President Barack Obama faces pressure from a number of different directions as September 11 and the planned burning of the Quran at Dove World Outreach Center draw closer. It can be assured that no matter what response he chooses, that response will face strong opposition. Because many of his previous actions can be interpreted in terms of which fear controlled the response, it is informative to look at the pressures he will be facing in this situation and how fear when facing those same pressures has controlled his past behavior:
The Muslim label The Islamophobic and racist tea party movement has succeeded in convincing thirty-one percent of registered Republicans that Obama is a Muslim, while prominent Republicans are doing little to combat that perception.
It could well be that fear in the face of this pressure of being labeled Muslim was behind his backtracking on his initially strong statement in favor of the Park51 project to build a mosque in lower Manhattan.
Endangering the troops With General David Petraeus now clearly stating that if Dove World goes through with the burning, it will place US troops at a higher level of danger, Obama faces intense pressure to intervene against the burning to avoid the charge of needlessly endangering the troops.
Note that it was this exact charge of endangering the troops that led to his reversal on the release of torture photographs in May of 2009.
Soft on terrorism Terry Jones and his supporters are making the claim that the burning of the Quran is a courageous and defiant act in the face of the Islamic extremists who have organized multiple attacks against the US.
It could well be that fear of being labeled soft of terrorism is one of the factors that has led to Obama allowing it to be public knowledge that a list of people targeted for killing has been drawn up by the US.
The Constitution Recall that as a Presidential candidate, Obama often touted his experience as a constitutional law professor. Reprehensible as they are, Dove World’s actions in burning the Quran fall within First Amendment rights of free speech.
However, note that in quashing the release of the torture photos, Obama was acting in direct contradiction to a court order, so in that case at least, the fear of being accused of endangering the troops overcame any fear he had of accusations that he violated the Constitution’s separation of powers. [cont’d.]
Not Pragmatic It would seem to me that biggest fear controlling Obama’s actions is that of being labeled as not pragmatic. Obama’s claim to pragmatism is what allows him to take positions that are so wildly at odds with what would be expected of him based on his campaign promises or what would be expected from him as a Democrat or constitutional law professor.
I’m a big fan of the writing of Terry Pratchett and happen to be reading “Guards! Guards!”, which he wrote in 1989. In a particularly prescient moment, Pratchett delivers this bit of dialogue from Sergeant Colon of the Watch, speaking to Corporal Carrot, who has been citing law to him:
“Don’t you keep quoting all that sort of stuff,” snapped Colon. “We don’t have any of them laws anymore! That’s all old stuff! It’s all wossname now, Pragmatic.”
The result? It simply is not possible to give in to each of these fears on the issue of the Quran burning, since they dictate opposite responses in some cases. The fear of endangering the troops argues for direct intervention to prevent the burning but works in opposition to the fear of being labeled Muslim, which would argue in favor of letting the burning proceed. The Constitution also argues in favor of allowing the burning to proceed, as does the fear of being labeled soft on terrorism.
Note that so far, the highest level Obama administration official to speak out against the burning is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama will be forced to go on the record soon, both in words and in action. But whatever course of action and words Obama chooses, rest assured that he and his fans will characterize his position as the most pragmatic response.