Is Vladimir Putin the new leader of the free world?
All we currently know is that the job seems open, and that Putin has seemingly sent in his resume, showing openness to the idea of an anti-Islamic State alliance with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
For contrast, see Barack Obama's demeanor while talking to the press at the end of an international summit meeting in Turkey on Monday. "Mr. Obama sounded weary and defensive as he repeatedly rejected criticism of his yearlong strategy ... to combat the Islamic State," reported The New York Times. Criticism of his strategy has intensified amid the general horror over the Friday night massacres in Paris.
Previous world gatherings held against such a backdrop would have finished with a show of unity and faith -- participants pledging solidarity with the leadership of the United States. Not this time.
The most that Barack Obama seemed able to promise was that "we have the right strategy and we're going to see it through," without any further troop commitments, and without really doing anything new or different. The president seemed put out with the skepticism of any who might hope for more than promises and self-administered back pats: some record, for instance, of promises kept in the past; some stepped-up action aimed at destroying ISIS' military capabilities.
Back home, the media and the Democrats -- assuming there's any difference between the two -- are usually happy to back up the president who promised we could keep our doctors and our insurance plans if we liked them, and may have meant it for the two seconds it took to say so. But it's harder to ignore the amateurishness of the supposed "leader of the free world" in the context of an international calamity.
France's president declared the Paris attacks to have been "an act of war." On Monday he directed airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria.
America's president -- the heir of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, to name two early predecessors in the job of free world headship -- can't come up with an emotion more honest than irritation. The outcomes never quite match up with the rhetoric he deploys, yet he's frustrated that anybody might consider him weak, ineffective or irresolute.
At a dangerous and inflammable moment in world history, the president of the United States reminds us he doesn't understand how to be president of the United States.
Barack Obama, it seems, has a condition that makes him confuse words with deeds. He thinks it suffices that he opens his mouth. There probably is a name for that affliction, but it need not detain us. The larger need -- at a moment when Vladimir Putin seems a more promising foe of the Islamic State than does Barack Obama -- is to steer the presidential campaigners toward serious consideration of what it means to lead the free world. That's assuming we once again acquire the title.
Of the three Democrats still in contention only Hillary Clinton looks as though she might conceivably understand the dimensions of the problem -- the dimensions, but not necessarily the means of achieving a solution. Her husband might help her in these respects.
The Republicans are saddled for now, in front-runner terms, with an Obama-like self-promoter and a doctor who, though mettlesome, doesn't seem overburdened with knowledge about foreign affairs. Marco Rubio seems genuinely to understand the world's need for American leadership, as does Jeb Bush. Either man could probably step up convincingly to the plate and begin to win back respect for American competence.
The key is recognizing that France's President Francois Hollande is on the right track. France is at war. France's allies, the United States among them, are therefore involved in a kind of war new in its global scale and its perpetrators' mercilessness. If George W. Bush failed to grasp fully the implications of a full-dress war on terror, Obama has gone to the opposite extreme, pretending all we have to do is give peace a chance. Yes. The kind of chance a slumberous city was giving it last week when out of hell popped the devil.