The President and the Hue and Cry for War

            President Barack Obama met with foreign policy experts and legislators prior to his televised speech on September10 concerning how the nation should address the terrorist organization ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He shared his plans with the assembled group and the New York Times specifically reported he was deeply mindful of the political cost he was paying for deliberating prior to adopting a course of action. The President said he wished above all to avoid the mistakes of 2003 and an unreflective rush to broad military involvement without first considering its costs and all options available. He had taken this stand notwithstanding the increasing desire of the American people to punish ISIS for its horrific beheading of two American citizens. The Times reported that as President Obama spoke with the group, he revealed an acute awareness of those criticizing him for failing to act with sufficient aggressiveness, even though those critics were not offering alternatives:

In his own way, Mr. Obama said, he had seen something similar (to 2003) a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who had swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists. He had told his staff, he said, not to evaluate their own policy based on external momentum. He would not rush to war. He would be deliberate.

“But I’m aware I pay a political price for that,” he said. (Baker, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/world/middleeast/paths-to-war-then-and-now-haunt-obama.html)

            In lieu of critics’ shrill and often unreflective chest beating and rhetoric declaring him all but a coward and calling for an unspecified escalation and attack on those creating this perceived harm, the President sought consciously instead to consider the implications of multiple possible actions to the extent those could be gauged. He aimed to explore plausible alternatives in light of as thoughtful an analysis as could be developed, given the Gordian knot complexity of the issues in play. Moreover, he made clear to those with whom he spoke prior to his speech that he was under no illusion that whatever he proposed would “fix” the scenario now afoot in Syria and Iraq and beyond, contrary again to the declarations of many officials demanding fierce and fresh engagement as they sought to capitalize on the angry public mood:

He was acutely aware that the operation he was about to embark on would not solve the larger issues in that region by the time he left office. “This will be a problem for the next president,” Mr. Obama said ruefully, “and probably the one after that.” But he alternated between resolve as he vowed to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian forces shot at American planes, and prickliness as he mocked critics of his more reticent approach to the exercise of American power.

“Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than ‘don’t do stupid things,’ ” guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater (Baker, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/world/middleeast/paths-to-war-then-and-now-haunt-obama.html).

            I am fascinated by this episode for what it says about our nation’s current polarized politics and the lengths to which critics will go in their efforts to curry political favor with possible voters, even when the lives of the nation’s military personnel are at stake (not to mention those of the people in the many nations affected by America’s choices). I am also struck by what this turn suggests about the character of democratic politics in a nation in which a share of the electorate is increasingly unable to support deliberative action because incapable of the mature reflection such a course demands. This drama reminds me of the political moments that John F. Kennedy recounted in his famous volume, Profiles in Courage. In those situations, as now, a statesman sought to address the best interests of his nation as a share of lawmakers and many in the population bayed at the proverbial gates while decrying their leader’s attempt to be prudent.

            Coincidentally, this pre-speech scenario was reported in the Times on the same day that A.O. Scott, a long-time film critic for the newspaper, offered an analysis entitled, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Scott’s review of American film, television and literature of recent decades described a population increasingly unwilling to become adults and therefore to act in self-disciplined ways and to accept costs on behalf of community or the future. The nub of his analysis is captured in this excerpt of his argument:

Looking at those figures and their descendants in more recent times — and at the vulnerable patriarchs lumbering across the screens to die — we can see that to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment. … Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (‘wait until you’re older’), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes (Scott, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/magazine/the-death-of-adulthood-in-american-culture.html?ref=magazine).

            Scott’s sweeping thesis is provocative as a descriptor of a share of the citizenry of a restive nation that remains perpetually fearful of terrorist attack and desirous of and anxious about economic stability in a time of increasing inequality and stagnant wages for many. One need not be persuaded by Scott’s overall claim to note that the films, television shows, video games and literature to which he points are marketed quite successfully to substantial swathes of the American population who engage in such fantasies while finding the act of voting, or becoming even minimally politically informed, too onerous to undertake. Many of that same number can be manipulated by officials or candidates precisely because of their ignorance, their misunderstanding of their democratic responsibilities and their incapacity otherwise to behave as the deliberative actors they must be if freedom is to be preserved.

            President Obama’s critics have lately called him virtually everything one could imagine, except an executive deeply desirous of charting as prudent a course as feasible in a profoundly difficult situation. As has often occurred in American history, a government officeholder has been the target of widespread opprobrium rather than approbation for his studied attempts to serve the public interest. One might wish that voters could keep in mind what occurred when their nation intervened in Iraq just 10 years ago on the basis of poorly considered claims and promises, but that has not been the case. This scenario illustrates how important it is to elect democratic officials who seek to serve the nation’s interests, even when the population they serve, alive with fear and emotion in this case, is unable to discipline itself. To this enduring concern, Scott’s analysis adds another: the question of whether large portions of the nation’s population are capable any longer of the deliberation necessary to secure its capacity for self-governance.