President Obama confuses musing with policy

The president should not muse in public, only in private, as otherwise musing is transformed into policy.

February 25, 2015 22:03
2 minute read.
Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama takes the stage to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, February 5, 2015. Flanking Obama are Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey (L) and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On occasion, and particularly on sensitive issues, President Barack Obama seems to be oblivious to the simple fact that a public statement issued by him is not, nor should it ever be, a mere comment. A public statement by the president of the United States is for all intents and purpose policy or intended policy. It must never be considered part of a necessary brainstorming, either prior to or in the wake of a policy decision.

The president should not muse in public, only in private, as otherwise musing is transformed into policy.

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Thus, when President Obama said during a press conference that the United States did not yet have a strategy with regard to Islamic State (IS), he was musing, thinking aloud. That is something the president should definitely do, but only in private, with his advisors. However, to say that in the course of a press conference reflects badly on the president and his foreign policy.

Similarly, when President Obama defended his reluctance to utter the term “Islamic terrorism,” or “Radical Islamic terrorism” by digressing into history in order to demonstrate that Christians had been no better as they had also killed in the name of religion, the president was confusing musing with policy.

Whether one agrees with him or not, the fact remains that such a comment should never have been made in public.

In trying to shape policy, the president can certainly advance remarks aimed at delving more deeply into history so as to enhance understanding of an issue under discussion. He may think aloud about the pros and cons of employing in public the terms “Islamic terrorism” or “Radical Islamic terrorism,” etc. What he must not do is to do it in public; if he does, he’s making a policy statement. The difference is that the latter entails ramifications, produces repercussions. When statements are made it should be borne in mind how these are likely to be perceived and interpreted by friend and foe alike.

Intellectual self-satisfaction should never be the aim of a public utterance.

Likewise, when President Obama referred to the murder of Jews in the kosher supermarket in Paris as the “random” killing of some “folks,” it sounded much more like a remark he would make in a casual conversation with his national security advisor than a public statement aimed at elucidating the public regarding his policy. It was not only inaccurate and perhaps even offensive, but, beyond that, it was a symptom of the same phenomenon: President Obama confuses brainstorming with policy. A press conference, or even a casual remark to the press, is not an appropriate setting for brainstorming.

There is one thing to be said in favor of this kind of behavior: at least we all know what President Obama really thinks. However, President Obama should not be satisfying our curiosity in this respect. That is not part of his job. He must shape policy in an orderly manner. His personal comments should be confined to his advisors.

His musings ought to be restricted to informal conversations with his trusted aides.

He must distinguish between the phase in which a policy is shaped and decided upon and that in which a policy is stated and implemented.

Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum Diplomacy Program Political Science Department Tel Aviv University

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