Going into this Labor Day weekend, we either have a serious terror crisis on our hands, or we can calm down and just sit on our hands. Watching the wildly different official reactions out of Great Britain and the United States, there isn’t much room in the middle.
For British Prime Minister David Cameron, the ISIS threat is severe enough, and spreading far enough, to warrant hiking the terror threat in his country from “substantial” to “severe.” That means that UK authorities believe a terror threat is “highly likely.” And it’s based on pretty much the same intelligence Washington has in its hands, but President Obama all but dismissed it when he briefed reporters on Thursday.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Obama said. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
The White House later clarified the president was only talking about a military strategy for Syria, not ISIS in general. But for Texas Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert, the damage was done, and not easily un-done.
“He has never had a good strategy,” Gohmert told me on my Fox News show. “I think a lot of us would be willing to have a declaration of war against radical Islam, including Al Qaeda, ISIS, ISIL, all of these splinter groups.”
But the president isn’t doing that, nor are his measured responses indicating anything close to that, or any action whatsoever. By signaling he and his top strategists are still assessing the threat, the president’s tepid response now stands in stark contrast to that of our most loyal ally. To hear some terror experts tell it, the different reactions are as scary as they are startling.
“Either ISIS is a big threat or it’s not,” one former high-ranking intelligence official told me, “and frankly, I’d rather be on the side of being vigilant than wishy-washy.”
That’s what makes the marked divergent strategies between security officials here and in Britain so noteworthy. One side seems genuinely alarmed enough to put their people on notice, and the other not nearly enough to indicate to their people so much as a plan. As corporate crises go, not exactly corporate textbook examples for consistency.
All this, of course, could be to the president’s benefit, if it turns out the ISIS threat is more worrisome for Iraq and Syria, than it is for the U.S. and Britain. Still, appearances count for a lot, and White House critics say the president promising to come straight back to the White House this weekend after a Friday fundraiser in Rhode Island, do little to comfort them.
But former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge tells me the right appearances do count for a lot. Being engaged, and staying engaged matters. Ridge fears the president looks just the opposite, “almost as if he doesn’t care.” The “No Drama Obama” style might lower the heat, but Ridge fears it might give the appearance to our enemies that we might not have a clue.
It’s anyone’s guess how ISIS is playing this. For now, it’s done little to stop its parade of YouTube videos showing captured Syrian soldiers marching to their deaths, or an American journalist beheaded for the world to see. As Gohmert put it, ISIS is playing the media, and the White House is confusing the media.
That’s why in times like these, few crisis experts see any benefit in playing things so safe, or reacting so passively. Corporate strategists insist you can never go wrong getting in front of a crisis, even if it risks overreacting to one. The most often cited example is Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) at the time of the Tylenol poisonings back in 1982. Although the company was not to blame for a lone nut tampering with its product and injecting cyanide into scores of its pain reliever capsules, J&J wasted little time addressing the crisis. It removed all Tylenol capsules and packages from store shelves across the country, and at great expense, refunded all consumers for all purchases, even for packages un-opened. It also replaced all capsules with the tamper-proof caplets that have become commonplace today.
But all that started with J&J’s aggressive response to what even authorities at the time thought was a contained and limited tragedy. In fact, the company moved so dramatically and so swiftly that J&J’s share of the pain reliever market actually soared – as much a recognition for its quick response as its obvious spare-no-expense commitment to safety.
It’s too early to say Obama will have his J&J moment. Some fear it might already be too late.
The irony may be that the very different responses out of Washington and London have collectively only “added” to the global terror angst – that if the good guys can’t be on the same page, then what?
Perhaps we’ll know soon. The far bigger fear for the time being, is that Western leaders couldn’t be further apart. Terrorists might enjoy such dithering, but it’s safe to say average folks who fear those terrorists…do not.