The Wrong Lessons From the Next War

The decision to confront ISIS is about more than appearing “strong” or “weak.” 

President Obama speaks on ISIS at the White House on Sept. 10, 2014, in Washington.

Pool photo by Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Whether President Obama’s plan to combat ISIS actually degrades and destroys the organization may take years to determine, but the debate in the coming weeks over that policy will tell us whether America can have a public discussion about the use of military power during a time of high anxiety.

Right now, the conversation doesn’t look like it is going to make us any smarter. Polls show that Americans are scared and want action. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, more of those surveyed said the United States is less safe now than at any point since 9/11. In a Pew poll, 62 percent said they were very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world—the largest percentage to say so since 2007. A somewhat smaller majority (53 percent) is very concerned about the same problem in the United States—tying a record high. Republicans say the president has been too slow to act, and Democrats are rushing to agree. 

Out of this moment broad foreign policy conclusions are being drawn. The conventional wisdom is that the pendulum has swung too far after the presidency of George W. Bush, and now it must swing back toward a more assertive foreign policy. Whether the topic is Syria, Islamic extremism, or Russia, actions are increasingly being framed around showing weakness or strength. When Americans are being beheaded, no one wants to be accused of weakness, so there’s not much discussion about what actual weakness or strength means in a given context. That’s the kind of chin-pulling that makes Obama ineffective; the incentive is just to “show strength”—whatever that means. 

The public mood has switched quickly in favor of military action. Two-thirds of Americans believe that it is in the nation’s interest to confront ISIS. Thirty-four percent of the country is even in favor of the use of ground troops. A year ago, when the president considered taking action against Syria for using chemical weapons, only 21 percent said the action was even in the national interest.

The president’s numbers have also fallen sharply. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, just 32 percent approve of the president’s handling of foreign policy, an all-time low in the survey. The GOP has an 18-point advantage on which party can handle foreign policy issues, an 11-point increase from a year ago. Republicans hold a 38-point lead among voters when they are asked which party best ensures a strong national defense. That’s the GOP’s largest lead on this question in more than 10 years. In the latest Washington Post poll, the president hit a new low on the question of leadership. Just 43 percent call Obama a strong leader, down 11 points in the past year to the lowest level of his presidency.

What this political pressure means in practical terms is that the signals to show strength in order to survive politically are coming in much stronger than the signals to evaluate foreign policy action based on the merits, an evaluation of national interest and prudence. If the public thinks the unpopular president is too contemplative and cautious, you must do the other thing. Or at least you must sound like you are, through pledges of action and boasts of resolve, all of which reaffirm the underlying move toward displays of strength.

So, for example, it has now become conventional wisdom that Obama should have armed the Syrian opposition long ago. If he had, perhaps ISIS would not have grown to such a threat. The Wall Street Journal says it, Hillary Clinton says it, and Dick Cheney says it. Democratic senators trying to stay alive in a tough year are echoing the claim or piling on. Sen. Kay Hagan, in her first debate in North Carolina, said Obama should have supported the opposition. Democrats are not only criticizing the president’s speed in the past, but his understanding of the threat facing the country. Sen. Al Franken said he was troubled that the president said he didn’t have a strategy for combating ISIS. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said she disagreed with Obama’s characterization that ISIS is “manageable.” The president now faces the accusation, ratified by members of his own party, that he took his eye off the ball, one of the strongest critiques of his predecessor. After the president’s speech, Hagan and Shaheen gave him qualified support, stressing that they were going to press him to use every tool short of ground troops to take on ISIS.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Sen. Rand Paul at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 9, 2014 in Washington.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There were significant risks to arming the Syrian opposition when it was first debated several years ago. The “good rebels” were hard to identify, the arms might fall into the hands of ISIS and other jihadist groups, and the United States has a poor track record for backing resistance movements. The research shows it leads to costlier and longer wars. Indeed, Sen. Rand Paul criticizes the president for the limited arms he provided the Syrian rebels at all—he says the support ended up in ISIS’s hands—which is the exact opposite position of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

If two of the president’s chief critics can’t even agree on the chain of causation in Syria, that suggests the issue is a little more complicated than it is being presented. Will that complexity be debated? Sen. Mark Begich, an endangered Democratic senator from Alaska, said he did not approve of arming the Syrian opposition. “We must have greater assurance that we aren’t arming extremists who will eventually use the weapons against us.” In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall, who also faces a tough re-election, said, “I will not give this president … a blank check to begin another land war.”

The president didn’t just start a new military phase of the war on terrorism; he started a new round in the foreign policy conversation. He was brought to office by a war-weary nation. Now the polls suggest the nation is tired of him. For the moment that means the country is looking for a more assertive foreign policy. Whether that is a permanent new condition depends on future violence and success. But at the moment the incentive is for most politicians to make declarations of strength to distinguish themselves from the unpopular incumbent. The presidential candidates in 2016 will be particularly emboldened, since they traditionally run as an antidote to the perceived deficiencies of the current occupant. That’s certainly the way Sen. Barack Obama won office. If his overcorrection was born in his simplistic response to the deficiencies of his predecessor, then judging by the way this current foreign policy debate is going so far, it likely contains the seeds of the next overcorrection.