Politics & Policy

What Price Are We Prepared to Pay to Keep ISIS in Check?

(Mark Wilson/Getty)

Joe Biden — who is, incredibly, vice president of these United States — took the occasion of Memorial Day to telephone the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, for the purpose of making the political equivalent of a halftime locker-room speech: “Biden assures Iraqi prime minister of U.S. support,” reported ABC News. When Biden assures you of U.S. support, it is time to update your life-insurance policy and begin quietly executing whatever your Plan B is. Let’s hope he has a good real-estate agent.

But let’s not blame poor feckless Joe Biden, the terrified rodential little man with the lingering hands and too much fondness for the word “literally,” the definition of which he does not seem to know. Yes, the vice president is an unserious man on this, as on all matters, but he is an unserious vice president who serves at the pleasure of an unserious president, who serves at the pleasure of an unserious people — us.

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Conservatives charge that President George W. Bush had effectively won the war in Iraq and that President Barack Obama subsequently lost it. This is more or less true, but some of my more hawkish friends omit the key fact: Barack Obama was elected for the express purpose of surrendering such gains as we had made in Iraq, the American people having judged the price of securing them too high. The electorate in 2008 was war-weary and, embarrassing as it is to admit, craven, and not only on the matter of our military campaigns. The electorate has come to take the Lyndon Johnson–Hermann Göring “guns vs. butter” rhetoric literally (n.b., Mr. Vice President!), as if through some transmutational property of politics we could convert the matériel invested in the long war with Islamic supremacists into subsidies for foodstuffs or, better yet, for health-insurance premiums. Senator Obama argued precisely that, and subsequent evidence suggests that he just may be daft enough to believe it.

Barack Obama was elected for the express purpose of surrendering such gains as we had made in Iraq, the American people having judged the price of securing them too high.

President John Kennedy in his inaugural address famously promised that the United States stood ready to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He didn’t mean it, of course, and neither do our contemporaries when they echo that uplifting but ultimately dishonest sentiment. The question is, What price are we prepared to pay, and what burdens are we prepared to bear, if any, to keep the so-called Islamic State from completely overrunning not only Iraq but a wide swath of the Middle East?

We might ask Lindsey Graham that question, since he is, for no obvious reason, running for president. If Graham’s performance merits a closing credit in the big 2016 picture show, it will be as “Rhetorical Tough Guy No. 1.” Example: “If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL, I’m not gonna call a judge. I’m gonna call a drone, and we will kill you.” Given the prevailing spirit of boobishness, I trust the Washington Post got that double dose of “gonna” correct.

The Obama administration has established the precedent of assassinating American citizens abroad for thoughtcrimes with no legal warrant, as in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an admittedly odious fanatic whose main crime, so far as the administration has been able to document, was blogging and gloating. But Graham takes things a step farther: Al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen, but Graham apparently is ready to dispatch drones anywhere and everywhere that jihad-inflected thoughtcrime occurs. If we take Graham at his word, then if you happen to be thinking the unthinkable at the Starbucks on Ingles Place in Seneca, S.C., President Graham is ready to send a Hellfire missile to your location.

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He’s not gonna call a judge, he says. In some quarters, that is received with something other than horror.

But of course, Lindsey Graham almost certainly is not going to be president of the United States, the sole persuasive argument for electing him being that he is a confirmed bachelor, and that there would, therefore, be no first lady, which would be a welcome reprieve from the scolding and grievance-mongering to which we have become accustomed in recent years.

#related#At the other end of the Republican spectrum is Senator Rand Paul’s “let’s you and him fight” strategy, promising the Kurds an independent nation if the Peshmerga will do the heavy lifting in the battle against the Islamic State. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for her part, argued in February that the way to fight the Islamic State was with airpower from the United States and its allies and “soldiers from the region, and particularly from Iraq,” which would be a neat trick to pull off if, come January 2017, there were no soldiers from Iraq and effectively no Iraq, an outcome that does not at this moment seem impossible.

The candidates are incoherent and their strategies are implausible because they are seeking the support of an electorate with incoherent demands, who demand victory, if they think about victory at all, at an implausible price. Haider al-Abadi may go looking for insight in Foreign Policy, but he should re-up his subscription to Sotheby’s International Realty, too, if he does not already have a retirement chalet secured. No sane man bets his head — literally — on the assurances of Joe Biden.


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