Sometimes trouble blows up out of a clear blue sky. That’s what happened to the White House yesterday.
Coming out of the Democratic Convention, despite an uninspiring speech, President Obama had a united party and a comfortable bounce. While the economy was no great shakes, the President’s stewardship of foreign affairs helped give his administration an air of competence and professionalism. At a time when war-weary and terror-wary Americans, buffeted by storms at home and upheavals abroad, want nothing more than a quiet life, “no drama” Obama was ready to campaign as a safe and experienced steward of the national interest against a gaffe-prone challenger.
But that was before 9/11/12, the day the roof fell in. The Chicago teacher strike raised doubts about the President’s domestic leadership, the publication of Bob Woodward’s new book raised questions about his economic management and political skills, and 11 years to the day after the 9/11 attack, radical America-hating Islamists stormed the U.S. embassies in Cairo and Benghazi, assassinated the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others even as U.S. and Israeli relations sank to another low point.
“No drama” Obama is in it now: his ex-chief of staff is locked in a high profile cage fight with one of the most important unions and donors in the Democratic stable in his home town; his humanitarian intervention in Libya has created yet another bloody Middle East imbroglio for the United States; his efforts to reconcile the U.S. and moderate Islamism—in part by distancing the U.S. from Israel—have angered Israel without reducing Islamist bitterness against the United States.
And in the middle of all this, a misguided U.S. embassy employee in Egypt issued a groveling “apology tweet” condemning a privately made film whose unflattering portrayal of the Prophet of Islam was stoking mob violence. Even as pictures of the U.S. flag being torn down at the Cairo embassy flashed across the world, Secretary Clinton was disavowing the ill-conceived tweet—and critics were jumping on the incident as a sign of confusion and appeasement in the administration’s approach to Middle East radicalism.
The Middle East mess calls President Obama’s policy of engagement with democratic forces in the region (much more similar to his predecessor’s approach than either President Obama or anybody else is willing to acknowledge) into question. The events in Libya and Egypt—combined with the bloody chaos in Syria—make Americans more eager to wash their hands of this tormented region. They don’t want to bomb, they don’t want to build; they want to get out. Getting out of Iraq was popular; getting in to Libya was not—and going in to Syria looks, politically, about as smart as sticking your hand into a wood chipper.
The politics of this are at one level quite tricky for Republicans. It is not as if there was some magically effective Middle Eastern policy that the Obama administration is obstinately refusing to employ. Many American voters are likely to support whichever candidate they think will be less likely to get the country more deeply embroiled in the Middle East. “Apology tours” are unpopular, but after eleven years of unsatisfactory results, so are wars. Denouncing President Obama for insufficient hawkishness will stir some people up, but it may quietly reinforce the determination of many others to keep executive power out of the hands of a party which looks to be just a little bit too quick on the draw.
The order and competence dimension of a presidential election should not be underestimated. Voters generally don’t want presidents who drive the U.S. government like it was a Ferrari. They want a comfortable, safe ride; their kids are in the back seat of the car. Yesterday’s events damage President Obama because they call into question the story the campaign wants to tell—that President Obama is a calm and laid-back, though ultimately decisive person who brings order to a dangerous world and can be trusted with the car keys. But if Republicans respond by looking wild eyed and excitable (remember John McCain’s response to the financial crisis in 2008?), bad times will actually rally people to stick with the devil they know.
Yesterday rocked President Obama’s world and gave Governor Romney’s campaign some new openings. But one day in a long campaign is just one day. We still don’t know how these events will reverberate across the Middle East or how the U.S. response will develop. In some ways, trouble overseas distracts attention from the White House’s current domestic problems—the Woodward book and the Chicago strike. And the President can thank his stars that the German Constitutional Court decided not to plunge the world economy into crisis this morning and allowed the German government to complete the ratification of the most recent European bailout agreements.
As the dust settles, there will be more to say — about the politics of Egypt, the chaos in Libya, the President’s leadership, the strike in Chicago, the nature of blasphemy, the pitfalls of public diplomacy in the age of social media, the Israeli-Iranian confrontation and the state of the campaign. And there will be time to remind readers again about the courage and patriotism of so many American diplomats around the world like Christopher Stevens, the ambassador we are mourning today. But yesterday’s events should remind us that all the models and all the “laws” of politics that political scientists labor to uncover are really just rules of thumb and probability calculations. Presidential elections are driven by events as well as by “forces”, and many of the most important events are inherently unpredictable until, quite suddenly, they occur.
November is still a very long way off, and the world remains a radically unpredictable place.