By Gail Collins
The New York Times
It's a tough time to be a concerned citizen. The truth of the matter is, the job has always been messy.
But it's way worse when the subject is foreign policy.
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We gathered around our TVs and computers and peered at our smartphones Wednesday night to hear President Barack Obama explain his plan for combating Islamic State, even though we have pretty much lost faith in plans when it comes to the United States involvement in the Middle East.
He sounded very strong. And, really, that's something. We'd have been happy to come away just saying something like "he appeared to believe he's on the right track."
The problem with the substance was that when it comes to Iraq and Syria, we're too good at imagining the downside. The president said he had waited to launch his plan until Iraq got an inclusive government. That certainly made sense. Except that we have children entering middle school who had not been born when we started waiting for Iraq to get an inclusive government.
Then there's the arming of Syrian rebels. No surprise that Obama wants an ally that isn't the Assad regime. But some of the fighters in Islamic State were Syrian rebels. Obviously, the administration feels its rebels are not going to become anti-Western terrorists. But the anti-Western terrorists in Islamic State are waving around a ton of our weaponry that they took from the allies we armed in Iraq. Just saying.
Obama promised no American combat troops would be sent into battle. We don't want boots on the ground. The idea of airstrikes sound much safer. Unless you happen to be an innocent civilian in the vicinity.
The president assured the American people that the strategy of air power plus "support for partner forces" would work because it's already been a big success in Yemen and Somalia. Concerned citizens then turned to each other and said: "Yemen and Somalia?"
The hardest thing for average Americans is knowing just how worried to be. The tone of alarm in Washington has been hyper-shrill. Denouncing the president's failure to take on Islamic State faster, Rep. Michele Bachmann told The Huffington Post: "We haven't seen anything like this since Hitler and the blitzkrieg in World War II."
Well, Michele Bachmann. Who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
During the run-up to the speech, Republicans had been irate about the president's failure to act sooner, explain his plan faster and, in general, be tougher. Never had so many people demanded specifics without ever offering any of their own.
"President Obama's chronic passivity has helped the jihadists," John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said in a floor speech this week. Cornyn slammed the administration's "don't do stupid stuff" mantra, claiming Obama "doesn't seem to fully grasp the magnitude of the threats and challenges that America is now dealing with."
Cornyn mixed up Iranians and Iraqis a few times, but concerned citizens understand that these things get complicated. More to the point, not doing something stupid is actually a super foreign policy goal. Just look back on our recent history of meddling in the Middle East and what do you see? A heck of a lot of stupid stuff we wish we hadn't done.
In his speech, the president was pushing back after weeks in which he was attacked for everything from playing golf on his vacation to saying "we don't have a strategy yet" on the Islamic State surge in Syria. On that, the critics had a point. You're not supposed to say you don't have a strategy. Even when everything on the ground has shifted and you need to consult your allies, get the Iraqi government to reorganize and collect new intelligence. You still don't say "no strategy." You say, "I'll discuss strategy after I brief the congressional leaders." And then fail to invite them.
Anyway, now there's definitely a strategy. The hawks in Congress were not all necessarily overwhelmed. "The president doesn't really have a grasp of how serious the threat of ISIS is," Sen. John McCain said on CNN, using an acronym for a former name for Islamic State. Other Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner, issued responses that began with, "Finally ..."
And how about the concerned citizens? We're feeling insecure. It's comforting to have Dick Cheney around, so we can at least know what we definitely want to avoid. This week, in a Washington speech, the former vice president said Obama has to "understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win," and spend way more money on defense.
Which means that:
A) Fighting Islamic State is going to be more complicated than just war.
B) The president should put timetables on everything.
C) The defense budget needs to go down.
Remember that no matter what else happens, Dick Cheney will never steer us right.