The Obama administration is behaving like a prisoner under interrogation: eventually, if unintentionally, it ends up talking most about the subjects it least wishes to discuss.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry reversed what he’d said a few days previously, acknowledging on CBS’s Face the Nation that “we are at war” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But he hated to admit that obvious truth, telling the ever-avuncular Bob Schieffer that “it was a waste of time to focus on that.”
The president finds the question even more irritating. As Walter Russell Mead notes, being criticized as a vacillating wartime leader is “getting under his skin.” Giving a dinner for foreign policy big-wigs to preview his anti-ISIS strategy, Obama complained of the portrayal in the press of “a wan, professorial president” paralyzed when brought face to face with unvarnished evil and raging bloodlust.
But the same New York Times piece that prominently featured Obama’s defense of his strategic prudence and caution also inadvertently revealed a president with what can only be called a wan and professorial grasp of war. Barack Obama is not simply horrified by the broadcast beheadings that have become the ISIS signature; he’s perplexed by them. If he’d been “an adviser to ISIS,” the president would not have staged such spectacular killings but rather released the hostages and “pinned notes on their chests saying, ‘Stay out of here; this is none of your business.’ Such a move, he speculated, might have undercut support for military intervention.”
The president is handicapped in empathizing with such an enemy. ISIS may be rash and “imprudent,” but they have plenty of purpose. ISIS leaders would no doubt prefer that the United States leave them alone, but the “support” they most covet is that of the Sunni peoples of western Iraq and eastern Syria, and the violent means ISIS employs are intended to both keep them down as well as keep us out. ISIS isn’t looking for a live-and-let-live, win-win outcome.
Increasingly, our commander-in-chief seems profoundly out of touch with the elements of human nature that nurture the origins of war: fear, honor and self-interest, as Thucydides reckoned them, with the irrational factors – fear and honor – preceding and far outweighing any rational calculation of self-interest. It’s one thing to fail to recognize, as Americans did prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, that we were at war with al Qaeda and other terror groups. It’s quite another to deny it. Waging war while pretending not to is most certainly a waste of time.