By all means, let’s destroy Islamic State, but let’s talk about it first.
We are in a very strange place right now. President Barack Obama is rushing into a war he doesn’t want to fight. He can barely bring himself to call it a war.
Obama didn’t merely ignore the threat of Islamic State for the better part of a year, he ridiculed the notion the terror group was anything but a “jayvee team.” Now suddenly, he wants to go to war.
Sort of. The administration has struggled with the W-word. The president had to try several times to articulate a coherent position, working through terms like “degrade,” “destroy,” “manage,” etc. Last week, the secretary of state insisted that “war” wasn’t just the wrong term (he preferred “counterterrorism operation”), but it was wrong even to analogize this new military action to war.
That’s pretty remarkable given the Democrats’ comfort with analogizing pretty much everything else to war. We are through the looking glass when it is OK to say that opposition to requiring elderly nuns to pay for birth control is part of a “war on women” but airstrikes and coordinated ground attacks by allied militias aren’t like a “war” on terrorists.
By the end of the week the administration had made a fragile peace with the word “war,” but it’s unclear whether Obama has made peace with war itself. According to a report by the New York Times’ Peter Baker, the president feels he’s being pushed into a war — or counterterror operation — on a timetable not of his choosing because of the sudden shift in public opinion in the wake of the beheadings of two Americans.
Obama reportedly said that if he had been “an adviser to ISIS,” he wouldn’t have killed the American hostages. Instead, he would have released them with a note pinned to their chests reading: “Stay out of here; this is none of your business.” If only the terrorists had done that, the president seemed to be saying, I wouldn’t be stuck with this mess.
While I’m not sure I want the commander in chief spending a lot of time thinking about how Islamic State can improve its PR strategy, he’s probably right. The president is defensive about criticism that he’s too cautious. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.”
I’m unaware of anyone criticizing the president for being careful. He’s been criticized for being wrong, vacillating and inconsistent. Regardless, if he feels this way, why is he rushing to war?
There are any number of things that could go wrong with his strategy. We could end up becoming a “Shiite air force,” unwittingly doing the bidding of the Iranians. Obama wants to support the Free Syrian Army, but in August he called it a “fantasy” that the rebel group could become an effective fighting force. What if August Obama was right and September Obama is wrong?
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” Obama said last week in his address to the nation.
For Obama, a successful counterterrorism strategy is one that simply saves him from having to talk about terrorism. That’s the approach that led to the rise of Islamic State. As for the “success” in Yemen, on Monday the Wall Street Journal reported: “Scores of al-Qaida militants have moved into Yemen’s capital Sanaa in an attempt to exploit swelling political unrest and destabilize the government.”
No wonder a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds that 62 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s actions against Islamic State, but 68 percent have very little or just some confidence it will succeed.
With so little confidence in the commander in chief, shouldn’t the president call in political reinforcements? What about the last decade should lead any American, Republican or Democrat, to trust Washington to get something like this right in a hurry?
I’m rarely on the side of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but it’s right to want a clear, standalone vote on war. It’s debatable whether the president needs one constitutionally (I think he does), but politically it’s a no-brainer.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a columnist for Tribune Media.