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Belmont Club

Of some importance

December 27th, 2009 - 2:52 pm

Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic explains the President’s muted reaction to the failed attempt to blow up the NWA to Detroit: he doesn’t want to dignify the attack by giving it attention. Now in all fairness to President Obama, this is Ambinder’s analysis of events, not the President’s.

There is a reason why Obama hasn’t given a public statement. It’s strategy.

Here’s the theory: a two-bit mook is sent by Al Qaeda to do a dastardly deed. He winds up neutering himself. Literally.

Authorities respond appropriately; the president (as this president is wont to to) presides over the federal response. His senior aides speak for him, letting reporters know that he’s videoconferencing regularly, that he’s ordering a review of terrorist watch lists, that he’s discoursing with his secretary of Homeland Security.

But an in-person Obama statement isn’t needed; Indeed, a message expressing command, control, outrage and anger might elevate the importance of the deed, would generate panic (because Obama usually DOESN’T talk about the specifics of cases like this, and so him deciding to do so would cue the American people to respond in a way that exacerbates the situation).

Obama of course will say something at some point. Had the terrorist blown up the plane, it’s safe to assume that Obama would no longer be in Hawaii. In either case, the public will need presidential fortification at some point. But Obama is willing to risk the accusation that he is “soft” on terrorism or is hovering above it all, or is just not to be bothered (his “head’s in the sand,” or “golfing comes first”) in order to advance what he believes is the proper collective response to a failed act of terrorism.

Let the authorities do their work. Don’t presume; don’t panic the country; don’t chest-thump, prejudge, interfere, politicize (in an international sense), don’t give Al Qaeda (or whomever) a symbolic victory; resist the urge to open the old playbook and run a familiar play.

In a sense, he is projecting his calm on the American people, just as his advisers are convinced that the Bush administration projected their panic and anger on the self-same public eight years ago.

The problem with this analysis is that it comes from a different world from that suffused by dust, gunpowder, thin air, sweat and bewildering noise. It comes ready formed from that Washington cauldron of action, the cocktail party. In that setting the wounds are inflicted by different weapons: the disparaging glance, cutting word, calculated snub and the limpness of the handshake. These strike the telling blows. They destroy careers. They launch news stories with legs. In this world things are fixed by manipulating perception, by choosing the images allowed to the press. It is no wonder that Ambinder focuses on the symbolism of things. It is not that he is stupid. But even to an intelligent carpenter, every problem looks like a nail. And in Washington, symbols are the nails.

Through this prism the world looks a different place. Al-Qaeda must be crushed that the President has decided to stay in Hawaii rather than react o their nearly successful attempt to bring an airplane with nearly 300 people down on Detroit. The Islamists must be moritified that he does not even deign to notice them. They must feel downcast; oppressed by the certainty that they are so yesterday. In that universe Obama could not have smitten them more cruelly than if he had told them “don’t call me, I’ll call you”.

And as to leadership, what could be more inspiring to the great unwashed surging to and fro around the Beltway in their aimless evolutions than the majestic indifference of their President, who progresses serene and unperturbed across the pristine sands of a Pacific paradise, the symbol of greatness to which America has been restored.

If that sounds ridiculous, well it is. But to see that you have to apprehend things from the outside. From the vantage of a closed cabin where a small explosive can rip open the thin aluminum skin and leave you plummeting toward the pavements of Detroit, ruined enough as it is, with only enough to time to wonder if they’ll miss you next Christmas. Or from the perspective of a security supervisor who wonders how the hell things went wrong and to interrupt his musings to study the latest guidelines reducing the number of carry on luggage pieces. You have to worry less about symbolism than about defects in the intel system and whether we can anticipate the next attack because both the Fort Hood attacks and the NWA came as a total surprise. In all probability the next one, whatever that might be, will be a surprise also. And none of the nails that are up for hammering in Washington seem to be able to alter that probability. That is the important thing. Nor is it a hard one to grasp.

“You have a few sheep in the paddock,” he said. “Who attends to them?”

“I do, sir.”

“Have you noticed anything amiss with them of late?”

“Well, sir, not of much account; but three of them have gone lame, sir.”

I could see that Holmes was extremely pleased, for he chuckled and rubbed his hands together.

“A long shot, Watson; a very long shot,” said he, pinching my arm. “Gregory, let me recommend to your attention this singular epidemic among the sheep. Drive on, coachman!”

Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the Inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.

“You consider that to be important?” he asked.

“Exceedingly so.”

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

The problem with simply staying calm and letting “the authorities do their work” is that it hasn’t worked. Why should it work in the future? But don’t forget the epidemic among the sheep. What was the point of that experiment?

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