Peter Beinart’s widely quoted article in the Atlantic, “Actually, Obama Does Have a Strategy in the Middle East,” has the tagline “the president is neither a dove nor a hawk. He’s a fierce minimalist.” Nowhere in the article does Beinart explain the meaning of this cryptic catchphrase, except as an allusion to the president’s exquisite judgment. It seems an article of faith that Obama will neither bathe the world in blood like his predecessor nor remain passive, as conservative critics accuse him of doing. He will avoid excess and get it just right, like the Three Bears; neither too hot nor too cold. A fierce minimalist.
Unfortunately Beinart avoids defining what is just enough. Where is the Pole Star in this murk? No answer is attempted except that Obama will point it out and not because Beinart can explain where it is. He ends on a note of touching faith: “Barack Obama didn’t become president by tilting at windmills.”
No, Obama became president because people like Beinart believed he would take them to a different place than where they now stand, with each hour bringing a new humiliation and crisis. Roger Simon wrote on Twitter: “Not a single #liberal friend of mine wants to discuss politics now. They’re humiliated by Obama.” But they still trust him. When the president declared al-Qaeda decimated, the War on Terror over and said ISIS was nothing but a jayvee team, Obama was telling the base what they wanted to hear. What they thought Obama had achieved. People like Beinart believed it. Too bad it wasn’t true.
But they still trust him.
One of the implicit assumptions of “fierce minimalism” is that action fuels the flames. Obama argued as much at an American Legion speech. He said, ”the answer is not to send in large scale military deployments that over stretch our military, and lead for us occupying countries for a long period of time and end up feeding extremism.” An alternative point of view using almost an identical metaphor was articulated by Franklin Roosevelt. “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire.”
The difference in the two presidential fire examples is the element of urgency. Roosevelt was aware that the fireman’s enemy is time and one of the points of the hose story, which everyone in that era understood, was the importance of dousing the fire while it was still small. Obama, by contrast, lacks the dimension of time. His approach implicitly assumes he has the leisure to add an ounce here and an ounce there to achieve a nuanced outcome. Roosevelt understood that a crisis was urgent. In the current case, Obama is busy calibrating, thinking and golfing like he had all the time in the world.
What happens when a fierce minimalist meets a fierce fire?