How Obama Should Deal With Bullies


President Obama is getting beat up pretty bad lately — from the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who are testing his foreign policy moxie. Also from much of the press, world opinion and national polls, for not standing up to the above, and for projecting a sense of weakness from the leader of the world’s most powerful nation.

One problem is that our president appears to have a Hamlet personality, thoughtfully questioning his every option, when many of us want him to project Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, the leader of the free world in the TV drama “The West Wing,” a man of intellect and integrity who is not afraid to use military force when necessary. (Not to mention that he negotiated a peace deal between Israel and Palestine in 2005.)

The trouble is Obama is living in the real world, not one scripted by Aaron Sorkin, and he is finding that his adversaries don’t play by the rules. They lie, they cheat, they crave power and they are murderous in their intentions and actions. Tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden was a major victory for Obama, but events have escalated, and deteriorated, since then.

How should the president respond to ongoing foreign threats when he, understandably, would prefer to focus on domestic issues rather than overseas crises? What’s more, he has learned all too well the limits of U.S. military intervention abroad — more than a decade in which we have lost thousands of brave soldiers and trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan with precious little to show for it.

Now the president is trying to solve both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s drive for nuclear arms on a self-imposed timetable that is almost up, while dealing with a surprise power grab by Putin in Ukraine.

Anyone with simple answers to such complex problems is either foolish or unrealistic, or both. Perhaps Obama should ignore the pundits and political critics and seek advice from psychologists on how to handle bullies. After all, bullying has become a major focus of national attention in recent years, with plenty of wise counsel directed toward parents in helping their children cope at school or in social situations, be they in real life or on the Internet.

Some of this advice could be helpful to our commander in chief. In fact, he may well have followed the first rule about being confronted with bullies, which is to avoid them if you can.

Certainly when it comes to the Syrian crisis, with Assad killing more than 100,000 of his own people in a civil war now entering its fourth year, Obama did his best to look the other way in terms of calls to support the rebel forces. He argued that, given the nature of those forces, which includes al Qaeda-affiliated operatives, there was real danger that weapons provided by the U.S. would fall into the wrong hands. But doing next to nothing proved to be a moral and strategic disaster. His big chance to help would have been at the outset of the crisis, before the Syrian protests against Assad involved violence. By the time he reneged on his own “red line” last fall, backing off military action in response to proof Assad was using chemical weapons, it was clear the U.S. was, as Mideast policy expert Aaron David Miller described it, “risk-averse rather than risk-ready.”

Two other recommendations from bullying experts appear contradictory. One is: “Stand tall, be brave and send the message ‘don’t mess with me.’” The other is: “Avoid fighting back, it might be dangerous.”

But the latter is based on the assumption that the bully is bigger and stronger than you. How does the advice apply when the one being poked and tested represents the ultimate in power and resources?

Let’s leave that an open question for now, and see what other advice is offered.

Psychologists counsel youngsters to “feel good about yourself” and “get a buddy to be a buddy.” Obama seems to have a healthy ego, and he has been trying to encourage the leaders of the European Union to work with him on several fronts, with mixed results. They have been on board for strong economic sanctions against Iran, in a U.S.-led effort, but more resistant to get tough with Putin, the supplier of a significant percentage of their oil and gas.

As for “learn self-defense” and “outsmart the bully,” our president certainly is trying to heed those recommendations, mindful that “if you do what bullies say, they will keep bullying you.” But it’s not so simple. For example, Obama has made the case that it is best to try the diplomatic route in preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons because, if talks fail, the world will see that he tried and subsequently support him if he decides to use military means to thwart Tehran’s goal.

That’s fine, as far as it goes, but Israel, Saudi Arabia and others in the region are increasingly convinced that Obama will never launch another U.S.-armed action in the Mideast. And in Moscow, Putin has watched Obama step back from the brink, most recently in Syria, and pursue talks with Iran even when its president boasts of outsmarting the West while continuing Tehran’s nuclear program — as well as its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran’s terror proxies in Lebanon and Gaza.

Which brings us back to the two pieces of anti-bullying advice that are at odds: “Don’t mess with me” and “Avoid fighting back.”

Obama has employed both, talking tough but not following through with significant action. It isn’t working because Khamenei, Assad and Putin don’t believe Obama will do much more than step up his rhetoric, and maybe increase sanctions that fall short of reversing their plans.

It’s a mean, nasty world out there. I truly empathize with Obama and appreciate his desire to focus on problems on the home front. But the conflicts abroad aren’t going away; they’re escalating. And if he doesn’t deal with them effectively, it will be the home front that is threatened next.

That’s because bullies know when you’re bluffing, and they only back down when they’re convinced you mean business.

Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 “Between The Lines” columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as “the Jewish rabbi’s son” in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details. 

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at