Trash talk isn’t football, but the fans love it. It’s often better than the game – some mean-looking chemically enhanced monster of a guy will say those other guys are pathetic punks, and call out a few by name, and say they’re going to get beat so badly they’ll hang their heads in shame, crying for their mommies, if they’re not carried off the field on stretchers, unconscious. It’s a tactic. The first step in establishing total dominance is to create some sense of uncertainty in those you wish to dominate – at least that seems to be the idea – but it never really works. These are professional football players. They do what they do – no one is going to “get inside their head” when the task is clear, and a task they have performed many times, refining what works and what doesn’t. Talk is talk, but then trash talk does get people in the seats or avidly watching every moment on television, and the replays too. The league won’t stop the trash talk. It’s simply great marketing, and it’s free.
Muhammad Ali may have started this. Before each fight he would playfully explain how he was going to dismantle and embarrass his opponent – he’d float like a butterfly and sting like a bee or whatever. These pronouncements were often alliterative and ironic on many levels, and sometimes infuriatingly subtle. He opponents could only master a resentful scowl, because they were befuddled and now a bit uncertain – boxers are not very facile, generally, and they don’t like thinking much. If they did, they wouldn’t be boxers, and that was the trick here. Ali’s odd words were his first actual punches. They were going down.
Now we’re used to trash talk, this marketing tool and sometimes useful tool of dominance, useful if the other guy does laugh in your face, and then offer his own more clever trash talk. Trash talk has become a tool of diplomacy, or always was a tool of diplomacy. In the late fifties, Nikita Khrushchev sneered at the decadent capitalist west and said he would bury us, or communism would bury us, or something. That didn’t work out. We didn’t quake in our shoes, but it was worth a try, and it was great marketing for his product. Unfortunately, his product was defective. It happens. Pro football players know that all too well, and maybe diplomats and world leaders know that too. Trash talk is useful, if done well, and our current troubles with ISIS (or ISIL) are caused by their trash talk. They have themselves a real caliphate, and they’re going to take over the world, and bury us. Their particular trash talk also comes with visual aids – the beheadings and the stonings and crucifixions, slavery, and that business of taxing those who refuse to convert to Islam, or killing them. That’s been rather effective. They got inside our heads, even if there’s no way they’ll bury us. We now wonder if they really could take over the world. They spooked us. They pulled a Muhammad Ali on us.
That calls for trash talk back, right at them, and President Obama, in Estonia on NATO matters, decided to give it a go:
President Obama vowed on Wednesday to punish the Sunni militants whose videotaped beheadings of two American journalists he said had “repulsed” the world, saying the United States would lead a regional and international coalition to beat back the terrorists.
“Our objective is clear, and that is: degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States,” Mr. Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He was speaking at a news conference here on the eve of a NATO summit meeting in Wales, as pressure built for him to articulate a broader military strategy to take on the ISIS militants.
“It’s not only that we’re going to be bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible crime against these two fine young men,” the president said. “The United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision” the group represents.
And they’ll go running home to their mommies, if they’re still alive, but many assumed that Obama was just blowing smoke, because he’s just not a trash talking kind of guy:
Mr. Obama’s strongly worded statement came after he drew criticism from allies and foes last week, when he said that he had not yet developed a strategy for confronting ISIS in Syria.
The damned guy is still carefully working on a comprehensive strategy when he should be in the face of these ISIS jerks. He should tell them off, so he did. A comprehensive strategy would be nice too, but trash talk matters. Tell them they’re going to lose. You can figure out how to make that happen later. Many were happy that Obama at least came up with some matching in-your-face trash talk. That’ll worry them.
It won’t, and ABC News points out that this wasn’t even very good trash talk:
President Obama has condemned the beheading of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff, saying “we will not be intimidated … justice will be done.”
But he offered a mixed message today about what exactly the United States wants to do about ISIS.
At first, the president offered what seemed to be an unambiguous goal. “The bottom line is this: Our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so it is no longer a threat,” he said.
That would be an expansion of what the president and top White House officials have said previously. They have steadfastly avoided saying the goal of U.S. policy is the destruction of ISIS, instead citing more modest objectives: protecting Americans, protecting Iraqi infrastructure, stopping a humanitarian disaster, etc.
But when ABC News Radio White House correspondent Ann Compton today asked the president to clarify whether the United States now wants ISIS destroyed, the president seemed to significantly backtrack.
“Our objective is to make sure they aren’t an ongoing threat to the region,” he said.
Then it got even worse:
“We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.”
Making ISIS a “manageable problem” sounds like a far cry from destroying it.
Obama is just no good at this. He’s no Muhammad Ali. He’s no Nikita Khrushchev. Paul Waldman explains the problem:
President Obama responded to the videotaped murder of journalist Steven Sotloff by ISIS, saying, “We will not be intimidated,” and “Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists.” This more confrontational rhetoric suggests that an acceleration of American military action will not be long in coming. If ISIS was hoping to draw that military response by killing Americans and disseminating the acts in videos, it looks like they’ll be getting their wish.
At the same time, however, members of the media (and conservatives, of course) were jumping all over Obama for another line: “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.” The sin here was apparently the word “manageable.”
That’s not a word that should ever be used in diplomatic trash talk:
If Obama had said, “My plan is to go over there and punch Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the face, whereupon all his followers will disappear in a puff of smoke and we’ll never have to worry about them again,” he would have been praised for being “tough.” But because he is acknowledging that dealing with ISIS is going to be a complex process that will play out over an extended period of time, Obama will get pilloried.
You’re supposed to say, “I’ll crush ’em, and it’ll all be over in a week.” And history shows that this is exactly what the American public wants. The kind of overseas involvements that maintain strong public support are those that end quickly, with an emphatic victory. This isn’t going to be one of those, which means that in the court of public opinion, Obama is all but doomed.
Obama is doomed as Fox News reports:
The remarks are likely to sow confusion on Capitol Hill, and possibly among allies.
“Are we going to contain ISIS or are we going to crush ISIS? And the president has not answered that,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told Fox News, reacting to the president’s remarks.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., in a written statement, criticized the president’s “mixed messages” on the Islamic State. “The time to stop and destroy ISIL is now,” he said.
Speaking Tuesday night on Fox News, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Islamic State has “got to be destroyed” and claimed the president does not yet have a strategy to implement that.
Waldman reminds us that we’ve seen this before:
The ridiculous hand-flapping over the fact that Obama used the words “manageable problem” in relation to ISIS is reminiscent of the 2004 presidential campaign. John Kerry suggested that the “war on terror” wasn’t something that would end with a victory parade, instead saying the best-case scenario was to reduce terrorism to the point where it no longer required a constant war footing and public panic. “As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling,” he said. “But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”
Naturally, everyone in the media screamed “Gaffe!” and George W. Bush’s campaign immediately turned it into an attack ad. In all ended for the best, because Bush won reelection, and by the time he left office in 2009, there were no more terrorists anywhere in the world and the tactic of killing civilians to achieve political ends had vanished from the earth forever.
There’s the trash talk before the game and then there’s the game itself. Those are two different things, and Waldman argues we get that two confused:
It’s clear that neither the media nor the public has much tolerance for military undertakings that are complicated, lengthy, and have uncertain outcomes. If you look back at public opinion in past conflicts, what you see is that there’s usually strong support at the outset, particularly if it seems like the objectives are clear and everything will be concluded quickly. The trouble is that with a couple of exceptions, that’s not how things turn out. If we can wrap up the little war in a week or two, as with Grenada or Gulf War I, then approval remains high. But the longer it goes, the more public support degrades over time, as it did on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Of course, a lengthy war is in most cases one that isn’t going swimmingly, almost by definition. But the nature of ISIS – a well-funded group spread out over a wide geographic area – means that defeating them (or reducing them to a manageable problem) isn’t something that could be accomplished with a couple of weeks of bombing, unless you also wanted to kill a few million of the people we’re trying to save from them in the process.
That means there’s only one way this will play out:
Obama will increase our military involvement beyond the limited air campaign now going on. He may get a temporary rush of approval as everybody gets excited about a newly kinetic engagement, even though Republicans will say that whatever he’s doing is weak, and if he was stronger than we would have already defeated ISIS. But even in the best-case scenario, one involving the Iraqi government getting its act together, the conflict will stretch out over a long period of time. The public – and the press – will lose their taste for it, regardless of whether alternatives might have produced worse outcomes.
Yeah, but only sissies consider alternatives, and Peter Beinart examines that idea, in relation to an op-ed by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who want the alternative to careful strategy, which is action, right now, which may not make sense:
One reason Obama isn’t bombing in Syria yet is that he’s not clear on what the goal would be. McCain and Graham are. “ISIS,” they write, “cannot be contained.” Why not? Hasn’t the U.S. been containing al-Qaeda – ISIS’s estranged older brother – for more than a decade now? But the two senators don’t pause to explain. “It must be confronted,” they declare. What does that mean? If the U.S. is bombing ISIS in Iraq, aren’t we confronting the group already?
McCain and Graham later clarify: The goal is to “defeat ISIS.” Excellent – how do we do that? 1) “It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis.” OK, Obama just toppled a prime minister in service of that goal. But there are those decades of dictatorship, brutality, and sectarian slaughter to overcome. 2) “Mobilize America’s partners in a coordinated, multilateral effort.” OK, but those “partners” – which include pro-Muslim Brotherhood regimes like Turkey and Qatar and anti-Muslim Brotherhood ones like Egypt and Saudi Arabia – are jockeying fiercely with one another for influence across the Middle East. Not to mention the fact that they don’t listen to us all that much anymore. 3) Bring “an end to the conflict in Syria.”
How do we do that? Who knows? But we should do that, right now. Beinart doubts we can:
Last year, when George Washington University’s Marc Lynch surveyed scholars of civil wars, he found that “most contributors are … deeply pessimistic about the prospect for ending Syria’s civil war any time soon” because “Syria has among the worst possible configurations [of any civil war]: a highly fragmented opposition, many potential spoilers, and foreign actors intervening enough to keep the conflict raging but not enough to decisively end the war.” McCain and Graham don’t explain how to overcome all this. They simply note, in passing, that defeating ISIS will require ending Syria’s civil war. It’s like writing an op-ed that demands the United States “defeat” climate change and mentioning that, by the way, one of the prerequisites is the elimination of fossil fuels.
Any serious proposal for expanding American military involvement in Iraq into Syria must do one of two things. 1) Explain, in some detail, how bombing ISIS will strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition rather than other Sunni jihadist groups (for instance, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate) and/or Bashar al-Assad. Or 2) explain why it’s worth bombing ISIS even if we strengthen other Sunni jihadist groups and/or Bashar al-Assad.
McCain and Graham haven’t thought this through, and Digby (Heather Parton) says anyone can see why:
McCain and Graham are talking about “optics” not strategy or policy. What they want is for president Obama to go on TV and talk about good and evil and how the oceans don’t protect us anymore and how we have to fight the bad guys and “take ’em out.” They want tough talk. They need the US to be swinging its great big stick as hard as it can because that is how they perceive influence to be properly wielded. If you are calm or thoughtful or patient, it means you are showing weakness.
We have become a trash-talk nation, but trash talk has its limits, as Slate’s Joshua Keating notes here:
ISIS may be ruthless and fanatical, but it would be impossible to expand as quickly as it has thus far without an understanding of strategy. The group’s leaders surely know that they are likely drawing the U.S. military further into this conflict and believe this is to their advantage. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, with help from the U.S. and Iran, seem to be rolling back ISIS’s territorial gains in Iraq, so the group’s best hope of remaining a viable and prominent militant group may be to go underground and continue to inflict terror on its enemies. And those enemies aren’t just American. ISIS also recently released videos showing the beheading of a Kurdish peshmerga fighter and a Lebanese soldier. Hopefully this strategy will backfire before any more hostages are killed.
Trash talk can piss off the other side, and they can just beat the crap out of you for it. When the ESPN reporter sticks the microphone in your face before the game and asks if you’re going to win, because you’re the most awesome bad-ass team that ever played the game, smile enigmatically – and then go play the game. ISIS doesn’t get it, nor do McCain and Graham, and Keating later adds this:
ISIS may believe that it can continue to demonstrate that it can strike the U.S. by executing these prisoners, and that the U.S. isn’t going to do anything about it. If this really is their thinking, they don’t have a very good grasp of history. Americans are traditionally reluctant to go to war right up until they do. Saddam Hussein didn’t think the U.S. would really attack him either.
Saddam’s trash talk may have been his worst mistake, as we learned in 2008:
Saddam Hussein let the world think he had weapons of mass destruction to intimidate Iran and prevent the country from attacking Iraq, according to an FBI agent who interviewed the dictator after his 2003 capture.
According to a CBS report, Hussein claimed he didn’t anticipate that the United States would invade Iraq over WMD, agent George Piro said on “60 Minutes,” scheduled for Sunday broadcast.
“For him, it was critical that he was seen as still the strong, defiant Saddam. He thought that (faking having the weapons) would prevent the Iranians from reinvading Iraq,” said Piro.
That’s odd. Trash talk can actually kill you, but in the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins thinks something else might be going on here:
It’s hard to watch the video of Steven Sotloff’s last moments and not conclude … the ostensible objective of securing an Islamic state is nowhere near as important as killing people. For the guys who signed up for ISIS – including, especially, the masked man with the English accent who wielded the knife – killing is the real point of being there. Last month, when ISIS forces overran a Syrian Army base in the city of Raqqa, they beheaded dozens of soldiers and displayed their trophies on bloody spikes. “Here are heads that have ripened, that were ready for the plucking,” an ISIS fighter said in narration. Two soldiers were crucified. This sounds less like a battle than like some kind of macabre party.
If so, then whatever we say, however thundering and intimidating and righteous it might sound, might not make any difference at all. They’re not marketing this new caliphate that will bury us all – many of them are westerners who don’t know much about Islam at all. They’re just having fun, but that’s not the right word. Josh Marshall has another way of saying that:
Throughout the Cold War, there was a set place for Westerners who wanted a total opposition to liberal democracy and capitalism – either communism (though the appeal of Soviet-style communism waned in the second half of the Cold War) or the various strains of revolutionary socialism that emerged during the Cold War, whether it was Maoism, Cuba-inspired revolutionaries or the various left-wing terrorist groups in Europe like the Red Brigade or the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
I don’t mean to denude these movements of all their politics or portray them as mere matters of personal expression. Nor do I want to reduce Islam to its pretty tiny (though highly dangerous) ISIS-like variant. But if you wanted to say “no” to the entire edifice of capitalism and democracy and liberalism, there was a cluster of related ideologies on hand to buy into. And many did, some as personal belief, others as dilettantes, and others committing and even losing their lives.
Marshall calls this “a rage to oppose” – as good a term as any for the psychology of those looking for a cause, the more radical the better, and they’d love to trade trash talk with Obama, or the other guy:
Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday issued a sharp warning to ISIS militants, saying that after the United States is done grieving the death of two American journalists, their killers will have to answer for their actions.
“They should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” he forcefully told an audience at an event on the New Hampshire-Maine border, “because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”
Now THAT is real trash talk, but if Marshall is right, their answer to Uncle Joe would be trash talk right back at him – “Fine, let’s go there together, right now.” And Obama is the odd-man-out here. In Estonia, Obama tried that trash talk thing, perhaps because he was told he had to, but his heart wasn’t in it. He found himself reverting to his default position, realistic thoughtfulness. Waldman is right. In a trash-talk nation, such a man is doomed. We all are.