Judging by the way he holds his cards so close to his vest, President Obama must be an awfully good poker player. Halfway through his second term, and few observers can claim to know with any precision exactly what he thinks about critical matters of war and peace.
Or what he might do if push came to shove, an eventuality he appears entirely determined to avoid.
Obama often appears disdainful of the theatrical aspects of the presidency. He avoids playing dress-up. No aircraft carrier landings or make-believe ranching for him. Pretty much all the time, the president carries himself as the middle-aged husband, father, former law professor and professional politician that he is. He avoids confrontation whenever possible.Even Obama's closest aides, it appears, often can't tell what he's thinking.
A while back, the president explained to "CBS This Morning" why arming "moderates" in Syria's civil war was a bad idea.
"When you get farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad," he said, "the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy."
Then soon afterward Obama asked Congress for $500 million to arm and train "appropriately vetted" Syrian rebels.
So was the president craftily calling Republicans' bluff, as he'd done by asking Congress' permission to bomb Bashar al-Assad's regime in 2013? Permission Obama didn't really want and knew he couldn't get, given public resistance to yet another Middle Eastern war.
If so, why repeat the gesture? Could Obama be hearing footsteps, as they say in the NFL? That is, listening to the rising chorus from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to Darth Cheney that wants a manly, decisive president who's more enthusiastic about starting wars?
Indeed, before that drunken cast of characters under Putin's sponsorship shot down a Malaysian passenger jet in eastern Ukraine, murdering 298 innocent civilians, it had become common to hear GOP partisans wish we had a president more like the virile Russian.
Dowd even wrote a snarky column about Obama the girly-man based on a remark he'd made about hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy instead of more masculine (to Dowd) three-run home runs. She appeared not to grasp the metaphor: Like baseball, foreign policy requires patience. Nobody can hit three-run bombs unless somebody gets on base.
The problem, of course, is that foreign policy isn't poker, football or baseball, and it has a definite theatrical aspect. Perceptions of character have a way of becoming reality; the perception of weakness can become the most dangerous reality of all.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.