A number of maxims surround the practice of war.
The main maxim runs to this effect: When you get attacked, fight back. Unless, to be sure, you don’t care whether you win or lose — an option, to be sure, not given to American presidents and other national leaders, assuming, to be sure, they take with maximum seriousness their obligation to the security of their people and their people’s freedom.
Days after the mass beheadings of Coptic Christians in Libya, profoundly serious questions linger in the air. Does Barack Obama know what’s going on all around him? Does he have the slightest inkling?
Such questions have seemingly a sarcastic edge. No sarcasm is intended. Six years of practice seem to have left our president scratching around for clues to the meaning of all the current onslaughts against peace, order and human dignity. If George W. Bush was in many Americans’ minds a club-wielding Neolithic when it came to foreign policy, Barack Obama is in many minds a daisy-picking amateur poet, detached from the large foreign policy questions swirling around him — detached nearly to the point of indifference.
It is not possible to remember in modern times a time when America’s interests in the wider world seemed of such marginal concern to the keeper of those interests. Even Jimmy Carter, whom the cartoonist Jeff MacNelly shrewdly depicted as a traveling salesman entering a saloon dominated by a glowering Leonid Brezhnev, caught on eventually to the nature of the Soviet threat.
Obama seems only to gaze around curiously, amid occasional fusillades of moralistic rhetoric, as Islamic radicals and Russia’s neo-czar pursue their distinct, and distinctly dangerous, agendas: larger and larger swaths of Ukrainian territory brought under Russian control, more innocent hostages beheaded or burnt alive by Allah’s self-deputized avengers. The president of the United States, sometimes considered the most powerful man in the world, can’t bring himself to believe that war — different in character from wars in the classic sense but war all the same — is going on, concocted by foes of his country’s ideals, aimed at the reduction of American power to protect freedom.
Obama doesn’t get it. He might be somewhere else in time or space. We don’t have a president in these unsettling and slightly frightening times. We really don’t. We have Barack Obama.
What does it mean to have Obama? It means to have in the White House a man unpersuadable as to the realities of power. To wish the matter otherwise is not to wish that Don Rumsfeld sat in the Oval Office, clad in military fatigues, barking orders into the telephone, ending every sentence with “Kill!” The wildest delusion of which Americans are capable is that defending freedom, in 2015, means replaying the Normandy invasion.
It does mean “boots on the ground” — most of them belonging to special forces and their support apparatuses, doing the hard work that the best-aimed bombs, delivered from above, can’t accomplish. Obama has an ideological aversion to the commitment of troops. Yet what are troops for if not to commit, or making enemies fear commitment is on the way?
The second thing necessary to the defense of freedom is a strategy for that defense — a plan to get there. In the Obama administration we have “red lines” that mysteriously vanish; we have economic pressures we expect to do the job on their unaided own. And, of course, we have speeches, at which the president is particularly adept. What we lack in this very confusing time of shadow warfare — Russian soldiers pretending to be Ukrainians, terrorists springing out of ambush — are coherent designs, first to repel, second to discourage and warn off, the intruders.
It is all monumentally complex, yes — partaking of that complexity for which presidents sign on when they take the oath. Those unready to steer a straight path through complications, contradictions, false turnings, and elephant traps would do better, say, to concentrate on organizing neighborhoods — a point that never occurred, apparently, to our best-known neighborhood organizer.
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