We can't shake it. Like the flu—no, like posttraumatic stress disorder, memories of wiretapping, waterboarding, and a war of false pretense in Iraq cling to the nation's consciousness. Called again to confront a threat in the Middle East, Americans keep tripping over the baggage of George W. Bush.
In 2003, we trusted. Not again. The president vowed retribution against terrorists who slaughtered Americans. The Defense secretary and secretary of State spoke of imminent threats. The intelligence community leaked word of Americans-turned-terrorists and sleeper cells. Those actions echo today, but Americans are of a different mind—not nearly as credulous, or as willing to fight.
President Obama is a living reflection of this psychological context. Uncertain and contradictory, Obama is grasping for the right mix of hawk and dove to rally Americans, unite the world, and confront ISIS without locking the United States into another unholy mess.
God bless him. It's a hellish task. Obama's lack of clarity so far has drawn criticism from the across the political spectrum, including from me (here and here). Two loyal readers remind me by email, and for different reasons, that Obama needs time to get this right.
The first comes from somebody well-informed about the intelligence community, and who requested anonymity. He doesn't like the sound of war drums.
What you're seeing right now is a weird combination of hawks, who legitimately want military action, and people who are indifferent to war but who are otherwise critical of Obama. And this coalition is drumming up support for a war that, like Iraq in 2003, is not underpinned by strong intelligence.
The criticism of Obama's leadership is, on this issue, a head fake. You're a Civil War guy. You know who was a strong decisive leader? General Burnside. He led the charge into Fredericksburg and it was a catastrophe. But nobody criticized his ability to lead.
This isn't the only reader who suspects my columns are a head fake, which means I haven't made myself clear. First, the commander in chief is already fighting: More than 120 airstrikes against the Islamic State is war. Second, I honestly don't know precisely what other action is required, and welcome the president's deliberative approach to figuring that out. My criticism is based on rhetoric that suggests that Obama may not be taking ISIS seriously enough, and that creates a dangerous perception that he is fumbling, indecisive, and weak. Perceptions matter—although not as much as what, in the end, Obama actually does. I wish I had more faith in the intelligence community. My reader friend says he's been assured ISIS is not an immediate threat.
But the question of whether something is a threat to the United States is the wrong question. There are a lot of threats, every day, around the world. The better question is something more like, "Is the threat imminent, will taking decisive action actually alleviate the threat, and is it worth the consequence?"
The dirty secret in all of this is, we don't do everything in our power to alleviate threats. We just don't. And that's a good thing.
For instance: Is a nuclear Iran a threat to the United States? Sure. But is it immediate? Probably not. That's why we are taking other steps—negotiation and sanctions, for instance—as opposed to launching airstrikes on Tehran.
Are bombs aboard airlines a threat? Yes. Could we alleviate that threat by banning all checked luggage on airlines? Absolutely. Could we alleviate the threat by banning international shipments of anything weighing more than 5 pounds? Yes. But we don't, because it isn't worth the consequence of bringing global commerce to a halt.
ISIS is a classic Washington story: It's a shiny thing. We have awful videos. "What is the president going to do about it!?" But, really, when it comes down to what has been done to Americans, what's the difference between ISIS and, say, AQIM? Both took and killed American hostages. Hell, AQIM took 800 hostages at a gas facility. Why isn't anyone pressuring Obama to be decisive on Algeria? Or Boko Haram? Whatever happened to #bringbackourgirls? What's Obama's plan on Nigeria?
I can deal with Washington bullshit, fine. But a lot of the criticism seems like a veiled way of saying, "Show some balls, Obama, and take this country to war!"
I'm not saying ISIS isn't a threat. I'm saying I want the actual reporting to flesh that out. And so far, it hasn't yet. A decade ago, we all hopped on the bus so the White House could take us to war. Now it seems like maybe we're driving the bus.
From a second reader, a keen observer of American power, comes a different perspective: Unlike Bush's folly in Iraq, this may be a necessary fight.
I think that Obama is cautious because he lives in a nation where everyone is absolutely certain they have the moral high ground, so to appeal to his constituency he tries to come across as adult, centrist and wise in the "I'm seeing all sides" sense.
The problem is, the Islamic State is not a seeing-all-sides kind of moment. It's not Hamas. It's not the Iranian clerics. It's not the madrassas of Pakistan. I do not believe much is pure evil, but I believe that ISIS comes quite close. This is one of those times when America absolutely needs to be the moral compass. The problem is, America has shot its moral-compass load in the past 15 years with Abu Ghraib and waterboarding and Guantanamo and the Patriot Act and NSA wiretaps, so it's harder for Obama to be That Guy than it used to be pre-Bush.
I ramble, but I think you get my general point. Now the trumpet summons us again.
A columnist should never admit uncertainty, but here's mine: I'm not ready to side with the hawks or the doves. These readers remind me that the problems in the Middle East (not to mention Ukraine) are layered, and that all Americans share responsibility with Obama. We need to know more. We need to listen to each other, and learn from one another. We need to hear Obama's strategy. For now, I just hope.
I hope that Obama makes and explains his response to ISIS in a way that, unlike Bush in 2003, is proved to be strong, moral, and lasting. I hope that Americans can still conduct an honest and fierce debate, and then unite behind our president. I hope we're not merely "a nation where everyone is absolutely certain."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.