Dana Milbank: Golfing as the world burns

08/12/2014 2:00 PM

08/12/2014 1:57 PM

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama must really be teed off.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, his once-loyal secretary of state and his likeliest successor, has gone rogue, criticizing his foreign policy as too timid.

Obama responded with not one but two rounds of golf.

Clinton, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg published by the Atlantic over the weekend, offered a withering comment on the Obama doctrine, described in shorthand by White House officials as “don’t do stupid s – .” Said Clinton: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle.”

As the criticism became public, Obama was doggedly sticking with his plans to go on vacation – a decision that, if not in the category of stupid stuff, could fit under the heading of “tone deafness.”

Obama stood on the South Lawn on Saturday updating Americans on the new bombing campaign in Iraq – and then he boarded Marine One for a two-week trip to Martha’s Vineyard. There, half an hour after arriving at his vacation home, he was already on his way to a golf course. He played again Sunday, then had a beach outing Monday followed by a political fundraiser.

Even presidents need down time, and Obama can handle his commander-in-chief duties wherever he is. But his decision to proceed with his getaway just 36 hours after announcing the military action in Iraq risks fueling the impression that he is detached as the world burns.

The highly visible wartime vacation (Obama allowed himself to be photographed on a putting green Saturday with NBA star Ray Allen and retired pro-football player Ahmad Rashad) was not looking any better Monday as Iraq’s political crisis worsened, NATO’s chief declared a “high probability” of Russian military intervention in Ukraine and Gaza remained on a knife edge.

By Monday afternoon, the crises had forced Obama to revise his schedule. The White House announced that the president, after returning from the beach, would make an unscheduled statement about Iraq. He freshened up at his 8,100-square-foot vacation home, then stepped outside, in a blue blazer and open collar; his aides wisely chose a wooded backdrop rather than one with the infinity pool and the sweeping water views. Obama finished his four-minute statement and then hopped in his motorcade for the ride to a Democratic fundraiser.

Such visuals probably won’t help Obama with the 60 percent of Americans who disapprove of his handling of foreign policy. Even his former secretary of state is registering her disapproval.

Clinton, in the interview, took a harder line than the administration has on Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Syria, saying she argued unsuccessfully for earlier arming and training of the Syrian opposition. “I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” she said.

She applied a bit of Clintonian triangulation to the foreign policies of Obama and George W. Bush, suggesting that there’s a just-right medium between the too-hot Bush policy and the too-cold Obama approach.

“I think part of the challenge is that our government too often has a tendency to swing between these extremes,” she said.

The no-confidence vote from Clinton (who, as luck would have it, also will be on Martha’s Vineyard this week) comes as Obama is smarting from criticism by hawks that the current mess in Iraq might not have occurred if he had kept U.S. troops there. “That entire analysis is bogus and is wrong,” the president said Saturday. “But it gets frequently peddled around here by folks who oftentimes are trying to defend previous policies that they themselves made.”

It’s understandable that Obama would want to get away from it all, but for a president struggling to build support for his foreign policy, vacationing during a crisis is no day at the beach.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest reminded reporters Friday that Obama was traveling to the Vineyard “with an array of communications” and advisers. But when it came time for the president to speak, there was a 20-minute delay because the TV feed didn’t work, and then the audio and video quality were poor.

Obama gave an update on progress toward “the limited military objectives” against the Islamic State in Iraq, and he praised the naming of a new prime minister. But he didn’t mention that the current one, Nouri al-Maliki, is refusing to surrender power, setting up a showdown.

Criticism from Clinton. War with the Islamic State. Trouble with Maliki. It’s enough to make a man hook his drive into the sand trap.

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