Here's a question: If Hillary Clinton becomes president, what are conservatives going to say when they want to criticize her for not invading a sufficient number of other countries? I ask because yesterday, David Brooks said on Meet the Press that Barack Obama has "a manhood problem in the Middle East." Because if he were more manly, then by now the Israelis and Palestinians would have resolved their differences, Iraq would be a thriving, peaceful democracy, and Iran would have given up its nuclear ambitions. Just like when George W. Bush was president, right?
It really is remarkable how persistent and lacking in self-awareness the conservative obsession with presidential testosterone is. Here's the exchange:
DAVID BROOKS: And, let's face it, Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a (I'll say it crudely) but a manhood problem in the Middle East: Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad, somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair. But certainly in the Middle East, there's an assumption he's not tough--
CHUCK TODD: By the way, internally, they fear this. You know, it's not just Bob Corker saying it, okay, questioning whether the president is being alpha male. That's essentially what he's saying: He's not alpha dog enough. His rhetoric isn't tough enough. They agree with the policy decisions that they're making. Nobody is saying-- but it is sort of the rhetoric. Internally this is a question.
Because Brooks is a somewhat moderate conservative who writes for a paper read mostly by liberals, he naturally equivocates a little, distancing himself from the assessment even as he's making it. Chuck Todd too trots out the passive voice, to impute this decision to nameless others. "Internally this is a question"—what does that mean, exactly? That members of the White House staff spend their days fretting about the President's manliness?
This kind of infantile conception of foreign affairs, where countries and leaders don't have interests or incentives or constraints that need to be understood in order to act wisely, but all that matters is whether you're "tough" and "strong," is distressingly common among people on the right who think of themselves as foreign policy experts.
And of course, neither Brooks nor Todd says exactly what form the manliness they wish to see in Barack Obama ought to take. Should he challenge a group of neighborhood toughs to a fight? Overhaul the transmission on the presidential limousine? Shoot an animal or two? (And by the way, a child can shoot an animal—if you want to convince me hunting is manly, I'll believe it when you kill a mountain lion with your bare hands.)
As Todd says, "it is sort of the rhetoric," meaning that the only bit of "toughness" they can imagine is rhetorical toughness. If Obama would start droppin' his "g"s, maybe squint his eyes when he's mad like Dubya used to do, and issue the occasional threat—"If you go any farther, you're gonna be sorry, pardner"—then other countries would do exactly what we want them to. Oh wait, I know what he should do: land on an aircraft carrier, then strut around for a while in a flight suit.
Back in the real world, that isn't just idiotic, it doesn't actually work. Again, George W. Bush was about as "tough" as they come by these standards, and no sane person could argue that made his foreign policy brilliant and effective.
So the next time anyone says Obama should be "tougher" or "stronger" or "more manly," they ought to be asked exactly what actions they're recommending. And if they say it's a matter of rhetoric, then the next question should be, "Do you believe that a change in Obama's rhetoric would fundamentally alter the situation in [Ukraine, Syria, wherever]? They'll probably respond, "Of course not, but…" And that's all you need to hear.