The new GOP attack line, blame world's woes on 'weakened America'

A not so subtle shift is occurring in U.S. politics, Neil Macdonald writes. Barack Obama's Republican critics have moved from attacking Obamacare to the many world crises to try to take down a 'weakened' president.

Obama's critics are shifting from attacking Obamacare to world crises to take on the president

Barack Obama talks about Ukraine before boarding Marine One on the south lawn of the White House on Thursday. Announcing further sanctions against prominent Russians has not stopped a chorus of GOP critics from asking for much more. (Larry Downing / Reuters)

It didn't take long for America's cable ratings carnival to cheapen and exploit the dread of the missing Malaysian plane, then drag it into the country's partisan wars.  

CNN, in its fevered, 24/7 delirium, has suggested everything from a covert landing on some secret island airstrip to supernatural intervention, a possibility one of its anchors felt compelled to "put out there" earlier this week.

Over at Fox News Channel, the "fair and balanced" crowd have been pushing a darker possibility, in line with their favourite explanation for everything: terrorism.

John Bolton, a former ambassador to the UN and a Fox regular, pointed out that Malaysia is a Muslim country, known as soft on terror, a perfect "haven" for terrorists to grab a plane.

Anchor Greta van Susteren aired dire tweets from viewers, including one declaring the plane is now a weapon to strike American targets.

Retired Lt.-Gen. Tom McInerney told Fox host Sean Hannity that his sources say the plane is in Pakistan, puzzlingly adding: "If the Pakistani government doesn't talk soon, they're going to be complicit in this."

You can see where this is going: It's Barack Obama's fault. The only reason terrorists would be so brazen is that they knew Obama wouldn't have the guts to punish them.

The pusillanimous-Obama theme grows louder here by the day. Republicans evidently figure it has even better traction than repeal-Obamacare, going as it does to the heart of America's global self-image.

Conservatives, led by an outraged Senator John McCain and hawks like John Bolton, blame the president for emboldening tyrants worldwide.

Obama, according to far-right presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz, endeavours "to alienate and abandon our friends, and to coddle and appease our enemies."

Even mild-mannered Mitt Romney, freshly rehabilitated by a flattering Netflix documentary about his failed runs for the White House, was fuming about a weakened America this week in the Wall Street Journal.

"President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton travelled the world in pursuit of their promise to reset relations and to build friendships across the globe," he chided.

"Their failure has been painfully evident: It is hard to name even a single country that has more respect and admiration for America today than when President Obama took office."

The GOP hymnbook

If that sounds a bit rich, given the world's poor regard for Washington's leadership under George W. Bush, well, politics has little room for irony. Romney is singing straight from the new GOP hymnbook.

Why did Putin invade and annex Crimea, ask Republicans. Because he knew Obama wouldn't do anything.

An armed man, believed to be a Russian soldier, stands guard outside a Ukrainian military base near the Crimean city of Simferopol on Wednesday. Russian flags were flying at an entrance to Ukraine's naval headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters)

Why is Bashar al-Assad winning Syria's civil war? Because Obama didn't have the nerve to rein him in.

The ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program? A shameful farce, orchestrated by the cowardly Obama.

And why has Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai refused to sign the security agreement Washington wants as a condition for leaving some U.S. troops there? Clearly, it's because he doesn't trust or fear the weak-kneed American president.

And so on. Even Egypt's ever-uglier military regime is Obama's fault, argues Romney in the WSJ.

Had Washington not supported the pro-democracy protestors three years ago, it could have been different, he contends: "Pushing our friend Hosni Mubarak to take rapid and bold steps toward reform … might well have saved lives and preserved the U.S.-Egypt alliance."

How exactly friendly old Mubarak, fighting to retain his family's dictatorial hold on wealth and power, could have been "pushed," any more than the current junta can be pushed, Romney leaves unexplained.

But the tactic underlying the Republican attacks is clear. They appeal to America's stubborn illusions of global leadership, and its belief that foreigners who don't respect America should at least fear it.

Putin suggestions

McCain says Syria's agony could have been prevented, had only the Obama administration sought out and armed "moderates" among the rebels.

(Presumably, McCain wasn't suggesting Obama's advisers should have aped Ronald Reagan's disastrous attempts to do the same thing in Afghanistan 30 years ago — arming the mujahideen, who ultimately helped set up the 9/11 attacks.)

Former vice-president Dick Cheney says flatly that Obama's weakness encouraged Putin to trample into Ukraine and seize Crimea.

(Cheney, at least, had the grace to admit Putin was equally willing to ignore the George W. Bush administration in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia).

Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, seemingly oblivious to Russia's energy power and the billions Western businesses have at stake, wants Obama to "dramatically" increase sanctions against Russia.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk meets with U.S. Senator John McCain in Kyiev on March 15. Yatseniuk later travelled to Washington for a meeting with Obama at the White House. (Andrew Kravchenko / Reuters)

Actually, Republicans are suggesting a whole range of spankings for Putin, none of which, one suspects, will fundamentally alter his behaviour.

They include expulsion from the G8; a much expanded version of the West's sanctions against Putin's officials (and Putin himself); installation of missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic; arming and training Ukrainians; increased U.S. energy exports to Europe, etc.

What Republicans don't say is the obvious: voters here don't have the bottle for more bloody foreign expeditions of the sort Obama's predecessor launched.

That's why Obama hesitated and sought congressional approval to attack Syria last year for its chemical weapons use, knowing Congress would probably have voted no.

Nor are Americans, most of whom still believe this country remains in recession, very interested in expending more trillions of their dollars abroad.

A recent Pew Research Centre poll suggests that 56 per cent of Americans think it best to minimize involvement in Ukraine, as opposed to 29 per cent who want more aggressive confrontation with Russia.

Barack Obama is probably not headed for the title of great or beloved president. He is not overtly emotional enough to engender such affection.

But suggesting he's a nervous weakling is foolishness; this is a president who greatly intensified the previous administration's secret foreign warfare, and the man who ordered Osama bin Laden's assassination in Pakistan.

To explain his reluctance to aggressively confront entire foreign regimes, Americans should probably look first to themselves. 

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.