Belmont Club

Cures All Aches and Pains

What do I really have, doc?

The following list was seen on Twitter listing out the most recent terror attacks around the world:

Tuesday – Suicide bomber kills 10 in Instanbul
Wednesday – Suicide bomber kills 15 in Quetta
Thursday – Suicide bombers kill 14 in Jakarta

Missing from this sequence was important context: president Obama’s assertion in his State of the Union speech, uttered just before the Jakarta attacks, that the terrorist threat is overblown. He said:

“In today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” he continued, using the administration’s preferred term for the Islamic State group.

When situated in this context the list of attacks is trivial.  If 14 people die in Jakarata — maybe 7 according to some reports — so what? These are small potatoes in a planet populated by billions. It’s nothing to get excited about.

The defect in the administration’s reasoning isn’t the assertion that direct terror deaths are still few in absolute number. The problem it is that he hasn’t got a clue about how to contain it. Obama’s like a doctor who tells you the tumor in your lung is “still small”, in fact just a speck.  Shouldn’t you be reassured?  Every patient knows the size of a tumor is not as important as the doctor’s admission in the next breath “but I don’t know how to cure it.”

The reason why the assurances of the president sound hollow despite the comforting “it’s still small! it’s still tiny!” is because what is important is the delta, the change in the problem over time. You want it to shrink.  You want the disease, while small, to stop spreading and and are naturally uncomfortable with a doctor helpless to even slow it. In fact, Dr.Obama can’t even name the disease he’s looking at beyond remarking that it’s “nothing to do with Islam”.

His approach is basically to prescribe painkillers and hope the symptoms go away. This approach was one full display when Iran captured 10 US Navy sailors and John Kerry made five calls to the Iranian foreign minister. Agence Press France reports that “US Secretary of State John Kerry told Iran’s foreign minister that Tehran’s capture and release of 10 US sailors could be turned into a ‘good story’ for both countries, a US official said Wednesday.”  It’s all about the management of symptoms.

The good story, from Iran’s point of view were images of American sailors kneeling with their hands up and a junior officer apologizing to the Islamic Republic. The “good story” from the administration’s point of view was that the sailors were released at all, even though it comes on the heels of an unbroken string of provocations by the regime in Tehran, including rocketing a passing US aircraft carrier and testing ballistic missiles.

John Kerry’s “good story” doesn’t mean Iran will stop it’s provocations.  On the contrary. It will almost certainly be back, more virulent and more aggressive than ever.

Fred Hiatt, writing in the Washington Post notes that the president has never been known to  say anything but ‘take an aspirin and quit worrying’.  “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” Obama said.   It’s just a phase.  The only problem is that the upbeat message is belied by the cadaverous appearance of a patient in one Dr. Obama’s backrooms: Syria, who believe it or not is almost cured.

But in an almost surreal moment Tuesday night, he pointed to Syria as an example of his “smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power.”

“That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace,” the president said.

But if that’s the cure it’s not a dime’s worth different from a terminal disease.  Syria too once had nothing to worry about.  When asked about the threat posed by Islamic State by David Remnick in January, 2014 Obama said that it was only “a jayvee team”. In that former middle-income country many are reduced to eating pets and grass soup to survive.  The rest have gone in their millions to Europe.

Most patients would feel a whole lot more confident if the doctor could explain the diagnosis more clearly, which is to say articulate a foreign strategy beyond references to ‘learning to hope’ and ‘not fearing the future’. But that is probably beyond the power of incumbent.  If he had any more it would have come out in the last SOTU.

But it’s no use having regrets.  The past is all water under the bridge.  In November the world will get a chance to choose a new doctor, though by then the speck will doubtless be bigger. The best one can hope for is that is not too late.

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