Belmont Club

Dulce et decorum est pro insania mori

President Barack Obama pauses during a news conference following the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Matt Yglesias’s sources in the administration hinted that their response to a post-Paris attack would be to contain public outrage if a similar event occurred in the United States.  Anger at such an outrage might well force Obama to retaliate vigorously against ISIS, something which he believed would lead to disaster.  Yglesias described the dilemma:

the administration is faced with a nightmare. And it’s a nightmare that looks a lot like what played out in Paris on November 13. …

an actual attack on US soil would, on an emotional level, demand that we “do something” — something that would already have been rejected as unworkable or counterproductive. A land invasion of ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq would be costly and only serve to further roil the waters of the region. Yet the idea of a president going on television in the wake of an attack and not vowing further punitive measures is inconceivable.

In this way, the hardest problem in US counterterrorism policy is in some ways as much a speechwriting challenge as anything else. The next time something goes wrong and an attack hits the United States, how do you sell the American people on the idea of not really doing anything about it?

Michael Shear, writing in the New York Times, describes how the president’s handlers saw terrorism news as hijacking his agenda. It has forced him to stray from his talking points into bootlessly revisiting his foreign policy strategy. “President Obama traveled more than 12,000 miles last week to shower attention on Asia. But he spent most of the trip in grim consultations about the attacks in Paris and Mali and in a long-distance war of words with Republicans.”

It is a vivid reminder of how quickly and easily a president’s message can be hijacked by events and agendas beyond his control — and how important it can be to the White House to respond in real time, even from a distance. Despite his command of a communications infrastructure — one that includes Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — Mr. Obama is subject to the vagaries of the news cycle even when he is abroad.”

In an effort to escape the dilemma which Yglesias has described the president has moved quickly to prepare public for a muted response to any future terrorist attack on America. Time Magazine summarized Obama’s message:  stay cool, terrorists want us to get angry and blunder into the quicksand.  We’re too smart for that and only the Republicans would fall for such a ploy.

Trying to reassure a nation on edge, President Barack Obama said Sunday the Islamic State group “cannot strike a mortal blow” against the U.S., and he warned that overreacting to the Paris attacks would play into extremists’ hands. “We will destroy this terrorist organization,” he vowed.

Ending a trip to Asia, Obama implored Americans not to let the specter of terror cause them to compromise their values or change the way they live.

“We do not succumb to fear,” he said. “The most powerful tool we have to fight ISIL is to say that we’re not afraid, to not elevate them, to somehow buy into their fantasy that they’re doing something important,” Obama said, using an acronym for the terrorist organization.

Obama’s minimized the importance of ISIS, calling them “a bunch of killers with good social media”,  spectacularly cruel but ultimately ineffectual.  His present low regard for their danger comes just as the president awaits the outcome of an investigation into whether past intelligence analysts had been pressured into low-balling the threat to please higher-ups. Damien Paletta of the WSJ writes:

President Barack Obama said Sunday he has told top military officials that he wants them to “get to the bottom” of whether intelligence assessments about Islamic State have been skewed or distorted before reaching the White House.

Mr. Obama, speaking at a news conference while traveling in Asia, expressed concern about recent reports that Islamic State assessments by analysts at U.S. Central Command were watered down or improperly adjusted by superiors. Central Command is the military command that oversees operations in the Middle East. The Pentagon’s inspector general is now investigating the matter and lawmakers have expressed concern about what has gone on.

“I don’t want intelligence shaded by politics,” Mr. Obama said, before adding that he didn’t want to prejudge the investigation. “I don’t want it shaded by the desire to tell a feel-good story. We can’t make good policy unless we’ve got good, accurate, hard-headed, clear-eyed intelligence.”

He did not explain which politician would benefit from “intelligence shaded by politics” that watered down the ISIS threat.

Vox, whose sources in the White House were proven second to none by Matt Yglesias article has a follow up piece by Ezra Klein coincidentally admonishing Americans to roll with the punches in the event of an attack. Klein says “ISIS can only succeed if we overreact — so we shouldn’t”.

Fear makes people do stupid things, and it makes countries do stupid things, too. And it is fear that is ISIS’s real weapon here.

ISIS can’t hope to defeat America or France on the battlefield. It can’t turn back our jets or harm our aircraft carriers. It can only hope to make us so afraid that we do something stupid that either helps it or hurts us. ISIS can only succeed if, blinded by rage and terror, we achieve its goals for it. There are at least two ways that might happen — and one of them is already happening.

Klein listed as “stupid” the refusal to accept Syrian refugees and “resurgent sentiment in America that the West is locked in a war not just with ISIS but with ‘radical Islam'”

The emphasis is on maintaining normalcy and strengthening the defensive. The Atlantic‘s “Fighting Terrorism With Tourniquets” urges everyone to pack something which will staunch massive trauma wounds — which is good advice on general principles — but makes one wonder if the “the most powerful tool we have to fight ISIL” is actually bandages.

Whether or not giving every Parisian a Glock, as Donald Trump might like, would be either practical or effective is unclear; leaving aside any unwanted side effects of increased gun ownership, one needs at a bare minimum to go through an awful lot of practice ammunition at the range and be carrying the gun at all times to be of much help in a shooting. But even supposing every terrorist attack was met by a civilian-led shootout, that still wouldn’t solve the problem presented by a victim shot in the thigh, dying on the floor. Whether professionals or amateurs are involved, taking down multiple shooters can take time. Active-shooter incidents present both a security and a medical challenge.

Mark Morales of WSJ takes up the theme of defensive preprations in his report on New York City’s new antiterrorism drills. “Two counterterrorism drills were conducted in an empty New York City subway station early Sunday morning, the first joint agency test conducted since the deadly attacks in Paris.”

“This is how we defeat terrorism. This is how we prevent the impact of terrorism, is this kind of cooperation and this kind of teamwork,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called the response “impressive.”

Blasio has apparently forgotten Winston Churchill’s maxim on defensive operations: “We must be very careful not to assign to this the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” But in Blasio’s view defense is how you defeat terrorism: by taking the worst it can dish out; not overreacting, accepting tens of thousand of Syrians and learning how to apply tourniquets.  Above all it is met by recalling that ISIS “cannot strike a mortal blow” — perhaps not against the president, but certainly against some poor working stiff on the NYC subway.

It looks as if Matt Yglesias has called the administration’s messaging plan exactly right. No matter what happens, Obama’s not going to “do stupid shit”. The administration is going to save Obama’s foreign policy if it’s the last thing anyone does.

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