There are variations aplenty to the old yarn of the three umpires — they are at home plate, they are on the mound, they are in a bar — but the essentials are the same: Waxing poetic about their respective philosophies, the first umpire says, “I call ’em like I see ’em.” Says the second, “I call ’em like they was.” Says the third: “They ain’t nothin’ till I call ’em.”
One can hardly envy umpires, required as they are to deal with spitting players, booing fans, and Phil Wellman. But luckily for President Obama, umpire-in-chief of American foreign policy, he does not have to confront the weighty epistemological questions of balls versus strikes. In fact, his Wednesday-evening address to the nation required only one call: Are we at war? But the president hedged. He seems to assume it ain’t war till he calls it.
The evidence of the president’s magical thinking is clear: We are going to “degrade” the Islamic State and — cross our fingers — “destroy” it, he said in his speech. It will be a “counterterrorism campaign” to “eradicate a cancer.” Not war. Just really aggressive chemo.
Then there is John Kerry, toeing the line: “War” is the “wrong terminology” for American actions against the Islamic State, he told reporters on Thursday. This is “a very significant counter-terrorism operation.”
And this is, of course, not the first time the administration has had trouble with the W-word. Dethroning Qaddafi in Libya was not a war; it was a “kinetic military action.” Other martial imagery is to be avoided: Movement of Russian soldiers and materiel into Ukraine? An “ongoing incursion”; definitely not an “invasion.”
In the president’s defense, these situations must be terribly awkward, what with Alfred Nobel staring disapprovingly in bas-relief from the president’s Peace Prize. But it’s the job of the umpire to make the call — and in this particular case, the call is obvious.
The president believes that if he does not say that we are at war with the Islamic State, we aren’t. But the Islamic State is most definitely at war with us. As Charles Krauthammer said on Special Report, “When an organization slits the throats of two Americans on international television — deliberately, provocatively, as a way to humiliate the United States — they have declared war on us.” Any clear-thinking American would agree. Sometimes you do not get to choose whether you are at war; your enemy chooses for you.
Consider an alternative course: Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” He was Umpire No. 2. He called ’em like they was. So did Franklin Roosevelt. We could have denied that we were at war with the Japanese, but they were undeniably at war with us. Notably, Reagan and Roosevelt both won their wars. No doubt clarity about the nature of the fight assisted the effort.
War is, as Sherman said, hell. It is also necessary — not because you choose so, but because the other guys do. It is astonishing that after six years in office, receiving daily reminders that America has unyielding enemies who are relentlessly on the move, constantly searching for bigger and better ways to maim, cripple, and kill New Yorkers, Angelenos, and everyone in between, “the smartest guy ever to become president” remains unconvinced that his words do not define reality, that things happen outside of his ordination — that we can end up at war regardless of his say-so.
For Barack Obama, perception and reality have always been equivalent. No doubt he thinks he weighs less when he wears black. But the Islamic State is not going to happily beat their swords into plowshares just because President Obama refuses to learn war anymore. The options are clear: Destroy the Islamic State, or be destroyed by it.
You can call it a war or not call it a war, Mr. President. But the only one you’re fooling is yourself.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.