Unfortunately for the president, our muscle memory expected something, anything, that might convey strong leadership in a crisis. Obama is now a victim of the paradox embedded in public attitudes on foreign policy and identified recently by the author Robert Kagan—that Americans may prefer a lesser role in the world, but they aren’t proud of it.
The president’s challenge for the next couple of years is to convince the public that he doesn’t actually want a reduced American role in global affairs, just a reduced military role. Indeed, Obama will likely need to dramatically increase the American diplomatic presence in the region, especially when it comes time—as it likely will—to carve up Iraq.
This will be seen at first as an embarrassing salvage operation, if not an outright defeat, because Obama can’t get away from our idealized notions of strength. There’s a big gap between the Gary Cooper image of our presidents that we carry around in our heads and what they can reasonably do in a messy, post-Cold War world.