September 3

This morning in Estonia, President Obama responded to the videotaped murder of journalist Steven Sotloff by ISIS, saying, “We will not be intimidated,” and “Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists.” This more confrontational rhetoric suggests that an acceleration of American military action will not be long in coming. If ISIS was hoping to draw that military response by killing Americans and disseminating the acts in videos, it looks like they’ll be getting their wish.

At the same time, however, members of the media (and conservatives, of course) were jumping all over Obama for another line: “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.” The sin here was apparently the word “manageable.”

If Obama had said, “My plan is to go over there and punch Abu Bakr al-Baghadi in the face, whereupon all his followers will disappear in a puff of smoke and we’ll never have to worry about them again,” he would have been praised for being “tough.” But because he is acknowledging that dealing with ISIS is going to be a complex process that will play out over an extended period of time, Obama will get pilloried.

You’re supposed to say, “I’ll crush ‘em, and it’ll all be over in a week.” And history shows that this is exactly what the American public wants. The kind of overseas involvements that maintain strong public support are those that end quickly, with an emphatic victory. This isn’t going to be one of those, which means that in the court of public opinion, Obama is all but doomed.

The ridiculous hand-flapping over the fact that Obama used the words “manageable problem” in relation to ISIS (they’re particularly excited about it over at Fox News) is reminiscent of the 2004 presidential campaign. John Kerry suggested that the “war on terror” wasn’t something that would end with a victory parade, instead saying the best-case scenario was to reduce terrorism to the point where it no longer required a constant war footing and public panic. “As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling,” he said. “But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

Naturally, everyone in the media screamed “Gaffe!” and George W. Bush’s campaign immediately turned it into an attack ad. In all ended for the best, because Bush won reelection, and by the time he left office in 2009, there were no more terrorists anywhere in the world and the tactic of killing civilians to achieve political ends had vanished from the earth forever.

It’s clear that neither the media nor the public has much tolerance for military undertakings that are complicated, lengthy, and have uncertain outcomes. If you look back at public opinion in past conflicts, what you see is that there’s usually strong support at the outset, particularly if it seems like the objectives are clear and everything will be concluded quickly. The trouble is that with a couple of exceptions, that’s not how things turn out. If we can wrap up the little war in a week or two, as with Grenada or Gulf War I, then approval remains high. But the longer it goes, the more public support degrades over time, as it did on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of course, a lengthy war is in most cases one that isn’t going swimmingly, almost by definition. But the nature of ISIS — a well-funded group spread out over a wide geographic area — means that defeating them (or reducing them to a manageable problem) isn’t something that could be accomplished with a couple of weeks of bombing, unless you also wanted to kill a few million of the people we’re trying to save from them in the process.

So here’s what’s likely to happen. Obama will increase our military involvement beyond the limited air campaign now going on. He may get a temporary rush of approval as everybody gets excited about a newly kinetic engagement, even though Republicans will say that whatever he’s doing is weak, and if he was stronger than we would have already defeated ISIS. But even in the best-case scenario, one involving the Iraqi government getting its act together, the conflict will stretch out over a long period of time. The public — and the press — will lose their taste for it, regardless of whether alternatives might have produced worse outcomes.