Commentary Magazine


Dodging Shoes, One Year Later







What a difference a year makes when it comes to breaches of presidential security. Oh, how the world laughed when an Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at President Bush during a news conference in Baghdad on December 14 last year. The episode in the waning days of the Bush administration was catnip for the chattering class: an aptly ludicrous finale for a presidency that smug critics had lampooned at every opportunity.

 

Yet when a genuinely comic security lapse occurred nearly 12 months later—the invasion of a White House state dinner by a couple apparently bent on the shabby fame of reality TV—the same folks who guffawed at the Baghdad shoe-throwing episode fretted about the potential threat to President Obama. A congressional hearing was quickly convened for the airing of much worried tut-tutting.

 

But the difference-a-year-makes goes beyond the remarkable disparity between how the two unscripted presidential incidents played out. A moment during Bush’s interrupted press conference that received little attention at the time is looking more and more interesting these days. When Muntadhar al-Zaidi hurled his shoes, one after the other, at Bush, the president ducked slightly, holding his place at the podium. A man off to Bush’s right who appeared to be a Secret Service agent—or maybe it was a former Marine in business attire—started to rush to the podium, clearly intent on protecting the president in case worse was to follow. At that moment, in that place, who knew what the shoe thrower’s outburst might have presaged? But before the agent had moved more than a step or two, Bush, watching Mr. al-Zaidi being subdued, made a subtle motion with his right hand: stop. The agent froze and backed off. The press conference continued.

 

Bush’s gesture—hold steady, let’s not get flustered—was emblematic of a presidency marked by the strength of its resolve and its steadiness under fire. Bush was not always served well by that unswerving quality, most notably in his vow to “stay the course” with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s ill-judged military strategy in Iraq. But Bush’s overall determination to win in Iraq also meant that he would embrace the troop “surge” that turned the tide. No world leader, no member of Congress, and no member of the news media carping from the sidelines could doubt that President Bush was resolute in his thinking and would stand firm.

 

A year later, we have a president whose trademark is the flinch and the cringe, the bow and the scrape. When Russia objects to antimissile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, Obama cancels them. When the Dalai Lama inconveniently arrives in Washington before the president’s trip to China, Obama ducks him. When anti-theocracy protesters in Iran beseech the West to show its support, the president coughs and glances at his watch. Obama seems to suffer from an almost reflexive nervelessness: when presented with almost any foreign dignitary other than Queen Elizabeth, this president so reliably bows at the waist that he is starting to resemble one of those top-hatted drinking-bird toys. (By contrast, Bush’s dip to avoid being hit by the shoes in Baghdad may have been the closest he ever came to bowing to anyone during his presidency.) On Obama’s trips overseas, his apologies for America’s supposed transgressions are so incessant that even his European fan base must be tempted to tell him enough already.

 

The reaction to his speech on Thursday in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize indicates how little we have come to expect from this president: by simply stating the obvious—that some wars, like, say, the one stopping the Nazis, need to be fought—he earned plaudits from critics (and gasps from his base) as a newly muscular commander in chief.

 

A more telling sign of Obama’s inclinations in military matters was his handling of the troop increase in Afghanistan. “Today I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this marks the conclusion of a careful policy review,” Obama said . . . in March. Since then, of course, once the president had in place the general he wanted and found out how many troops General Stanley A. McChrystal was seeking, Obama suddenly decided that the careful policy review hadn’t reached its conclusion after all and that coming up with a new-new comprehensive strategy might be a good idea.

 

The president’s December 1 announcement of his new-new strategy, with fewer troops than McChrystal requested, was remarkable even by Obama’s twitchy standards: the plan came with a built-in, time-release flinch: a July 2011 withdrawal schedule for the troops. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates seemed to suggest in a subsequent Senate Armed Services hearing that the July 2011 beginning of the drawn-down wasn’t necessarily firm, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, at the prompting of a CBS reporter, quizzed the president directly and reported back that the date was in fact “etched in stone.” Not good news for critics who think that it’s a bad idea to tell the Taliban that the military campaign in Afghanistan has a sell-by date, but at least the “etched in stone” line suggested some heretofore undetected presidential backbone.

 

Turns out the date is etched in sandstone. Apparently sensing that criticism of the certain deadline was gaining traction, the White House quickly deployed Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Sunday talk-show circuit to emphasize that “July 2011” might sound specific but it’s more of a guideline.

 

If all this makes you think wistfully back to a year ago, when the White House was a comparative bastion of decisiveness, you might also wonder: Whatever happened to that shoe tosser? Al-Zaidi went to jail for nine months and was released in September. Last week in Paris he held a news conference—which was interrupted by a protester who threw a shoe at him. Media reports indicated that the man was an exiled Iraqi journalist who supported U.S. policy in Iraq and accused al-Zaidi of defending dictatorship.

 

Throwing a shoe at violators of the president’s security ring sounds like a promising idea. Maybe the next time fame-hungry party crashers show up at a state dinner, White House social secretary Desiree Rogers will have the presence of mind to break away from posing for photographs, reach under her Comme Des Garcons gown, pull off a high heel, and let fly.

 

 

 

 

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