August 11

Now that the United States is engaging militarily in Iraq, both the Obama administration and its Republican critics are trying to convince the public that their preferred response to the situation there is the most appropriate one. That has produced a stark rhetorical divergence. To simplify a bit, the administration is arguing that this conflict has very little to do with us, but if we do the wrong thing, lots of other people could suffer. Republicans, on the other hand, are arguing that it’s all about us, and if we do the wrong thing lots and lots of Americans are going to die.

When the President has talked about Iraq in the last couple of weeks, his remarks have been a combination of moral justifications for helping the Yazidis and Kurds (he even used the word “genocide”), assurances to Americans that we won’t be pulled back into a ground war there, and discussions of how the ultimate solution to this problem has to involve political stabilization in Iraq. The message that comes through is: This is very important, but it isn’t really about America and Americans. Take, for instance, this interview he did with Thomas Friedman:

The president said that what he is telling every faction in Iraq is: “We will be your partners, but we are not going to do it for you. We’re not sending a bunch of U.S. troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things. You’re going to have to show us that you are willing and ready to try and maintain a unified Iraqi government that is based on compromise. That you are willing to continue to build a nonsectarian, functional security force that is answerable to a civilian government….We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL. We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void. So if we’re going to reach out to Sunni tribes, if we’re going to reach out to local governors and leaders, they’ve got to have some sense that they’re fighting for something.”

Otherwise, Obama said, “We can run [ISIL] off for a certain period of time, but as soon as our planes are gone, they’re coming right back in.”

One thing Obama plainly won’t be doing is trying to make us afraid. Not so his Republican critics, however. In any foreign crisis or conflict, their position is always that whatever Obama is doing is insufficiently aggressive. Now that we’re launching air strikes in Iraq, that means they have to argue for more substantial military involvement, which after a while could begin to sound like advocacy for another war. And so unlike Obama, they’re arguing that if we don’t step up our military involvement, Americans are going to be killed in large numbers. Appearing yesterday on Meet the Press, Rep. Peter King said this:

“Well first of all, David, this is not just Iraq. ISIS is a direct threat to the United States of America. What Dick Durbin just said and what President Obama has said, is really a shameful abdication of American leadership. This isn’t Iraq we’re talking about. And we can’t wait until Maliki and the Iraqi parliament to fight ISIS.

“Every day that goes by, ISIS builds up this caliphate, and it becomes a direct threat to the United States. They are more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9-11. So Dick Durbin says we’re not going to do this, we’re not going to do that. I want to hear what he says when they attack us in the United States.”

Strictly speaking, it’s true that ISIS is more powerful than Al Qaeda was on September 11. But it’s also irrelevant to what kind of threat they might pose to us. Al Qaeda didn’t need to be powerful in order to carry out the September 11 attacks; that was the whole point. They killed nearly 3,000 Americans using nothing but box cutters.

But King isn’t the only one saying ISIS is coming to get us. Here’s Lindsey Graham on Fox News Sunday:

“His responsibility as president is to defend this nation. If he does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL, whatever you want to call these guys, they are coming here. This is not just about Baghdad. This is not just about Syria. It is about our homeland.”

When Chris Wallace asked Graham if America really wanted to get deeply involved in two ongoing civil wars, Graham shot back, “Do you really want to let America be attacked?” He then followed up with, “Mr. President, if you don’t adjust your strategy, these people are coming here.”

The Republicans’ presumption is that with sufficiently aggressive American military action, ISIS can be dissuaded from taking an interest in terrorist attacks within the United States. Which is possible. It’s also possible that such action is precisely what would get them interested in such attacks.

As usual, what we’re hearing from Barack Obama is that this is a complex situation in which every course of action presents the danger of unintended consequences, while what we’re hearing from Republicans is that everything is actually very simple and it will all work out fine if we just blow enough stuff up. What Republicans don’t argue is that the future of Iraq and its people is reason enough in itself to determine what course we should take; our actions have to be dictated by the danger that ISIS is going to start setting off bombs in Shreveport and Dubuque. That may be because they genuinely believe that’s a possibility, or because they think that fear is a necessary ingredient in persuading Americans to go along with a large-scale American military action.

It may take a while to know for sure, but I’m skeptical that all too many people are going to be persuaded by this argument. After 13 years of taking our shoes off in airports, buying plastic sheeting and duct tape, and hearing the terror alerts go up and down — and more importantly, after the last Iraq war, also sold on the basis that if we didn’t invade Americans were going to die in huge numbers — the fear card isn’t so easily played. That isn’t to say that ISIS might not one day try to attack targets in the U.S. They might. But it’s going to be hard to convince the public that the way to eliminate that possibility is with a large military campaign in Iraq.