Politics & Policy

Obama’s Reluctant Rush to War

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Why should any American trust Washington to get its ISIS strategy right in a hurry?

By all means, let’s destroy the Islamic State, but let’s talk about it first.

We are in a very strange place right now. President 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 the 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 okay 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 the Islamic State. As for the “success” in Yemen, on Monday the Wall Street Journal reported: “Scores of al-Qaeda 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 the 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, stand-alone 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 fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Most Popular

Culture

Courage: The Greatest of Virtues

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Or Listener), As the reporter assigned the job of writing the article about all of Sidney Blumenthal’s friends and supporters told his ... Read More
Immigration

My American Dream

This morning, at 8 a.m., I did something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember: I became an American. I first applied for a visa in early 2011, and since then I have slowly worked my way through the system — first as a visa-holder, then as a permanent resident (green card), and, finally, as a ... Read More
U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More