The split screen told the story. On one side, images of the terror bombing in Brussels. On the other, President Barack Obama doing the wave with Raul Castro at a baseball game in Havana.
On one side, the real world of rising global terrorism. On the other, the Obama fantasy world in which romancing a geopolitically insignificant Cuba – without an ounce of democracy or human rights yielded in return – is considered a seminal achievement of American diplomacy.
Cuba wasn’t so much a legacy trip as a vanity visit, vindicating the dorm-room enthusiasms of one’s student days when the Sandinistas were cool, revolution was king and every other friend had a dog named Che.
When Brussels intervened, some argued that Obama should have cut short his trip and come back home. I disagree. You don’t let three suicide bombers control the itinerary of the American president. Moreover, Obama’s next stop, Argentina, is actually important and had just elected a friendly government that broke from its long and corrupt Peronist past.
Nonetheless, Obama could have done without the baseball. What kind of message does it send to be yukking it up with Raul even as Belgian authorities are picking body parts off the floor of the Brussels airport?
Obama came into office believing that we had vastly exaggerated the threat of terrorism and allowed it to pervert both our values and our foreign policy. He declared a unilateral end to the global war on terror and has downplayed the threat ever since. He frequently reminds aides, reports Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, that more Americans die annually in bathtub accidents.
It’s now been seven years. The real world has stubbornly refused to accommodate Obama’s pacific dreams. The Islamic State has grown from a JV team to worldwide threat, operating from Libya to Afghanistan, Sinai to Belgium. It is well into the infiltration phase of its European campaign, with 500 trained and hardened cadres in place among the estimated 5,000 jihadists returned from the Middle East. The increasing tempo and sophistication of its operations suggest that it may be poised for a continent-wide guerrilla campaign.
In the face of this, Obama remains inert, unmoved, displaying a neglect and insouciance that border on denial. His non-reaction to the Belgian massacre – his 34-minute speech in Havana devoted 51 seconds to Brussels – left the world as stunned as it was after the Paris massacre, when Obama did nothing. Worse, at his now-notorious November news conference in Turkey, his only show of passion regarding Paris was to berate Islamophobes.
David Axelrod called Obama’s response “tone deaf.” But that misses the point. This is more than a mere mistake of presentation. Remember his reaction to the beheading of American journalist James Foley? Obama made a statement expressing his sympathies – and then jumped onto his golf cart for a round of 18.
He later told NBC News’ Chuck Todd that this was a mistake. “Part of this job is also the theater of it,” he explained, “it’s not something that always comes naturally to me.” As if postponing a bucolic recreation was a required piece of political playacting rather than a president’s natural reaction – a mixture of shock and sorrow – to the terrible death of a citizen he could not save.
It’s not as if Obama is so super cool that he never shows emotion. Just a few months ago, he teared up when speaking about the Sandy Hook school shooting. That was the work of a psychotic. But when speaking about the work of Islamist terrorists, he offers flat, perfunctory words.
I cannot fathom why. Perhaps having long seen himself uniquely qualified by background and history to make peace between Islam and the West, to now recognize how badly things have gone on his watch is to admit both failure and the impossible grandiosity of his original pretensions.
Whatever the reason, he seems genuinely unmoved by a menace the rest of the world views, correctly, with horror and increasing apprehension. Obama has been in office seven years, yet seems utterly fixed on his campaign promises and pre-presidential obsessions: shutting down Guantanamo, rapprochement with Iran, engagement with tyrants (hence, Havana), making the oceans recede (hence, the Paris climate trip). Next we’ll see yet another useless Washington “summit” on yet another Obama idee fixe: eliminating nuclear materials.
With the world on fire, the American president goes on ideological holiday. As was said of the Bourbons: “They have learned nothing and have forgotten nothing.”
Charles Krauthammer’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.