Milbank to America: Let’s Panic, Everybody!

There were plenty of critical SOTU reactions that I found easy to dismiss, and a few I at least partially agreed with. The most irritating, though, was from WaPo’s Dana Milbank, who for some reason decided to devote his SOTU column to the claim that Obama (and to a significant extent the GOP) was focused on domestic policy even though he ought to be freaking us out on the new, apparently unprecedented terrorism threat.

Milbank even began his column with a Churchill-cries-in-the-wilderness reference, though he did stop short of any Munich metaphors:

In 1938, Winston Churchill published “While England Slept,” about Britain’s failure to prepare for the Nazi threat.

Let’s hope that, when the history of this moment is written, the 2015 State of the Union address will not be retold under the title “While America Slept.”

Not since before the 2001 terrorist attacks has there been such a disconnect between the nation’s focus and the condition of the world. As threats multiply in the Middle East and Europe, President Obama delivered on Tuesday night an annual message to Congress that was determinedly domestic. And his inward-looking gaze is shared by lawmakers and the public.

Later on, Milbank allows as how Obama did ask Congress for a force authorization to wage the fight against IS–the most any president or Congress could do in dealing with an entity that is not a recognized state–but apparently didn’t talk about it enough to suit him.

I know it’s just assumed by some excitable people that it is self-evident IS (or its beheading of journalists, or the attacks in Paris, or in Belgium) represents something new and horrifying in the world that requires that we freak out and talk about nothing else. I still don’t quite understand the panic. Yes, IS has conquered a lot of territory in some anarchic regions of the Middle East. That makes them more, not less, deterrable from direct attacks on Europe and the U.S., because they have assets that can be easily identified and attacked with overwhelming U.S. force if they really lose their grip. Yes, a lot of Western nationals are going to the Middle East to fight for IS and many may come back. Nobody’s explained to me yet how the kind of war they are fighting in Iraq and Syria is such excellent training for a terrorist attack in an entirely different kind of country.

Of course so long as people are willing to sacrifice their lives in attacking those they hate, terrorist acts will be possible, and will occur from time to time. Total security is impossible. So long as the U.S. and its allies are doing everything possible to prevent, detect and stop truly catastrophic attacks (which I trust the Obama administration is doing; it’s not the sort of thing you give speeches on), significantly lowering the risk and frequency of Paris-style attacks may be the most we can reasonably expect. We can and should have a debate now and then about how much spending and how much lost privacy–and for that matter, how much blowback–we are willing to accept to lower the risk by small intervals. But agitating the air over terrorism and trying to panic our own population is precisely what we should not be doing.

I dunno, maybe Milbank’s WaPo overlords asked him to write this because Marc Thiessen wasn’t scheduled to write and Jennifer Rubin unaccountably chose to do what Milbank accuses us all of doing by writing mainly on domestic issues (though she did call for higher defense spending without any particular rationale for it). But it was way over the top, not least with the Churchill analogy. Lest we forget, Churchill was dealing with a British political establishment (especially in his adopted Conservative Party) that was half-sympathetic to Hitler as a potential counterweight to Soviet Russia, and very actively avoiding any use of force whatsoever. That’s not where much of anybody in either party is with respect to IS. So this is the reddest of herrings.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.