There’s a new message coalescing around events in the Middle East, coming from Republicans, the media and even a few Democrats: It’s time to panic. Forget about understanding the complexities of an intricate situation, forget about unintended consequences, forget about the disasters of the past that grew from exactly this mind-set. We have to panic, and we have to panic now.
The centerpiece of every Sunday news show was a sentence that President Obama spoke in a news conference Thursday. He answered a question about “go(ing) into Syria” by saying that we shouldn’t “put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet.” Republicans leaped to argue that Obama wasn’t actually talking about military action in Syria, but about dealing with the Islamic State more generally, and who knows what else. Many in the media took the same line. The first rule of a “gaffe” is that it should be taken out of context.
So on “Meet the Press,” Andrea Mitchell asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), “Is the president wrong to signal indecision by saying that we still don’t have a strategy against ISIS?” When that didn’t elicit a sufficiently strong condemnation, Mitchell pressed on: “Doesn’t that project weakness from the White House?” Obviously, there’s nothing worse than “signaling indecision” or “projecting weakness.” Not even, say, invading a country without having a plan for what to do after the bombs stop falling.
Let’s not forget that the Obama administration is already taking military action against the Islamic State by bombing its positions in Iraq. And the military is conducting surveillance flights over Syria in preparation for military action there. But to the war caucus, whose advice has proven so calamitous in the past, it’s not big enough and it’s not fast enough.
We should be able to agree on at least one thing: Anyone proposing large-scale military action in Iraq or Syria, or both, ought to be required to explain how and why it will achieve the goal of destroying the Islamic State and exactly why the unintended consequences that result from some kind of invasion won’t be worse than those that would grow from a more carefully planned course of action. “Just start bombing already!” doesn’t qualify as an explanation.
If the war advocates ever get around to thinking about those consequences, they may come up with a compelling case for why proceeding carefully is a mistake, and why the dangers of acting methodically are greater than the dangers of acting with maximal force as soon as possible. They could be right. I think most Americans would be willing to listen. But they haven’t even tried to make that case. Instead, what we’re hearing is a lot like what we heard in 2003: The clock is ticking, the danger is rising, if we stop to think then we’re all gonna die.
Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for the Prospect and the author of “Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success.”