show up 2) demand the world follow him 3) world leaders balk at his demands 4) he shrugs his shoulders and goes and plays with his selfie stick somewhere. If Obama really feels like going “all-out,” sometimes there will be an additional step 5 involving Twitter pictures of the State Department’s junior-hipster mall brigade flashing grins, thumbs-up, and razor-edged hashtags (fashioned by America’s sharpest military scientists working in the depths of DARPA to help win The Bloody War Of Memes).
Eastern Ukraine is still occupied by Putin and “our girls” have still not been returned and beyond hashtagvism, an administration far more interested in mobilizing mobs at home has all but failed to mobilize allies abroad. The repercussions of this President’s media-abetted lethargy and diplomatic ADHD will echo for generations and the same click-driven SEO Wizards of Trends that tell us now not to look away at the horrors flooding Europe will immediately torch the next Republican President for being boxed into intervening there. The Warmongering Neocon cliches will flood social media via progressive outlets like an undimmed tide, and passed off as the same interventionism nonsense by the Sunday morning peacock mafia.
It’s hard to quell the suspicion that this is why western leaders will not do what is necessary to rid the world of both ISIS and Assad. Legacy media demands we pay attention, but absolutely refuses to admit what in fact would be necessary for ending this: boots on the ground. Blood and treasure. War. Again, war. And war against whom? ISIS, yes, sure. But Assad? Do we risk all-out war with Assad in Syria, who is now backed now by Vladimir Putin, who has ramped up support with ground troops and armored divisions inside Syria? Better do a quick hit on ESPN Radio talking sports instead.
Responding to the tragedy unfolding in Syria right now means overwhelming and eliminating ISIS with uncompromising force, and returning to Iraq with a significant number of troops. ISIS can instantly erase 2,000 years of archaeological history overnight (A practice the Taliban employed as they rose to power in pre-9/11 Afghanistan) and the people charged with questioning the current administration about it refuse to address it beyond a few sad tweets.
These are the same gatekeepers of truth that excoriated George W. Bush for eliminating a vicious dictator who unleashed chemical weapons on his own people in Iraq and was threatening to do so again; because of the public lashing the collective partisan Left vented upon him, no European or western leader will dare commit to what is absolutely necessary to stop ISIS, remove Assad and put Putin on notice. Obama’s fawning press has paralyzed any action against ISIS and Assad but still they sit there in their indolence and comfort, demanding we “do something.” The very same media would jump into anti-war rhetoric tomorrow if US forces returned to Iraq and Syria. Code Pink would be in the streets and reporters on social media would be dutifully pushing anti-war narratives that reminded them of their super-cool Vietnam-era college protest days. Barack Obama is certainly not a leader capable of stomaching such a military campaign, as he travels the world crossing off entries on his Fucket-List of Library accomplishments, crossing his fingers that the clock on the world doesn’t run out before the one on his presidency.
The media demands we not ignore those fleeing from radical Islamic tyranny, yet refuses to hold this administration accountable for turning its eyes away from comments made by the mullahs of Iran, so desperate are they to write a narrative about how an unenforceable deal would, in the cosmically perfect words of Rep. Patrick Murphy, “bring peace in our time.” Americans have been abandoned overseas in Iran, their captivity used as a leverage against a reluctant U.S. Congress. The fight for democracy and the fight to redeem captive Americans or defend refugees in Syria and Iraq isn’t as easy as (in the words of the AP) staring down a melting glacier. The name of Scott Darden, currently being held captive by Houthi rebels in Yemen, takes a backseat to the name of a mountain in Alaska. The beautiful narrative of Obama’s presidency is so much more interesting, and so much easier to romanticize, than the world he’s going to leave behind.
So for the next 14 months, let’s make a deal: when the same media that shields this President from his own remarks begins paying attention to the human atrocities he chose to walk away from, so will we.
Because we’re through with the standard song-and-dance routine, where the media guilt-trips us for a week or two and then goes back to winking and nodding at Obama as he sits down for comedy podcasts and interviews with people who enjoy soaking themselves in bathtubs full of cereal. This is a president out of apparently out of hashtags and out of fucks to give. When media rejects shameless propaganda pandering over Presidential selfies, boat trips and puppy snuggles, so will we. When our media doesn’t let the Obama Administration stick to a defective and outdated campaign promise and turn away from ISIS torching human beings and destroying 2,000 year old temples, neither will we. What the Syrian refugee crisis has laid bare, for those beyond traditional media trying to plug the dam, is that this is an administration incapable and indifferent in backing up their melodramatic, rhetorical, Pepsi Cola sloganeering.
And the results of that indifference have just washed up on shore.
– SM –