September 1

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 show yesterday was a sentence that President Obama spoke in a press conference on 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.” Naturally, Republicans leaped to argue that Obama wasn’t actually talking about military action in Syria, but about dealing with the Islamic State (or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) 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, and then the discussion should quickly be shifted away from whatever it was actually about to how, thus decontextualized, it might be perceived.

So on “Meet the Press,” Andrea Mitchell ignored the fact that the question Obama was answering was about U.S. military action in Syria, and asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, “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 from Feinstein, 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 IS by bombing their 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.

And let’s be clear about this, too: the position of the people who pretend to be horrified at Obama’s “gaffe” about not having a strategy for invading Syria is that we don’t need a strategy. As Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — a man who wants to be commander in chief — said, “we ought to bomb them back to the stone age.” Having a carefully constructed plan that takes into account not just what you want to blow up but what the consequences of American action will be in the coming months and years? That’s for wimps. We should just invade, yesterday if possible, and worry about all the messy stuff later. After all, it worked in Iraq in 2003, right?

We should be able to agree on at least one thing: Anyone proposing large-scale military action in Iraq and/or Syria ought to be required to explain exactly how and why it will achieve the goal of destroying the IS, 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.

As Michael Cohen wrote over the weekend, “if there is any one lesson from the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the nearly 13 years since Sept. 11, 2001 it is that — exceptionalist rhetoric notwithstanding — America is far from omnipotent.” Obama has always understood that fact, to the endless exasperation of Republicans who would prefer to believe, in defiance of all evidence, that there is no problem that can’t be solved with sufficient deployment of U.S. munitions. And his impulse to use calming rhetoric is anathema to those (in both the GOP and media) who mistake bellicose fist-shaking for “strength.” But Cohen’s smart and measured op-ed ran inside a newspaper with the screaming headline “ISIS WILL BE HERE SOON” on its front page. The voices of panic are getting louder.