There’s a very 2001 feel to President Obama’s request for authorization to use military force and the nauseating sense that we'll be at war indefinitely.
Although we haven’t suffered a catastrophic hit as we did on 9/11, we’ve been witness to atrocities — vicious promissory notes on debts to be collected — that are tailor-made to evoke an emotional response from our allies and us. It doesn’t much matter at this point who started it or what prior actions may have contributed to present circumstances. We are faced with fresh horrors that demand present actions.
Or, do they?
As proposed, the new authorization would allow the commander in chief to use military force against the Islamic State, without geographical restrictions, but only for three years and not for “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Translation: We’re coming to get you, Islamic State, but we’ll be in and gone before you know it.
Both Democrats and Republicans have found aspects of the authorization with which they disagree, but at least they’re talking to each other. Even so, Americans are justified in wondering whether this crowd (or any) is up to the task and whether we’ve learned anything from previous wars. As Afghanistan taught us, it doesn’t make much sense to tell the enemy our schedule. What’s three years in the context of a centuries-old grudge?
To this point, a Libyan terrorist group has announced its goal of destroying Rome. That’s so Middle Ages, but the men in black apparently didn’t get the memo about time marching on and are still seething at Pope Urban II. Here we are reveling in 40 years of Saturday Night Live, and they’re chopping off people’s heads.
At least their declaration liberates us finally to admit, if only to ourselves, that we are, indeed, engaged in a religious war at the behest of zealots whose bloodlust boils down to didactic theater. Herein lies a crucial point in our deliberations: To defeat an enemy clinging to the first millennium B.C., it may be necessary to huddle around a single candle and try to think as a Middle Ager.
We wonder, for instance, at the ritualized executions of innocents and marvel at the technological sophistication of the Islamic State’s distribution of its videotaped savagery. Yet a quick glimpse at history confirms that these spectacles are merely modernized versions of vintage rites. Medieval punishments, including beheadings, burnings and crucifixions, were popular both for their power to terrorize and for the religious connotation of penance.
These radical Islamists sure know their audience. They don’t necessarily hate those they kill; they’re not even necessarily punishing them. Rather they are using these human sacrifices as bait — for us. When President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, he said he was taking the war to the terrorists. In this case, it may be the Islamic State that is luring us to their battlefields.
Their faith in our axiomatic response is not unfounded.
With each of their actions, the world has provided a predictable reaction. Six months ago, we began military action in response to the Islamic State’s beheading of journalist James Foley. After Jordan’s pilot was immolated, Jordan launched strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. And, in response to the murders of 21 of its citizens, Egypt bombed Islamic State targets in Libya.
These responses have a knee-jerk quality to them that speaks to concerns about a lack of strategy on our part, while enhancing the Islamic State’s recruitment and propaganda powers.
Meanwhile, bless our hearts for debating the parameters of war — whether three years is enough, too little or, most likely, inapplicable. We may as well be playing chess with polar bears. Obama himself has said that this war will extend well beyond his tenure, thus signaling that hell awaits his successor.
Guardedly, we await the next atrocity and the deliberations of a Congress in which we have little confidence. Our legislators and president will need more than noble intentions or good ol‘ American values. They'll need the wisdom of the ages — and a coalition of the civilized world.
© 2015, Washington Post