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Vail Daily column: Leaders improvise

Jack Van Ens

Critics mistakenly assumed President Obama was caught flat-footed when the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIS or ISIL, blitzkrieged unchecked across Syria and northern Iraq. Caricaturing the president as a bumbler in Middle East foreign policy, they said he admitted as much in late August. President Obama then declared that the U.S. would ramp up a military response to the Islamic State’s attacks but had to wait because “we don’t have a strategy yet.”

Now, it’s clear why the president didn’t plunge ahead militarily against the Islamic State jihadists. He wanted to form an Arab coalition to fight its common enemy—the Islamic State. Moreover, the president agreed with House Speaker John Boehner’s (R., Ohio), caution in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt. Although the president possesses power on his own to order airstrikes in Iraq, “it’s questionable whether he has the authority to do this in Syria,” said Boehner.

The president favors making the United States a team player in combating the Islamic State, rather than plunging into war through unilateral military strikes and then, as an afterthought, recruiting allies.

What President Obama’s critics fail to understand is that he improvises foreign policy to meet emerging needs. He uses flexibility to deal with the Middle East’s radical insurgents who are resilient, even when pushed back. The Islamic State loses a battle here, sucks up a defeat there, and returns to rape, murder and pillage.

President Obama doesn’t always lead from the front. Nor does he believe our military muscle can knock-out every enemy. When Middle East chaos erupts, the president deliberately deals with it. He refrains from imposing a rigid scheme on every military front.

His creative intelligence molds foreign policy to meet expected challenges. The president doesn’t rely on sound bites to express military solutions. He’s not easy to pin down because he doesn’t think in black or white categories, which his critics on Fox News habitually use. President Obama’s thinking is more nuanced. He improvises in the gray areas of foreign policy.

Few presidents have honed the art of improvisation more effectively than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR “bemused associates by gliding over even the most glaring contradictions in policy,” observes New Deal historian Michael Hiltzik, “as a skater glides over the ice” (The New Deal: A Modern History, p. 194, 2011).

FDR’s opponents, who favored consistency over improvisation, told of one advisor who leaned on Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential campaign to choose between opposing statements on a tariff policy. Roosevelt rocked him back on his heels, telling the aide to “weave the two together.” Improvisers split the difference, shuffle the deck of options, and cut deals. This is the practical way democracy works. Each side gives a little and finds common ground.

Roosevelt improvised with impending New Deal legislation before occupying the Oval Office. In May 1932, he gave a commencement address at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, a month prior to being selected presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention. FDR told graduates, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Historian Hiltzik applauds FDR for his ability to adapt strategy when situations change. “Roosevelt could do so because for him, ideological purity did not rank very high as a political virtue. He was determined to address the immediate crisis with whatever tools came to hand” (p. 194).

Roosevelt’s advisor Raymond Moley colorfully described how FDR’s New Deal legislation offended Republicans who were leery of improvisation. “To look upon these policies as the result of a unified plan,” wrote Moley “was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.”

Predictably, Republicans advocated consistency to settle constant flux in foreign policy. They reamed Roosevelt for lacking it. His White House predecessor Herbert Hoover bitterly complained that Roosevelt was a con artist who changed policies on the fly, describing him as a “chameleon in plaid.”

Feisty Republican House Representative Claire Booth Luce, wife of Time magazine’s co-founder, distrusted Roosevelt unpredictable policy shifts. She pointed to public figures whose iconic gestures identified them, such as Hitler’s up-raised arm and Churchill’s fingers forming a “V” for victory. Luce wetted her index finger and held it up to shifting political winds, as she decried FDR for doing.

Unpredictable conflicts that erupt in the Middle East have complicated histories and defy neat remedy. Trying to box them into patterns is a fool’s fantasy. When haphazard events occur, wise leaders don’t rush in to the fray. They take some time to delve into various alternative strategies. Such leaders improvise when events change. They don’t methodically follow a blueprint.

Walking at a deliberate pace doesn’t mean losing one’s way. Such strategy weighs options, measures alternatives and checks impulsive military strikes.

President Obama, like FDR, improvises. He devises effective foreign policy that deals with the radical jihadist Islamic State.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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