A Grown-Up Talks to Grown-Ups

What we saw on TV this evening was the product as advertised: No Drama Obama. The President said what had to be said. We need, he told us, to do measured, reasoned things to defend ourselves at home and abroad, and one of  them is cultivating a split between the radical Islamic fringe and the mass of Muslims.

This is the basic point that divides Obama from Trump and Cruz and Rubio and everyone in the 101st Chairborne Division who insists that Obama say “Islamic terrorism.” Really, it’s not hard to see that when it comes to Christianity: those of us who aren’t Christians want Christians to disavow Junior Falwell and the Westboro Baptist Church and that Bible-thumper who just shot up the Planned Parenthood clinic, and we know we can’t achieve that by insisting that every lunatic who has a cross at home or a pulpit to pound, and kills someone or makes speeches full of hatred, demonstrates that Christianity, as such, is evil.

By the same token, putting massive numbers of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria would be to follow the fox into the briarpatch. That, after all, is the great lesson of the Iraqi adventure. (As  @Lib_Librarian – not otherwise known to me – Tweeted, “You know the stupid thing we did before? Which got us in this mess? Yeah, let’s try to avoid that this time.”)  ”Not doing stupid sh*t” isn’t an emotionally satisfying foreign policy principle, but it beats the alternative all hollow.

But in some ways the tone of the speech was even more important than the substance. The President made his case with logical force but without dramatic passion. No anger. No shouting. He addressed us as a grown-up talking to other grown-ups about a difficult situation, not an adolescent gangbanger egging his homies on to some act of emotionally satisfying, but disastrous, retaliatory violence.

What Barack Obama’s fans love about him is precisely what the Red Team hates: his sanity. Unlike Trump, he doesn’t appeal to people who want a leader to express their rage for them and make them feel righteous about it: An Angry-Drunk-in-Chief.

What we need most, at this moment, is courage: the courage, as the President said yesterday, not to be terrorized, not to give the terrorists the power that only we can give them, by letting them bait us into folly, like stallion driven mad by a horsefly.

What I felt when the speech was over was a mixture of gratitude and pride: gratitude that we are being led by someone who prefers accuracy to dramatic passion, and pride, as both a Democrat and an American, at having a leader worth following.

Footnote  Given that being placed on the “no-fly” list means that, if you’re an American citizen abroad, you’re effectively stranded there, a virtual exile, Obama’s argument that someone dangerous enough to be on that list shouldn’t be able to acquire an arsenal seems reasonably sound. On the other hand, the objection that people are put on the list without due process, and have no effective recourse once they’re on it, also seems cogent. So how about we compromise: Give everyone on the no-fly list full notice and an opportunity to be heard and represented, and extend the consequences of being on that list to not being able to buy weaponry?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.