My own dismay (even bewilderment) at the current mood in America may well be because I was largely off-grid in August. But it’s still a truly remarkable shift. In a month, the entire political landscape has reverted to Bush-Cheneyism again. I honestly thought that would never happen, that the grisly experience of two failed, endless wars had shifted Americans’ understanding of what is possible in the world, that the panic and terror that flooded our frontal cortexes from 9/12 onward would not be able to come back with such a vengeance. I was clearly wrong. Terrorism does not seem to have lost any of its capacity to promote total panic among Americans. The trauma bin Laden inflicted is still overwhelming rationality. It would be harder to imagine a more stunning success for such a foul mass murder.
The party that was primarily responsible for the years of grinding, bankrupting war, a descent into torture, and an evisceration of many core liberties is now regarded as superior to the man originally tasked with trying to recover from that experience. The political winds unleashed by a few disgusting videos and a blitzkrieg in the desert have swept all before them. And we now hear rhetoric from Democratic party leaders that sounds close to indistinguishable from Bush or Cheney.
Is it merely panic? I doubt it. I think what’s also coursing through the collective psyche is the thought that Obama told us we were finally out of Iraq – and events have shown that assurance to be shaky at best. A core part of his legacy has had the bottom fall out of it. I don’t think most people – outside the Tea Party – really believe that all would be well if we’d just kept more troops in country the last couple of years. But the resurgence of the Sunni insurgency – now tinged with the most fanatical of theocratic barbarisms – is nonetheless blamed on Obama. Maybe it could have been contained without the beheadings. But they touched so many visceral chords that the Jacksonian temperament, always twitching beneath the surface of American life, simply bulldozed away every conceivable objection and doubt.
But will this last? I have my doubts. The Republicans are actually ambivalent about this war – largely because Obama is the president. For a while, they’ll bash him for not being “tough” enough – as if toughness has been shown to be the critical virtue in the fight against Jihadist terrorism. But when and if it actually comes to ground troops, my guess is that they’ll get cold feet. Apart from the unhinged McCain and Butters, few of them are so delusional to think we should re-occupy the place indefinitely. Maybe ISIS can do the neocons a favor and engage in some domestic terrorism to ratchet up the global stakes once again – in which case, we will very much be back where we started, our collective memory erased like those lab rats we covered earlier today.
My point is this: when they actually have to choose to go back to Bush-Cheneyism, and an endless, global civilizational war, Americans will not be as gung-ho as they now appear to be, in the wake of ISIS’ propaganda coups and the Beltway’s hysteria.
If the air-strikes do manage to contain the threat, and they don’t provoke another terror attack, Obama’s anti-terror minimalism might even appear the least worst option over time, and his caution admirable in retrospect. My worry, of course, is that the demonization of the president by the Fox News echo-chamber has rendered any sober judgment about his anti-terror policies moot. You can see the deep currents at work here: paranoia about border security, a bigoted belief that Obama actually favors Islamism, and the memes of racism, otherness and barbarism that ISIS both triggers and, in part, is designed to trigger. It doesn’t help that he is at the moment in a two term presidency when we are looking past him to the future, when discontent is inevitable, and in a time when the economy continues to pummel the working poor and the middle class.
Like me, Peter Beinart is alarmed by the change in the national mood:
The GOP’s advantage on “dealing with foreign policy,” which was seven points last September, is now 18. And the shift toward Republicans has been strongest among women. In August, women were 14 points more likely to support Obama’s foreign policy than men, according to a Wall Street Journal poll. Now the gap is down to two points. In August, white women favored a Democratic Congress by four points. Now they favor a Republican Congress by eight. As in 2002, Democrats are responding by becoming more hawkish. In October 2002, most Democrats in competitive Senate races voted to authorize the Iraq War. Last week, Obama announced a multi-year air campaign against ISIS.
But it doesn’t work. Almost all the imperiled Democrats in 2002 lost anyway. And there’s no evidence that Obama’s new hawkishness is helping him politically either.
The great error was Obama’s effective endorsement of the panic. Maybe if he hadn’t done so, the Democrats would be wiped out this fall. Maybe any president would have had to appear to do something as Americans are beheaded in a desert and the images flood the web. But maybe a determined stoicism and refusal to panic might have undergirded Obama’s core appeal, shored up his base, and in time, seemed far more responsible than Butters’ vapors.
No one said it’s an easy job. But I fear Obama’s pragmatism may have just made it even harder.
(Photo: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks next to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz during a visit at the Pentagon on March 25, 2003. Bush asked Congress for a wartime supplemental appropriations of $74.7 billion to fund needs directly arising from the war in Iraq and the global war against terror. By Alex Wong/Getty Images.)