According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 28 percent of Americans are “confident” that the president’s plan to destroy the Islamic State will succeed. Sixty-eight percent say they aren’t confident at all.
We are talking here, my friends, about Americans. What must be the reaction in the Islamic State? “I tell you, Mustafa, the Yankees will never finish this game. They will swat and swat; they will grow tired; they will withdraw while pretending not to withdraw.” Would the Islamic State reaction be something like that?
Countries are like ball clubs or rock groups. They develop reputations: in the case of countries, a reputation for firmness in the face of challenge, or a reputation for climbing out of windows, ahead of the cops, to avoid unpleasantness; a reputation for promise-keeping, a reputation for reducing the firmest pledges to mere theories. Guess which reputation Americans see as operative presently in White House affairs.
The Obama administration had to be virtually dragged into the anti-ISIS campaign. Oh, how it didn’t want to go! Not that it should have lusted for combat, like a gang of Japanese imperial generals, reading the reports from Pearl Harbor. What it might better have done, while watching the chaos in Syria and Iraq, is begin to design an approach — yes, a “strategy,” the sort of thing President Obama became famous for saying he lacked — for putting down evil and restoring some sort of order to a disorderly neighborhood. The president seems to have seen no need for the kind of intervention that would have reversed his larger strategy for letting the world take care of itself.
Throughout six years in the White House, Barack Obama — who gives every evidence of believing he never makes mistakes or commits misjudgments — has generally adhered to the idea that the world, absent American meddling, can indeed take care of itself. With some hitches and bumps, to be sure, such as Russia’s shootdown of the Malaysian airliner. Yet, broadly speaking, what could America do? The president, rhetorically, spread wide his hands, shrugged his shoulders. The world could muddle along without us. And should get used to the idea — fast.
As it happened, the grand indifference that became American policy in 2009 made an unlooked-for impact on the rest of the world. If a suddenly listless and unconcerned America was, most of the time, going to watch world events from its front porch, this left considerable latitude to people (e.g., Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin) who might in the past have resisted pulling Uncle Sam’s beard. America was acquiring a reputation dramatically different from the one that Barack Obama had promised to overhaul. Oh, yes, very different. Very — shall we say, problematical.
No wonder two thirds of Americans need convincing their country can knock out the Islamic State. Knocking out enemies, a onetime American specialty, seems to many a game whose outcome is less certain than before. How deeply do we believe — more specifically, how deeply does the present U.S. government believe — the present job needs doing? Time — as the irreplaceable cliché would have it — will tell.
No topic needs more airing in American politics, and especially the presidential campaign to come, than that of America’s true foreign policy interests. We know from sad experience the limitations of ambitions to remake the outside world in the image of, say, Duluth, Minnesota. Philosophical musing from the sidelines, in the Obama manner, nevertheless becomes dangerous when it turns to dithering and oh-gee-ain’t-it-awful-ing.
Certain assumptions need to emerge before intelligent policy can be shaped. First, we’re a better, more wholesome country than practically any other in the world: a standing rebuke to evil and despotism. Second, we’re hated more for our virtues than for our alleged meddling. Third, being hated for any reason imposes the duty of staying several steps ahead of the haters, militarily speaking.
The fourth assumption follows, does it not, from all of the above? It is the assumption that you never get into a fight you don’t mean to finish with a knockout.
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