Obama’s Initial Reaction to Brussels Bombings: Right Decision, Poor Optics

As soon as the terrorist bombings took place in Brussels, President Obama’s many critics demanded that he immediately terminate his state visit to Cuba and abandon the rest of his trip to Latin America. Instead, Senator John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz, and other GOP luminaries insisted the president should return immediately to Washington and go into crisis mode with his national security team. President Obama firmly refused to do so. Instead, he continued his trip as scheduled. That afternoon, he attended a baseball game with Cuban President Raul Castro, and then completed the Cuba leg of his journey with a joint statement and press conference before leaving for Argentina.

In terms of substance, it was the right course of action. Too many members of America’s political elite, as well as the news media, hype the terrorist threat to absurd levels. Pundits and politicians even have a tendency to compare the severity of the threat posed by such groups as ISIS and Al Qaeda to the dire menace to global peace and American security posed by the likes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and they warn that we are on the brink of World War III or perhaps are fully engaged already in that conflict. It is a nonsensical comparison. ISIS and similar nonstate actors do not even come close to constituting such an existential threat. 

Instead, radical Islamic terrorism poses a limited threat roughly akin to that presented by radical anarchists in the second half of the nineteenth century. To allow ISIS to disrupt an important presidential visit to Latin America, a crucial and often neglected region in U.S. diplomacy, would have accorded the terrorist group an importance it does not deserve. The news media makes a similar error when it gives every terrorist incident seemingly endless coverage for days or weeks. President Obama sent ISIS a clear message that he would not play into their hands in that fashion this time.

However, the president’s handling of the optics surrounding his decision was extraordinarily clumsy. It would have been one thing to have been in unspecified “meetings” or “discussions” with U.S. or Cuban officials. Additional meetings with key members of the new U.S. embassy staff in Havana could certainly have been arranged at the last minute. But attending a baseball game in his shirt sleeves with Castro, relaxing and enjoying the Cuban sunshine, while the bodies of the victims in Brussels were still cooling, presented a horrible image. It was simultaneously frivolous and insensitive. 

And, unfortunately, that is the image that most people both in the United States and abroad will remember about President Obama’s initial reaction to the events in Brussels. Naturally, his critics pounced and portrayed the action as another manifestation of a feckless foreign policy. The reality is that it was the correct substantive response, but one that was ineptly executed.