Following last Sunday’s column, in which I expressed approval of President Barack Obama playing “‹golf after discussing American journalist James Foley’s murder, a friend asked me if I had any regrets about taking that position.
“No,” I replied, “I’d double down on it.—‹
I’d double down because I think it’s arrogant for us to presume we know what the president is thinking, what he knows, what he’s planning, how he’s grieving or how America will respond.
I’d double down because the president is on his game as commander in chief even while playing golf — and because it’s presumptuous on our part to assume any less.
I’d double down, too, because I remember when President Obama attended the White House Correspondent’s Dinner on April 30, 2011. Obama, seemingly at ease and on his game, laughed heartily when host Seth Meyers, quipped, “People think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush, but did you know that every day from 4 to 5 he hosts a show on C-SPAN?”
A prophetic turn of phrase: Within hours C-SPAN announced that SEAL Team Six had killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
I’d double down because I know, too, that on Jan. 28, 1980, an American clandestine operation extracted six American diplomats from Tehran during the height of the hostage crisis — an operation dramatized in the movie “Argo.”
Jimmy Carter was president then. Up for re-election against Ronald Reagan, he made no allusion to that successful extraction — even though that might have enhanced his re-election chances — as such a revelation might have put the 444 hostages still held at the occupied American Embassy in further jeopardy.
Carter lost to Reagan, but no American was lost to the Iranians.
We don’t know what we don’t know about what our leaders know — or will do — and that’s a good thing. More than 20 Western journalists and aid workers remain missing in the Levant, believed held by ISIS, as well as the dozens of Arab journalists and citizens they hold or have already killed. In the ISIS film of Steven Sotloff’s murder, another man, possibly British, is threatened with death. ISIS also holds captive a 26-year-old American woman.
The burden of those remaining captives, as well as the anger, memories and loss over the deaths that have already occurred, are not an inconsequential burden for our president. But beyond them are the geostrategic considerations that are Obama’s — considerations that affect us all.
“‹ISIS’s Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff videos “‹are nearly unwatchable. Along with the deaths of more than 70 other journalists in the Syrian theater, the death toll is climbing. The hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq and Syria and the millions living either as refugees or displaced people attest to the horrors visited upon the region.
Let me reiterate: I am glad the president played golf. I’m glad the president is not showing his hand. I’m glad he’s is being deliberate about deciding upon and defining what America’s Middle East objectives should be. I’m glad we don’t know everything he’s thinking.
True, his demeanor is often exasperating — he doesn’t act like any president or politician we’ve grown up with — but that doesn’t make him wrong. He was dealt a bad hand in the economy, he was dealt a badly broken Middle East and he’s confronted by a Republican opposition that today appears anti-patriotic in their attempts to delegitimize him while crises from Kiev to Karbala roil the globe.
I believe such Republicans are giving aid and comfort to the enemy at a time when the country should be speaking with one voice — the commander in chief’s voice — a commander in chief, I might remind conservatives, tea partiers, libertarians and associated fellow travelers, who was elected by Americans in accordance with the Constitution to which they’ve sworn allegiance.
When the president of the United States speaks, as he did after the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two audiences listen him to — one American, one international; one supportive, one antagonistic. As much as he, and we, might wish it’s not his job to eulogize and mourn every American death at the hands of terrorists. He can’t be seen breaking stride at every provocation. It would become open season on Americans everywhere.
From Fox News and the mainstream media, little attempt is made to deconstruct the motivations of the state and non-state actors opposing American and Western interests. We need also to remember that America has fed into the cycle of visual, violent pornography that both repels and recruits the criminal disaffected, disenfranchised lunatic fringe into organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Little attempt is made to contextualize the ISIS videos, and their appeal to jihadists, alongside images from Abu Ghraib, the stories from Bagram, the destroyed CIA interrogation torture tapes, the waterboarding, the testimonies of captives held by Americans and their allies, of soldiers urinating on Afghan bodies and videos of Qurans being desecrated and burned — all images made in our name — to understand, not to justify, jihadist motivations.
In 2004, bin Laden released a video in which he claimed, “(It is) easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”
Obama is being baited, on one side by the flag of ISIS, which wants to legitimize itself by taking on America, and on the other side by flag-waving American warhawks, eager for vengeance and war.
I believe both sides will lose out to Obama’s nuanced, considered response — a response that”‹ finds “‹a straight path in the fairways and avoids the sand traps and water hazards.
In my no-spin zone, I believe that if I were ISIS’s leader, Abdul Aziz Al-Baghdadi, I would not be sleeping well these days — in fact, I might not be sleeping at all. I would know all too well what happened to bin Laden and other ISIS leaders.
Al-Baghdadi has nowhere to hide. Today, he tosses and turns, waiting for that moment when a sniper’s bullet or Hellfire missile ends his life. At that moment, Al-Baghdadi will be gone but we must realize that that is only our mission’s beginning.
As we pray for Obama to destroy ISIS, let us pray he also finds a path out of this whack-a-mole cycle of vengeance that we have been drawn into from Ground Zero to Pakistan to Libya.
It’s about justice, it’s about peace. It’s not about vengeance.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.