The Magazine

‘We Don’t Have a Strategy Yet’

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” President Obama told the American Legion’s annual convention in Charlotte on Tuesday, August 26. He repeated the thought in his pre-Labor Day weekend press conference on August 28. A week before, the day after the murder of James Foley, Obama had remarked, “From governments and peoples across the Middle East there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread.”

Obama in a Tan Suit

NEWSCOM

These expressions of alarm at a malignant cancer in the Middle East are an improvement over Obama’s cavalier dismissal, earlier this year, of ISIL as the junior varsity of terrorists. But salutary alarm doesn’t automatically result in sound policy. And—not to make a mountain out of a metaphor—Obama’s comparison of the Islamic State to a cancer doesn’t give one confidence that he’ll come up with a sound policy.

Here’s the problem: Cancer is a disease. The Islamic State is an enemy. There’s a difference.

Cancer develops, as it were, naturally. We counter it as best we can through human art and invention. Medicine or surgery sometimes succeeds in checking the disease and even freeing the body of it. But a terrorist movement does not develop naturally. The Islamic State was brought into existence by certain human beings acting according to a certain intention, an evil and destructive intention to be sure, but an intention nonetheless. To counter the Islamic State—to defeat it—we need to grasp and frustrate and overcome our enemies’ intention. Treating cancer is a task for surgery. Fighting the Islamic State is a task for strategy.

But, as President Obama acknowledged in his August 28 press conference, “We don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with the Islamic State. That’s kind of unfortunate. Especially because an American president who was serious about marshaling and mobilizing the elements of national power behind a strategy for victory could, we suspect, defeat the Islamic State more quickly and more easily than President Obama thinks. But President Obama doesn’t have such a war strategy because he still doesn’t want to accept that we’re at war. He believes, after all, that “the tide of war is receding.” So even when he deploys some of the mechanisms of war, he does so hesitantly, defensively, and haphazardly. To organize for war, to articulate a strategy, to commit to victory—all of this would make the Obama presidency a war presidency. But being a war president doesn’t comport with Barack Obama’s self-image. And for Barack Obama, self-image trumps reality.

Sometimes Obama acknowledges the reality that human agency is, so to speak, behind our troubles abroad. But even so, his formulation of what we should do is oddly passive. For example, after saying to the American Legion that “rooting out a cancer like ISIL won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” Obama continued: “But tyrants and murderers before them should recognize that kind of hateful vision ultimately is no match for the strength and hopes of people who stand together for the security and dignity and freedom that is the birthright of every human being.” It would be nice if tyrants and murderers recognized all kinds of things. But they tend not to. And exhorting them to do so tends not to have much effect. That’s why we need to defeat tyrants and murderers. That’s why we need to achieve victory over our enemies. Yet the words “enemy” and “victory” nowhere appear in Obama’s remarks after the murder of James Foley, nor in his American Legion speech, nor in his August 28 press conference.

Neither The Weekly Standard’s imprecations nor reality’s ministrations are likely to lead Barack Obama to become the war president we deserve. But in America we’re not governed by one man alone. We have public officials who take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and who have a responsibility not just to the president but to the public. We have a Congress elected by the citizenry. We have an opposition party. We have members of Barack Obama’s own party who could discover minds of their own. And we have men and women of ambition who seek to succeed Barack Obama in the presidency.

All of them have a role to play in making the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency better than it would otherwise be. Obama believes in leading from behind. These other American leaders can form a parade of which Barack Obama can bring up the rear. And they can lay the groundwork for the arrival of a new president who will lead from the front.

The effort to limit the damage of the Obama presidency won’t be easy. Recovery from the Obama presidency won’t be quick. But what that is worthwhile has ever been quick and easy?

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