Matalin-Reagan Debate Obama's Rope-a-Dope Strategy in ISIS Crisis



By Mark Green

"Is 'dither' the Republican word for 'think'?", asks Lawrence O'Donnell. So our duo discuss both sides: the-tan-man-has-no-plan-"yet" vs. he's a deliberate president trying to get the substance and coalition right. Then: Putin in Ukraine, Rick Perry in court, the ALS in America.

*On the ISIS Crisis. We listen to the president say this past week that he doesn't "have a strategy yet" to deal with ISIS in Syria and then that he intends to "degrade and destroy" it -- starting with bombing in Iraq over the past month to an address to the Nation Wednesday, the day before 9/11.

Mary emphasizes how Joe Biden set the right tone by threatening to follow ISIS "to the gates of hell" after the videoed beheadings. [But recalling Bush's strutting comments about getting bin Laden "dead or alive" and then invading the wrong country after 9/11, it's probably best if presidents avoid gunslinger talk.] And as journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic put it, "Obama's better at getting terrorists" -- OBL, the Kenyan Mall bomber, Beghanzi killer -- "than he is talking about terrorists."

Both Mary and Ron agree that a) the president rhetorically stumbled early on though now seems on the right track; and b) his real conundrum is that the public wants ISIS crushed but not with American troops. Will this "war-weary" sentiment shift if there are periodic beheadings and the McCain-King crowd again tries to stampede public opinion about "another Hitler"? Ron doubts it, emphasizing that the larger issue in the Middle East is not anything Bush or Obama did but an economic struggle over oil and gas; Mary focuses on the religious and political struggle over centuries, especially since Iraq was cobbled together after Versailles in 1917.

They also agree that the administration is moving toward a solution that could be both bi-partisan and international -- viz.: Maliki out and a more inclusive government in that could excite a second Sunni Awakening; partners providing troops (Iraq, Free Syrian Army, Saudis, Jordanians, UE, even the English, Germans, French), as we provide air power and intelligence. Ron, however, wonders whether today's Republican leaders can ever agree to something that Obama proposes, no matter how smart and targeted. [If that's right, all the more reason to go to Congress making those who kvetch, vote.]

Last: politically, could the range of simultaneous foreign policy crises -- ISIS, Israel-Gaza, Ukraine, a rising China -- become the lens voters look through in November rather than, as predicted only a few months back, Obamacare and the economy? Both think it'll be both.

Host: Beheadings of Americans are obviously horrific and gut-wrenching... but do not pose an "existential threat" to the U.S. like, say, climate change that affects hundreds of millions of lives and trillions of dollars... but the former are more immediate, visceral, visual and put powerful pressure on a president in an election season.

Sky-is-falling pundits from the eloquent Maureen Dowd to the ideologically grumpy Charles Krauthammer love mocking Obama's laid-back style...but Bush43's impetuous blunders contrast poorly with Ike's and JFK's calm thinking in Suez and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Columnists and Congresspeople have daily or electoral deadlines -- presidents have to get it right for generations to come. Said Jefferson: "Delay is preferable to error."

So far, Obama's rope-a-dope strategy allows Obama to absorb some short-term hits as Republicans and a few Democrats bellow "DO SOMETHING" while he adjusts and prepares for an announcement that may engage Congress, the GOP, and other nations in a plan, not a sound byte.

*On the Ukrainian Crisis. The Ukraine is of course a different place and problem -- while ISIS has maybe 10,000 soldiers but Russia has perhaps 10,000 nuclear missiles and an autocrat-oligarch who doesn't need a coalition to act in his backyard.

Does our panel agree with David Frum, a thoughtful conservative interventionist on the Ukraine, who lauded Obama's remarks in Estonia bolstering the NATO alliance as the strongest anti-Russian speech since Ronald Reagan? Mary and Ron do... Ms. Matalin then added, however, that President Reagan would have gone further, perhaps himself going to Kiev to say the equivalent of Mr. Putin, "tear down that wall." Ok, says Ron, "then what if Putin doesn't? Would my father go back there and say it again?"

It may be unappetizing but, given the Ukraine's location and history, the current cease-fire may be the outlines of a long-term understanding - Eastern Ukraine stays in the Ukraine but the country exists uneasily between West and East when it comes to economic and cultural connections. The Ukraine needs both... and Poroshenko presumably doesn't want to provoke a Putin who, in the last months alone, has murmured that no one should mess with a country with nuclear weapons which could take Kiev "in a couple of weeks."

*Quick Takes:

^ Governor Perry's indictments will either end or bolster his presidential bid -- Mary's confident of the latter, depending of course on whether he prevails in court. Ron argues that he won't be the nominee or president in any event "because of incompetence, no matter what glasses he wears." Mary notes that "with that hair and jaw, he can wear any glasses he wants."

^ As for the 9-year-old girl who tragically mishandled an automatic weapon, killing her instructor at a "Burgers and Bullets" facility in Arizona, Mary deplores parents so stupid as to put a child in that situation. But since many apparently do, why not simply ban participation by children under say, 15, as we don't allow 15 year olds to drive? Mary repeats that you can't legislate common sense and government shouldn't "make people more dependent on rules and regulations." Ron scoffs at allowing a system that would "put a machine gun in a child's hands."

^ Both laud the ice bucket challenge that's raised nearly $100 million for ALS Research though Ron, who lost his wife five months ago to a neurological disease similar to ALS, urged that people should make sure to invest broadly in diseases like ALS, not exclusively ALS. Mary agreed and looked forward to working with Ron on such a project.

Mark Green is the creator and host of Both Sides Now.

You can follow him on Twitter @markjgreen

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