Ring of Fire

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?

One of the most interesting things about the Battle of Midway in 1942 was that it was just as much lost by the Japanese firemen as it was won by USN aviators. The most powerful ship in the Japanese fleet was the Akagi. It was hit by only one bomb, a 1,000 pounder dropped by Lt. Richard Best. No one on the bridge at first believed that a single hit could pose a serious danger to the huge ship. The fire it started just under the smashed deck elevator was for some minutes unobserved — until the gasoline which had been sloshing around the hanger from punctured gas tanks reached it. And then a deadly chain initiated. The fire set off one armed aircraft after the other, like a string of Chinese firecrackers. All of a sudden the blaze was out of control. The fiery fingers of the conflagration crept ever downward to the magazines and gasoline fuel tanks. By dawn the next day the Akagi was nothing but a lump of slag and scuttled by the escorting destroyers.


The main reasons for the Akagi‘s loss were later ascribed to the early destruction of its fire isolation curtains and the absence of a working foam suppression system. They didn’t smother the blaze when they had the chance. Then they ran out of time. And then they ran out of ship. When facing a fire, the golden rule is hit it as hard as you can while it is small. Once you start playing the “fierce minimalist” with fire, it is apt to get away from you.

During the worst part of the fire season in southern California, strong Santa Ana winds will blow carpets of burning embers across eight-lane freeways. During the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, hot embers managed to cross the Lewis Canyon, a natural canyon up to a mile wide and 600 feet (180 m) deep. In Australia, firebreaks are less effective against eucalyptus forest fires, since intense fires in tinder-dry eucalyptus forest spread through flying embers, which can be carried by the winds to trigger new blazes several kilometres away.

This almost exactly describes the problem the president finds himself in. Every blaze we now see around us appeared to be only a humble ember until recently. Only two years ago Obama was ridiculing Romney for thinking Russia would be a problem. Only this year he was describing ISIS as a junior varsity team. Today the Ukraine is being invaded. Islamists are swimming in the U.S. Embassy pool in Libya. Just yesterday ISIS posted video of a second beheaded American journalist on YouTube.  And those thousands of “American”, “British” and “Australian” jihadis drifting back — those are your sparks right there.


What happened? Somehow yesterday’s gentle campfires are now raging conflagrations. It would seem that of the two presidents, Franklin Roosevelt may have had the better understanding of fire. The president may think he’s in control. But maybe he’s not.  The important thing is for the president’s supporters to stop kidding themselves.  They’ve wasted enough time already without getting lost in catchphrases like “fierce minimalist.”

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