Obama the Analyst

In his speech about ISIS, the president shows the strength and the weakness of his logic-driven approach.

Pool Photographer / Reuters

Sunday evening’s speech about terrorism distilled what people like, and don’t, about President Obama’s leadership style. I liked the logic he laid out and the realities he tried to convey. But I understand that the aspects I found most impressive will seem the biggest weaknesses to some other people.

From my point of view, the crucial fact about the speech is that Obama understands how terrorism works, and how its effects can best be minimized and blunted.

Note “minimize,” rather than eliminate. There are evils and forms of damage that societies can reduce, without imagining that they can be brought to zero. In the 50 years since Unsafe at Any Speed and the 35 years since the debut of MADD, traffic death rates have gone way down. But still nearly 100 Americans die each day in crashes. In the 50+ years since the Surgeon General’s report, smoking rates have gone way down. But every day, nearly 500 Americans die of lung cancer. Similarly societies work to drive down the rates of murder, domestic violence, and other evils, knowing they can’t fully eliminate them.

The same is true of terrorism. No society, not even a fully totalitarian state, can guarantee that all its members will always be safe against a renegade bomber, shooter, knifer, etc. Protection and resilience, yes. Perfect safety, no. In any society, some terrorist attacks will succeed, and people and leaders need to steel themselves to that fact, and decide in advance how they will react to inevitable failures and outrages , so as to avoid vastly magnifying the terrorists’ effects.

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This distinction matters because of the fundamental logic of terrorism. The damage attackers do is never through the initial attack itself. That is true even for attacks as profoundly damaging as those on 9/11, or as brutally inhuman as the most recent ones in Paris or San Bernardino. The attacks themselves, even the most grievous, are the feint.

The gravest damage always comes from the response they evoke, from what the target society does to itself  when attacked. The United States lost thousands of its own (and other countries’) people, and hundreds of billions of dollars, on 9/11. It lost incomparably more—in lives, treasure, values and integrity, long-term strategic harm—through the self-inflicted damage of deciding to invade Iraq. Thus the goal of an attack is only incidentally to kill. Its real ambition is to terrorize—to provoke, to disorient, to tempt a society or government to lose sight of its long-term values and interests. (The most famous example is the way the assassination of two people, in Sarajevo, ended up triggering a war in which great empires came to their end and tens of millions of people died.)

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie just before the assassination in Sarajevo that eventually led to World War I. (Wikipedia)

You can read the full-length version of this argument in a cover story I did nearly 10 years ago. It’s a logic that is fully accepted, even obvious, within the anti-terrorist world. And the logic is embedded in what Obama said just now. For instance (emphasis added):

We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That's what groups like ISIL want. They know they can't defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq, but they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.

In other words, the United States does its best to prevent these horrible attacks. But when it fails, as sooner or later any society will, it should be brave and sane enough not to compound the problem by going crazy.

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Obama’s lucidity about confronting an evil, and working strategically against it without taking its bait, is something I greatly respect in him. But this same bloodless-seeming logic is the trait that led to the post-speech complaints about his coldness, his dispassion, his inability to offer something new. If you like him, you see his self-possession as a sign of temperamental maturity. If you don’t, you see one more sign of his “weakness” and “failure.” I don’t know whether Obama might sound different if he had to run again. I’m guessing not; this is his nature. (Update: See Matt Yglesias on a similar theme. Also see this informative Tweet-stream by Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times, and this assessment by Fred Kaplan of Slate. I had not seen any of these when writing my item and am glad to see that we’re making complementary points. Michael Tomasky also makes good points about the different audiences the president was addressing, and about the importance of his challenge to Muslim Americans to speak up more actively on the anti-ISIS front.)

I recognize that, for all of Obama’s rhetorical gifts in certain situations (for instance, his “Amazing Grace” speech after the Charleston massacre), he may not be the ideal messenger for this message of strength-through-reserve. Some hypothesized other leader—maybe FDR? maybe Lincoln?—might be able to sound fierce and passionate and resolute—“strong,” in the language of the cable-TV commentators—even while presenting policies as disciplined as Obama’s. To put it another way, Obama’s real message boils down to: Our plan isn’t very good, but it’s the least-damaging one available. He presented that as a grim, logical reality. Maybe someone else could make it sound uplifting. Maybe.

But if I have to choose between a leader who follows the sane course, though sounding grim about it, and a leader who sounds peppier while rolling the dice on policy, I’ll take the first. That was the man we heard tonight. Since politics and leadership are only partly about logic, others will choose otherwise.

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Two extra points.

Congressional accountability. President Obama made the following point almost in passing, but it is of fundamental importance:

Finally, if Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists. For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of air strikes against ISIL targets. I think it's time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united and committed to this fight.

As a matter of small-r republican virtues, the United States now has the worst of all worlds: members of Congress either calling for, or warning against, military actions, without putting themselves on the line with a vote. There is no way to force Congress to face an issue it wants to avoid. But at least reporters could press the main presidential candidates to say how they would vote (and ask the Senators why they’re not advocating one).

Stagecraft: The podium-in-front-of-a-desk staging for the speech was flat-out bizarre. Mercifully, the camera’s framing soon closed in to make it look as if it were an ordinary podium speech. But in the initial wide shot, and in photos like the one at the top of this post, you had two visually familiar elements—the Oval Office itself with its iconic Resolute desk, and the presidential-seal lectern—combined into a weird centaur- or turducken-style hybrid.

I can understand the president’s preference to speak while standing rather than seated, and also his desire to speak from the Oval Office. But this was a compromise solution that I am confident we will never see duplicated. This doesn't “matter” in any substantive sense, but it was a noticeable enough departure from past practice to bear mentioning.