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On Obama's Islamic State speech

Tonight I won't be able to hear President Obama explain what he intends to do in Syria and elsewhere, and why. So rather than giving my reaction after the speech, let me give it before.

Atlantic cover

Eight years ago I did a cover story in The Atlantic called "Declaring Victory," whose central argument was that the United States could best protect itself against the worst long-term damage from terrorist movements by refusing to be whipsawed, baited, or panicked into self-destructive over-reaction. The piece began with a reference to Osama bin Laden that could as well be applied to the barbarous ISIS of today:

Osama bin Laden’s public statements are those of a fanatic. But they often reveal a canny ability to size up the strengths and weaknesses of both allies and enemies, especially the United States ... In his videotaped statement just days before the 2004 US presidential election, bin Laden also boasted about how easy it had become for him “to provoke and bait” the American leadership: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there.”

Islamic State, apparently with a number of Western-convert members, is by all evidence even more sophisticated about the psychology of the democratic West. As applies to them, I stand by the logic of the counterterrorism experts I quoted all those years ago:

    • That terrorists can certainly injure a country, but the most dangerous wounds are always self-inflicted, through over-reaction. (The war in Iraq killed many more Americans, had a vastly greater economic cost, and did incalculably more diplomatic and moral damage to our country than did the horrific attacks 13 years ago tomorrow.)
    • That when politicians, columnists, and cable TV guests are most fervent in urging a president to "do something" about a threat, they most often have in mind a "something" — military attack — that cannot eliminate a terrorist movement, and that often creates more opposition and even terrorism in the long run. The measures that are most effective often have least to do with dramatic, highly publicised "kinetic" acts.
    • That when people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. Usually time is on the stronger player's side, which in this case is us. Usually the greatest weapon of the weak is the potential to panic and rattle the other side.
    • That when people say "we might look weak," usually it's time to discount whatever else they say. Looking weak has little to do with being weak. Every person, institution, and state has ultimate interests to defend and lines that can't be crossed. But the more worried you seem about "proving" strength whenever it is challenged, the weaker you look. Speak softly. Big stick.
    • That there is an asymmetry, to use a current term, in decisions about the use of violence. If you don't attack today, you can always attack tomorrow. If you do attack today, you have foreclosed other choices for a long time to come. (Our options in 2014 and beyond are limited by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.)

You don't have to believe me on this, though as I say I think the article stands up. But if you can't trust me, I hope you will believe David Frum, who is now a colleague at The Atlantic but who during the early George W. Bush years was (as he points out) helping to make the case for war with Iraq. In a wise item today on our site he says:

No matter how bad things, look, though, it’s always possible to make them worse. A war now against ISIS will do just that...

Frum rightly captures the standard congressional/op-ed/cable-news reflex in time of crisis:

Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!

Barack Obama's early and well-explained opposition to invading Iraq, which gave him the opening to beat Hillary Clinton and become president, reflected awareness of all these points about the paradoxes of weakness and strength. Most of the time as president he has acted from the same principles — the obvious exception being his mistaken early approval of the ineffective "surge" in Afghanistan. I hope that in his IS remarks and policies he does not feel tempted to again prove that he is "tough."


This post was originally published at The Atlantic