Of course the president had to address the nation on Sunday evening, from the Oval Office no less. In The New York Times, Michael Barbaro and Trip Gabriel had noted that the Republican presidential candidates had him cornered:
The Republican candidates for president angrily demanded on Friday that the United States face up to a new world war, one that has breached its borders, threatened the safety of Americans and brought the menace of Islamic terrorism deep into the homeland. With striking unanimity, they accused President Obama and his fellow Democrats of shrinking from a long-overdue assault on the Islamic State and its frighteningly effective tools of global recruitment…
“Our nation is under siege,” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said at a cafe in rural Iowa. “What I believe we’re facing is the next world war. This is what we’re in right now, already.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas seethed with disgust for Democrats, declaring, “This nation needs a wartime president.”…
Their language was almost apocalyptic. Jeb Bush described the looming threat of “Islamic terrorism that wants to destroy our way of life, wants to attack our freedom.” He gravely added: “They have declared war on us. And we need to declare war on them.”
The Times item also noted that Hillary Clinton was stunningly out of step with what the Republican presidential candidates had sensed, perhaps rightly, reading between the lines of the Times item, was the mood of the nation:
As the Republicans spoke of the deadly shooting by a Muslim husband and wife as a clarifying moment, Democrats seemed to offer a more muddled response… In Sioux City, Iowa, on Friday, Hillary Clinton spoke not of war but of the need to ferret out “those folks who are on the Internet radicalizing people” and called for fighting “terrorist networks” from the air and from the ground, avoiding the phrase “Islamic terrorism” and urging sensitivity toward Muslims.
The implication was that saying such things now is practically giving the presidency to the Republicans in 2016, and that angered Steve M at his No Moore Mister Nice Blog:
Oh, I see – she “called for fighting ‘terrorist networks’ from the air and from the ground” but “spoke not of war.” How does that work exactly? Oh, right – I guess she called for aerial bombardment and boots on the ground but SHE DIDN’T SAY WAR! It’s sort of like not saying “radical Islam” or “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic extremism” or “radical Islamic terrorist extremism” or whatever magic phrase Republicans insist that Democrats utter to prove they’re not appeasers. (Gabriel and Barbaro also retransmit Republican that talking point, saying that Clinton was “avoiding the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ and urging sensitivity toward Muslims” in Sioux City.)
Steve M sees bias, but that’s just reporting. She made what she saw as a sensible point, and a second Times item from Patrick Healy also reports that while voters seem to be looking for a tough candidate, Hillary Clinton is fine with them:
While Mrs. Clinton denounced Mr. Trump last week for “trafficking in prejudice and paranoia,” she is calibrating her own gung-ho style of leadership to people’s insecurities. She has proposed more aggressive actions in Syria – like imposing a no-fly zone and ordering more airstrikes – than Mr. Obama has taken. And while some voters see Mr. Obama as weak because he is unwilling to risk American troops and avoids blunt language like the Republican catchphrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” Mrs. Clinton is open to more Special Operations troops in Syria and has been using the phrase “radical jihadism” to try to counter the buzzwords of the right.
Ah, the phrase “radical jihadism” is close enough for these folks, who don’t really need the formal name of the religion invoked by these folks. They get the general idea. That will do, and Steve M adds this:
It seems likely that terrorism is going to be one of the main issues of this election, so if we want to keep Trump, Cruz, or Rubio out of the Oval Office, given all the damage they can do in so many areas, it might be necessary to have a Democrat who’s widely seen as bellicose as the nominee. You can tell me that the Democratic electorate will show up and guarantee defeat for the Republican no matter who the nominee is, the evidence being that Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the last five presidential elections, but the one recent presidential election Democrats didn’t win was the one in which there was the greatest fear of terrorism. I don’t want 2016 to be a repeat of 2004.
But Healy comforts him:
Many Democrats now say they believe that Mrs. Clinton would be a more formidable commander in chief than any of the men running in either party…
“I get the sense that Hillary hates backing down, that she really believes in fighting, and I think our enemies would realize that she would make life harder for them,” said Darlene Nulk, a teacher and Democrat in Lee, N.H. …
In a poll released last week, Quinnipiac found that among Democrats, 94 percent saw Mrs. Clinton as a strong leader.
Okay, fine – she can be as mean as Margaret Thatcher – Hillary might invade the Falkland Islands or something – but that doesn’t help Barack Obama at the moment. Steve M points to the curious detail in the Healy item that captures Obama’s problem:
“Get off my plane,” growls the president of the United States to a terrorist hijacker in the 1997 movie Air Force One, before snapping the enemy’s neck and shoving him out the cargo door.
Triumphal music swells. The good guys have won. And no less than Harrison Ford has shown what a president can do if he is Han Solo and Indiana Jones rolled into one.
With the Islamic State suddenly rivaling the economy as their top concern in recent polls, many voters are looking for wartime strategies from the 2016 presidential candidates. But after seven years of a cerebral President Obama, there is no denying that some also want a leader who radiates gutsiness and a take-charge resolve. Not simply the “strong leader” that pollsters ask about, but someone who makes them feel safe on a visceral level.
Older voters point to Ronald Reagan, standing up to the Soviet Union. Others find inspiration in film, America’s dominant cultural form, and the grit of a Bill Pullman in Independence Day or a Jamie Foxx in White House Down. No one expects a president to be an action movie star, but anxious voters want a leader who will go to courageous lengths to protect the United States against attacks like the ones in Paris on Nov. 13.
Healy writes, “No one expects a president to be an action movie star,” as if voters wish for that but are mature enough to realize it’s impossible. However, the voters he quotes convey the impression that an action-hero president is precisely what they want.
That is what Healy reports:
“In scary times, you want heroes as presidents,” said Barbara Hovland, the Republican chairwoman in the Mason City area of Iowa. “Who doesn’t want a president who can take care of himself, his family and the country at the same time, like Harrison Ford did? When Donald Trump said recently in Iowa that he would cut off the heads of ISIS, the crowd went wild.”…
“We need someone who understands that ISIS is 10 times more dangerous than Al Qaeda was,” said Dean Nason, a Republican in Wakefield, N.H. “Movie presidents make you feel good.”
That’s the problem Obama faced on Sunday night, although Matthew Yglesias framed the problem this way:
Members of Obama’s national security team have been wrestling with how to respond to a San Bernardino-style scenario for a long time now, as I understand from conversations with them dating back to long before those events or the earlier shootings in Paris or Colorado Springs. The problem isn’t that these attacks are uniquely damaging to the United States, but that they’re uniquely difficult to respond to in any way that isn’t wildly counterproductive.
Many senior administration officials at this point are part of the permanent national security apparatus, but the core group of real “Obama people” has a surprisingly dovish self-conception, where they see themselves operating in a world in which demands for military intervention are constant and endless— from the media, from congressional Republicans, from foreign governments and their allies in Washington, and from the permanent security bureaucracy itself – but America’s actual ability to engage in non-counterproductive interventions is quite limited.
That, in turn, guarantees that we will never get Han Solo and Indiana Jones rolled into one:
The Oval Office address represents Obama’s best effort to meet the psychological needs of a frightened nation under attack while sticking on a policy level with a restrained policy that Obama recognizes is emotionally unsatisfying but that he regards as offering the best chance for success.
In short, what works feels wrong:
The real nightmare is what comes next. We saw in Paris that firearms attacks lead major newspapers to leap toward declarations like “war in the heart of Paris” (la guerre en plein de Paris) and “this time it’s war” (cette fois, c’est la guerre) that are, of course, reminiscent of the post-9/11 declaration of a “war on terror.” But a war against whom? And with what purpose in mind?
No one knows:
Public policy wars are at times metaphorical (war on poverty, war on drugs) but given that terrorism is a matter of hard security, a literal military war is clearly what the media and the political system desire. But it’s far from clear that extended control over physical territory abroad is necessary for orchestrating violent acts in Western cities.
That’s why Obama keeps saying that drawing more Western troops onto Muslim soil appears to be one of ISIS’ objectives:
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.
Yglesias sees how that traps Obama:
The attack in San Bernardino was new and horrifying. But the problem of ISIS is not new. The previous American policy – airstrikes, training, diplomatic work in Syria, no big ground troop presence – was already the policy that Obama thought most likely to succeed. A new attack appears to require a new response, but there is no new response that Obama thinks makes sense.
The problem is that inaction seems like a political impossibility.
There’s no way out:
When these shootings are carried out by lone wolves, America responds by arguing for a few days about gun control and then moving on. But a mass shooting perpetrated by a suspect – or several suspects – with known ties to international Islamist terrorism would, politically speaking, demand a more robust response.
A situation like the one above would demand a response that – like the invasion of Iraq – would almost certainly be counterproductive. It would be a violation of the “don’t do stupid shit” principle that constitutes a more profound national security doctrine than Obama is given credit for. After all, whether an attack comes tomorrow or next week or next month or next year, the US government is already well aware of the threat posed by ISIS.
If there were any ideas for countering it that the White House thought made sense, the administration would be executing them already. But an actual attack on US soil demands that we “do something” – something that would already have been rejected as unworkable or counterproductive.
And that makes the whole thing unpleasant:
This line of thought lead some in the White House to conclude that the hardest problem in US counterterrorism policy was in some ways as much a speechwriting challenge as anything else. How do you sell the American people on the idea of not really doing much of anything new in response to an attack?
That is a hard sell, but that was the sell:
President Obama sought on Sunday to calm jittery Americans after the terrorist attack last week in California, delivering a prime-time address designed to underscore the government’s campaign against an evolving threat. Speaking from a lectern in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama acknowledged the heightened fears that followed an attack by a married couple last week in San Bernardino, Calif., which he called an act of terrorism that appeared to be inspired, but not directed, by members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“It is clear that the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization,” Mr. Obama said, referring to Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. “So this was an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people.”
Mr. Obama promised an intensification of airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and said that a growing coalition of nations and an increasingly sophisticated effort to capture and kill the group’s leaders would yield significant results.
But that was it:
“We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” Mr. Obama said, adding, “That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.”
Fine, but the only specifics for us were these:
He called for tougher screening of travelers who come to the United States without visas and asked Congress to ban gun sales to people on the government’s no-fly list, and for limits on assault weapons.
“I know there are some who reject any gun safety measures,” Mr. Obama said. “But the fact is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies – no matter how effective they are – cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual is motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology. What we can do – and must do – is make it harder for them to kill.”
Well, that’s something, but then he slipped in a metaphor that sums up one way of seeing this:
“And I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure,” Mr. Obama said. He added, “The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it.”
Frame this as a disease that requires careful and precise and probably lengthy treatment if there is to be any hope of remission and you don’t go to war with the almost two billion Muslims in the world, almost three million of whom are loyal American citizens, and many of whom serve in our military, willing to die for this country, their country. He did mention that too, but the reaction was swift:
Republican leaders and presidential candidates panned and mocked the speech. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan called it “disappointing: no new plan, just a halfhearted attempt to defend and distract from a failing policy.”
Donald J. Trump, the leading Republican candidate for president, posted on Twitter: “That all there is? We need a new President – FAST!”
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said Mr. Obama “offered no changes to his reactive, indirect, and incremental strategy.” Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and a Republican presidential candidate, said: “This is the war of our time. It should not be business as usual.”
Obama did, however, anticipate that:
“It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim-Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.”
Right, but even the George Bush crowd saw the real problem:
“We all want the president to do more and all feel he should do more, but the nasty truth is that doing more will further embed us in that region,” said Rick Nelson, a former counterterrorism official in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Juan Zarate, another counterterrorism official in Mr. Bush’s administration, said Mr. Obama’s basic problem was that his message until now – that the United States was making progress against the Islamic State, and Americans should feel safe – seemed contradicted by the recent spate of Islamic State-inspired attacks.
“If you’re making progress, terrorist threats shouldn’t be appearing on your shores,” Mr. Zarate said. “This threat seems to call for war, but that’s exactly what Mr. Obama does not want to do. It’s a real dilemma.”
And what’s the alternative? Slate’s Fred Kaplan offers this:
In the past, Trump has said he would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. Senator Ted Cruz one-upped him this weekend, telling a crowd, “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion,” adding, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” Do these candidates know what they’re saying? Is Cruz really threatening to drop nuclear bombs in the Syrian Desert? It’s not as if ISIS is camped outside towns, away from populated cities, and it’s not as if the residents of those cities are all members of ISIS or at war with us. By comparison, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who advocates sending 20,000 American ground troops to Iraq and Syria (a position that almost no one supports, including Trump, Cruz, or anything close to a majority of congressional Republicans), seems moderate.
So we got the “not really doing much of anything new” speech:
Obama doesn’t have dramatic answers. The last few lines of his speech – “We are on the right side of history” and “Freedom is more powerful than fear” – are clichés. Hegel and Marx notwithstanding, history has no juggernaut momentum; it has no right or wrong side. And while freedom is certainly nobler than fear, there have been many moments in history when fear has been a more powerful impulse.
But no one else, least of all the likes of Trump, Cruz, and Graham, has any dramatic answers either.
Obama has laid out a road. Critics who have never been dealt hard questions on the subject soon reveal that their road doesn’t look very different. Some have called the war against groups like ISIS a “long war.” There are no magic bullets or buzzwords.
That doesn’t seem to matter now according to Marco Rubio:
The Florida senator appeared on Fox News to respond to the president. He used the term “radical Islam,” which Republicans criticize Obama for not using. He also said Obama is “overwhelmed.”
“People are scared not just of these attacks but because of a growing sense we have a president who is completely overwhelmed by them,” Rubio said.
Rubio also said “homegrown violent extremism is the most significant and dangerous development in this entire war on terror because they become undetectable.”
And there’s Ben Carson:
The former pediatric neurosurgeon, who has struggled with foreign policy, offered no details on what he would do but through his communications director called the president’s speech “strange.”
“President Obama’s declaration tonight that his policies are working was strange. Strange that it took four days from the attack to respond and even more strange that somehow the attack on our soil is proof his policies are working. One must wonder who has contained who,” Doug Watts said.
And there’s Jeb Bush:
The former Florida governor tied the president’s address to Hillary Clinton.
“President Obama has finally been forced to abandon the political fantasy he has perpetuated for years that the threat of terrorism was receding. We need to remove the self-imposed constraints President Obama has placed on our intelligence community and military, and we need to put in place an aggressive strategy to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism as I have proposed. Unfortunately, neither he nor Hillary Clinton has the resolve to put in place such a strategy,” he said.
And what would that be, and how would that work? Talk is cheap. Fixing actual problems is harder, as Jeb’s brother discovered. And fixing hard problems is often not compelling or heroic. It’s just getting the job done. Yes, movie presidents do make you feel good, but they don’t make you any safer – and those who want us to feel good could get us all killed.