is the author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.
Barack Obama has delivered many superb speeches in his national political career. A gifted orator when inspired, Obama can stir and spur others. Obama’s address to the nation from the Oval Office on December 6, 2015, following the slaughter in San Bernardino, California, may not have moved many citizens, but for that very reason I would suggest it was perhaps the most important speech, even the best speech, he has made as president. As Republican presidential candidates compete with one another to corner the political market on mindless machismo in response to terrorism—with Ted Cruz the apparent winner by insisting that he would order the Defense Department to carpet-bomb the Islamic State into submission—Obama remains preternaturally cool, calm, and composed. When under fire, the world’s most powerful nation-state needs self-possession in those who govern. Ironically, this sensibility seems to frustrate even those well-disposed to Obama. Frank Bruni, sounding eerily similar to David Brooks slandering John Kerry in the 2004 election, “question[s] the intensity of Barack Obama’s focus on the Islamic State and the terrorist threat,” insisting that “we didn’t see quite the passion that this moment demands or quite the strength that a fearful country craves.” Bruni, alas, is too focused on dissecting the fearful bigotry of Donald Trump to notice, let alone admit, his own undue fear of the “barbarians” at the gate.
What was remarkable about Obama’s speech—and about his presidency as a whole—was its utter lack of ressentiment. This is a president with every reason to be furious. The Islamic State is a murderous force that could not have come into being if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had not indulged the neo-conservative fantasy of regime change in Iraq. The blood on their hands knows no apparent end or limit. But he has refused to single them out and hold them responsible for what they have wrought. Obama not only declined to prosecute them for their various crimes against the Constitution and humanity when he first took office. Despite their horrific legacy, he effectively assumes unqualified responsibility for the Islamic State and asks Congress to join him by authorizing the use of military force against it. If Congress really believes that the United States is at war with the Islamic State—which individual members can’t say often enough—then it’s time to prove it with something other than rants and raves.
Obama addressed the nation on December 6 and offered the American people a lesson in “tragedy.” This kind of political education is precisely what many Americans gripped by fear and panic do not want right now, but it may be exactly what is needed. It can provide necessary distance which, not to be confused with indifference, is critical so we don’t blindly make matters worse—not despite but because of actions we take. The tragedy to which Obama referred is not (just) that fourteen people “were brutally murdered.” The tragedy is that the United States, as I mentioned, created the circumstances that made it possible for the Islamic State to emerge and nothing we do can rewrite the past or lessen our culpability. The tragedy is that the Islamic State has “turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common” in the United States, which means that while we can defend ourselves (and can do more to defend ourselves), we will never be able to provide a foolproof guarantee that more terrorist attacks won’t take place. We have engendered that kind of hatred. The tragedy is that Obama must insist, whether it’s credible or not, that the United States will overcome terrorism, destroy the Islamic State, and ultimately prevail “by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.” Yet to prevail here means that the Islamic State cannot and will not be destroyed by American military power. To privilege a resort to arms is self-defeating and self-destructive: “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like [the Islamic State] want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. [Islamic State] fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”
Unlike Jeb Bush, Obama knows that the Islamic State cannot “destroy Western civilization.” The tragedy is that the United States has mortal enemies that wish it deadly harm and there is nothing that we can do to eliminate existential enmity and the nihilistic violence it inspires. The world is not ontologically or politically predisposed in America’s favor. The tragedy is that the best we can do is contain and control the Islamic State, a necessarily modest policy that is already showing signs of success in Iraq, which also means that the Islamic State has already made plans and preparations for its strategic retreat to Libya—when the time comes. And should it be driven from Libya in a few years, under a different president, no doubt it will relocate elsewhere. The drive to eliminate evil actors altogether from the world cannot be redeemed. The tragedy is that successful terrorist attacks in the United States do not mean that the Islamic State is not being effectively countered. The tragedy is that it means that the United States is again experiencing the kind of violence that much of the rest of the world experiences routinely—and for which the United States is often responsible.
Barack Obama spent part of his national address suggesting “what we should not do.” He understands better than the Republicans running for his job that the United States must be careful not to betray its own values in the effort to protect the country from terrorist attack. Above all else, we must not become the enemy we oppose and fight, a problem the United States did not negotiate well during the country’s prior global struggle with the Communist Other in the Cold War. Unfortunately, it is a fate to which the United States has already succumbed—that is, long before the United States started thinking publicly about denying refugees that it helped create entry into the country. George Bush resorted to illegal war, rendition, secret gulags, and torture, all in the name of defending the so-called homeland. As I said, no one knows this descent better than Barack Obama, not only because he made a conscious choice not to prosecute the criminals that preceded him in the executive branch. Obama knows this dissolution well because, among other things, his own drone war has killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians in a callous disregard for life and limb in the pursuit of national security and to protect our way of life. The tragedy is that we may not have become our enemy, but we are not as different from it as we would like to think either, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The difference may or may not be small, but it is still significant and that is what Barack Obama tried to tell the nation on December 6, especially when he implored us to “make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional.” The tragedy is that it doesn’t look like very many were listening—or capable of hearing.