Has Obama been weak on ISIS and Ebola?

WASHINGTON - "Barack Obama, the pariah President", screamed the headline in the Washington Post this week, describing a campaign event where supporters headed for the doors mid-speech, to beat traffic.

In the past, so the thinking goes, they would have hung on to every word he uttered. This is just one sign of how far the US President's star has faded among the American public since he easily won re-election in 2012.

In the lead-up to the mid-term congressional elections, attacks against the President have intensified as Republicans try to leverage on his unpopularity to topple rivals from his Democratic Party.

While the President's name is not on any ballot, the Republicans see value in trying to make him the central issue - specifically, they want the elections to be a referendum on the Obama leadership.

Critics contend that he is a weak leader who has dragged the country onto the wrong track.

That narrative of weakness started when the United States failed to act against Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad after he crossed Mr Obama's self-declared "red line" to use chemical weapons on his own people in 2013.

It has grown to infect nearly every debate about the President's policies.

In East Asia, Mr Obama's no-shows at last October's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Indonesia and ASEAN summit in Brunei during the federal government shutdown, as well as his administration's subsequent handling of China's provocations in the South China Sea - which went little beyond calling for a cessation of provocative actions - led many in the region to question the strength of the US leader's commitment to the American rebalance to Asia.

The most salient examples of weakness right now involve the administration's response to the twin threats of Ebola and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

On Ebola, Republicans and a handful of Democrats are upset that he has not heeded calls to ban flights into the US from the affected West African countries.

On ISIS, those frustrated by the seeming lack of effect from the US-led air strike campaign insist that the President back down from his "no boots on the ground" policy.

They argue, too, that the ISIS problem could have been avoided if Mr Obama had left a residual force in Iraq, instead of completely withdrawing in 2011.

But how fair are these criticisms? To what extent can Mr Obama be blamed for the US' ineffectual response to the rise of two very serious global challenges?

On ISIS, there is some basis for saying that the decision to completely withdraw the US military from Iraq had something to do with the rise of the group.

Mr Obama's desire to fulfil a campaign promise to take the US off a war footing is likely to have affected his willingness to negotiate with Iraqi leaders on a "status of forces" agreement.

Without US forces around, the militants could re-establish their networks while the divisive Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki - forced to resign last month following the rise of ISIS - was free to pursue his sectarian agenda.

None of this is to say, however, that what has happened would not have taken place if he had left some troops in Iraq. Contrary to the picture painted by his critics, Iraq was not a stable, fledgling democracy when Mr Obama came to power in 2008.

Rather, the incoming President was dealt a pretty dire hand. The US occupation from 2003 to 2011 had unleashed sectarian clashes throughout Iraq as Sunni minorities suddenly found themselves at the mercy of American-installed Shi'ite leaders.

While it would be unfair to attribute the rise of ISIS to the President's decision, his handling of the situation in Iraq certainly did nothing to prevent it.

As for his subsequent response to ISIS, in many ways, limited air strikes backed by an international coalition sounds intellectually like the correct strategy to take, especially given the uncertainty over how a war-weary American public would take to another conflict.

In practice, it would fail to provide any sort of swift justice or dispel the image of an uncertain President.

It also sets the tone for similarly limited participation from coalition partners. Countries are not going to jump in militarily when they doubt the US' own commitment to the cause.

Militarily, having at least some US presence on the ground seems necessary, but is a move that comes with a lot of inherent risks.

Perhaps the strongest argument against this approach is that it is one the US has used in Iraq for the past decade with minimal success and a lot of sacrifice.

On Ebola, at least, Mr Obama is apparently willing to have boots on the ground. Thousands of US soldiers and health-care workers have been sent to West Africa with the US serving as the primary coordinator for aid.

Here, it is harder to fault him. It is true that the US has been slow to react, but nearly every other nation, and even the World Health Organisation (WHO), has been guilty.

Calls for travel restrictions on those travelling from West Africa have been rightly ignored thus far, with health experts making compelling arguments that doing so would hurt rather than help the global situation.

"Any discontinuation of transport will affect humanitarian aid, doctors, nurses and human resources entering the country, the transfer of biological sampling and equipment for hospitals," said Mr Daniel Menucci of the WHO, making a sensible case that no aid worker would go there if there was no guarantee they would be able to leave.

Even the temperature screenings that are taking place now will have a minimal impact on the spread of the disease.

Mr Thomas Eric Duncan, the US' patient zero, would have easily passed any such test since he did not fall ill until a week after returning home.

Yet, by succumbing to public pressure to put in place temperature screening and then forcing passengers from the stricken countries to fly in through just five airports, Mr Obama has once again provided fodder for those accusing him of uncertainty in crisis.

Ultimately, the constant accusations of weakness belie an outmoded assumption that more US leadership will always make a difference and inevitably creates better outcomes.

In reality, the US, while more influential than most, faces significant constraints in what it can do around the world.

Many analysts also say that resolving America's own problems at home would help it raise its standing better than anything it tries to do globally.

There is a place for the restraint and pragmatism that characterise Mr Obama's decisions.

The key, however, is to find the right balance between being the gung-ho leader some Americans want him to be and the more reserved one he actually is.

This article was first published on October 25, 2014.
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