How Washington Journalists Think

During his interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, President Obama said the United States is now ready “to start going on some offense” against ISIL. He announced that on Wednesday he will “make a speech and describe what our game plan’s going to be going forward.” He said that his planned action “is not the equivalent of the Iraq war.” And this time he says we have “a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem.”

But apparently, according to some critics, he shouldn’t have dared utter the following about his message to Americans on Wednesday:

But this is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops.

Later Mr. Obama said:

The notion that the United States should be putting boots on the ground, I think would be a profound mistake. And I want to be very clear and very explicit about that.

No, no, no, these critics say. Obama shouldn’t be “tipping his hand to ISIS” that way. Such an announcement is “priceless intelligence” that cost them nothing. And presumably because he is such a dumbass, Obama just gave it away for free. What’s wrong with that guy? Why doesn’t he know better?

Leaving aside the obvious point that ISIS gets exactly zero benefit in knowing that its fighters probably won’t be seeing the boots of Americans as they die for Allah, I want to call your attention to the person behind the critical notion above, a journalist named Ron Fournier.

He is the Senior Political Columnist and Editorial Director of National Journal, a publication for Washington insiders like, well, Ron Fournier. He appears often on Morning Joe and elsewhere on cable and presents himself as something of a non-partisan, non-ideological voice for common sense who is willing to criticize both sides. In this case, however, his criticism of Obama sounds like, well, Bill Kristol or Mike Rogers or Rick Perry.

Fournier, though, along with most of the other people who think Obama should not take off the table the possibility of American combat troops fighting in Iraq and Syria, don’t actually say they want those troops inserted into that mess. Most of Obama’s critics are very, very careful to say, as Fournier did,

I am not advocating the deployment of ground troops.

How courageous.

Because Fournier is a Washington insider, he can’t help but look at Obama’s no-boots assurance to the American people as a political move:

Is the no-troops-on-the-ground pledge an effort to satiate antiwar Democrats in the run-up to congressional elections in November, when control of the Senate is at stake? Or is less-cynical thinking afoot?

That’s the way insider types talk when they want to accuse Obama of something without actually accusing him of it. Since Fournier never actually answers the question he asks (and never names those “anti-war” Democrats who need satiated, likely because there just aren’t that many of them around), he gets to have it both ways. He does, though, offer us his Washingtonian explanation for all this hand-wringing over Obama’s alleged gift to ISIS:

Obama’s motive is important, because it goes to the durability of his promise. This should concern doves as much as hawks. If a factor as wispy as politics is driving the president’s thinking now, it stands to reason that Obama could, one day, consider the promise pliable. What happens if his fledgling coalition doesn’t stop ISIS? What if public opinion shifts a bit? This is how slippery slopes are built.

Notice that handy little “if” in that sentence. There is no evidence that Obama is trying “to satiate antiwar Democrats in the run-up to congressional elections in November,” as Fournier suggested he might be, but that “if” gives him license to suggest something dark and sinister is going on or, worse, might go on in the future that Fournier can claim he saw coming. If all that happens, if Obama changes his mind due to changes in the fight against ISIS and actually uses combat forces in a big way, Fournier is practically guaranteed a spot on all the cable shows as the sage of Washington journalists.

The truth, however, is likely as simple as this: President Obama said what he said about not putting American boots on the ground because he doesn’t think it is necessary or wise to put American boots on the ground, especially when there are other boots available, boots worn by people who have much to lose if they don’t aggressively take up the fight against the barbarians who have invaded their homelands.

But simply saying that won’t get a Washington insider a gig on cable TV.



  1. Troy

     /  September 9, 2014

    I suppose the world could just wait until ISIS has completely taken over those two countries ,and being that the case, all the bad eggs will then be in two baskets , where then the rest of the world could begin taking turns lobbing bombs into those countries ,marathon style, until there is nothing and no one left standing.


    • It might come to that, my man. Except, as usual, we would be lobbing most of the bombs. May as well do it now. We might be able to save some bombs and missiles.


  2. Calling politics a wispy factor is disingenuous of course. Politics can not be ignored by either party. It is the governor on the engine of executive power. Balky and inefficient as it is, it’s what separates our form of government from those like, say, North Korea’s in which the executive lobs shells and missiles and sinks ships at a whim. Which is not to say that our’s is perfect. When bad guys kill 3,000 people, our executive can get crazy too, but just not so much and not so fast.

    President Obama is politically courageous to pressure the Arab League to handle this out-of-control Islamic off-shoot. It involves public debate and delays when the common impulse is to act, well, impulsively. But he is looking at this long-term, not just for his last two years in office. The more the U.S. goes it alone the more it stands out as a target for the radicals. It is high time the moderate Muslims take responsibility in this mess and they have forces to deal with it. Saudi Arabia alone has armed forces of 200,000 people, including 75,000 in their army, and they are equipped with modern armaments. It’s time for them to man up.


    • Jim, you wrote:

      The more the U.S. goes it alone the more it stands out as a target for the radicals. It is high time the moderate Muslims take responsibility in this mess and they have forces to deal with it.

      Both of those statements are true. Absolutely true. My point all along, though, has been this: absent a broad coalition, and absent “moderate Muslims” taking responsibility, we would still have to act. I don’t see how we would have much of a choice. If we waited on certain nations to act, we would only be digging a deeper hole that would require more effort, possibly hundreds of thousands of ground troops, to overcome. We have local fighters there who are willing to fight, who are in fact fighting ISIL now.

      But it would undoubtedly be much, much better if we had that broad coalition of people, including Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, and it appears that Obama and Kerry are putting together something that might serve us well as we continue our efforts to inflict harm on those fanatical assholes.



      • Just read an editorial germane to the topic of fighting ISIS. David A. Andelman, editor in chief of World Policy Journal, wrote about some “new” thinking. He says that if the Kurds in northern Iraq and elsewhere were promised a free Kurdistan, they would have the will to be the boots on the ground to do the job. He has an interesting historical perspective: after WW I, the allies dismantled the Ottoman Empire, creating Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but forgot 30 to 40 million Kurds, scattering them across the Levant. The moderate rebels we’ve been looking for were right in front of us all the time, he says. Sounds appealing to me. I have long thought that Iraq, as W. envisioned it, is ethnically doomed. Here’s the link to his cogent argument.


  3. ansonburlingame

     /  September 9, 2014


    I begin with a quote from above, “make a speech and describe what our game plan’s going to be going forward.”

    Foreign policy, long term or short is not a “sport”. The use of the term “game plan” should be considered a misstatement. War and peace is not a game to be managed like a Super Bowl. Many Americans put foreign policy into just such a category, who is going to “win” the next “game”. Wrong thinking and wrong approach for sure, in my view.

    Everyone in the “world” knows and knows quite well that President Obama for sure, and probably any other President in the near term is NOT going to put large American combat forces back into the Middle East, anytime soon. It is politically not possible for America to do so and probably not possible financially for the next decade or so, if even then. If America will not to that, combat forces back into the Middle East, you can bet no other country, or coalition of countries will do so anytime soon. You can also bet ISIS knows just that as well.

    But “boots on the ground” can mean many other things. Is that not what a “lilly pad” defense is made of, small but very effective forces inserted to achieve a single mission and then leave before facing overwhelming force? Actually when you think about it we put boots above the ground all the time with men and women in airplanes over hostile grounds. Every now and then one or two of those boots go the the ground as well when a plane might be shot down.

    Back to the Super Bowl metaphor. Can you imagine any sane coach saying “I will not run any running plays next week and we will win the game in the air alone”. Stupid strategy to win a football game and stupid coach to make such a statement, much less try to carry it out.

    OUR problem right now as a country, forget partisan politics for a moment is we are now confronted with ANOTHER “Al Qaeda”, another Islamic terrorist group that uses despicable tactics to win its war with us. We have yet to complete our mission to destroy Al Qaeda and now we face ISIS (or ISIL). Next year, well your guess is as good as mine as to which new group might rise from the sands of the Middle East, like flys, and all we do is try to swat them with airplanes.

    Sometime fairly long ago, maybe in the early 1990’s, or earlier, radical Islam began to flex its muscles to thwart the goals of America. 20 plus years later that threat has GROWN at least in my view. Herb in his column in today’s Globe inferred we have in fact learned to protect the American homeland from terror, and spent some $4 Trillion in trying to do so. I disagree. I believe sooner rather than later some “bus” in America is going to blow up, like they still do from time to time in Israel. Then what, Mr. President or anyone else in America. Metal detectors before anyone boards a bus?

    ISIS, Al Qaeda, whatever other groups are present to attempt to challenge America are but the tips of one very large iceberg, the whole gamunt of radical Islam and the money that supports those various crazy groups.

    13 years ago we “built a coalition”, massed armies in the fields and in the air and look where we are today. The only thing for sure today is we won’t be massing any armies in the field. But like it or not that iceberg of radical Islam still floats around the world and the money keeps pouring in to it to keep it afloat, deep beneath the “surface”, unseen and even unacknowledged by many. Bombing the tips of an iceberg do nothing to destroy the source of such tips as well.

    So I ask any politician, how do we destroy that iceberg and stop dealing with “tips”. There is a precedent for just such happening as well. 50 years ago, like it or not, communism, now largely discredited, was just such an iceberg and we melted the SOB into pure water, over a long haul. But it was not easy and took a truly united country, America, to carry out that long term and difficult task. Are we in America up for another round with another iceberg? I don’t think so today.

    In the meantime there are plenty of buses, trains, planes, public buildings, chemical plants and nuclear facities all over America itself that still need protecting. Should we cancel the Patriot Act, stop the flow of money to a massive intelligence aparatus and just “talk them out” of trying to attack us or our friends and allies, like flys?

    For anyone interested, Silva’s book number 11 (the Allon series of books) speaks to just that dilemma and you won’t like what he has to say as well.



    • Ben Field

       /  September 9, 2014

      I find it odd that you chastise Duane’s use of the term “game plan” when you use it as well at the end of your most current blog. Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black or is this just a wording problem as you told me two blogs previously when I caught you misquoting your wife?


    • Anson,

      First, are you kidding about the “game plan” stuff? Obama was speaking to a reporter, rather informally. He wasn’t giving a speech. And even if he was, everyone understands what he was talking about. He, better than anyone, knows this is not a game. But people put things, in normal conversation, in frames they are used to using. Or they try to put things in the common vernacular. Man, oh, man. You can’t be serious.

      Otherwise, I have read your comment here and I confess I have no idea what position you are taking, other than we should just throw up our hands because there is nothing we can do.

      Besides not offering any coherent advocacy of any one position on your part, I found the following fairly disturbing:

      Herb in his column in today’s Globe inferred we have in fact learned to protect the American homeland from terror, and spent some $4 Trillion in trying to do so. I disagree. I believe sooner rather than later some “bus” in America is going to blow up, like they still do from time to time in Israel. Then what, Mr. President or anyone else in America. Metal detectors before anyone boards a bus?

      No one, and I include even Herb, would dare argue that there will never be another terror attack on the country. It is a given that someone, somewhere will manage to pull off some kind of terroristic crime. But no one can seriously argue that the country isn’t much, much safer today than before 9/11. You are asking for the impossible in a free country (and even in a non-free country): a crime-free existence. How can you conduct any sober analysis with that idea in mind? I don’t get it.

      Another thing. You talked about all that still needs to be done to protect the country, including parts of our infrastructure. Agreed. But you and your right-wing friends don’t want to spend any money, remember? You all think government is too large. Most on your side oppose increasing revenues. So, if you want to do more to protect a country you don’t think is safe, how about starting with people on your own side? I can guarantee you that Democrats would be willing to spend money on shoring up various sites. Tell your friends to support tax increases or, better yet, vote for Democrats who will, if there are sufficient numbers of them, do the job that needs to be done.

      Finally, about that iceberg metaphor and your saying,

      Bombing the tips of an iceberg do nothing to destroy the source of such tips as well.

      Of course, if you bombed a real iceberg, eventually you would have no iceberg. But even if your iceberg is a magic iceberg, capable of regenerating itself after repeated bombings, I would ask you this: even if “bombing the tips” did nothing to affect the overall mass of the iceberg, what is the alternative? NOT bombing the tips of the iceberg? Huh? You just want ISIL to go about their business, after beheading two Americans and threatening the entire region, a place where we have clear interests, with impunity? That’s what I find odd about your comments here, Anson. I don’t get it at all. That’s like saying that because we will never eradicate crime, we shouldn’t pursue criminals or worry about putting them in jail. After all, even if we do chase them down and put them in jail or execute them, there will always be other criminals.




  4. ansonburlingame

     /  September 10, 2014

    Leave our discussion on the other blog to that blog, not this one. Glad you caught your own misprint as well as I was not challenging Duane’s use of that term, I was challenging Obama.

    Why I so challenge the President is too long to state herein. But if you like go read “Wahhabism” on my own blog. I expand therein on why I believe we face an “iceberg” and suggest, hint, at ways to focus on THAT problem, not the tips of such that arise from time to time.



  5. ansonburlingame

     /  September 11, 2014


    Our exhange got lost in the string of comments herein. Permit me to respond to your last one, ending in “Geez”.

    That is my concern, now, after 13 years of not solving the “problem”. I am trying hard not to be partisan, even after last night’s speech by the President. The simple fact is that we have been at war since at least 9/11. Only once has Congress agreed and said “go attack Iraq”. Opps, that didn’t work very well now did it.

    My approach is different from both Dem and GOP public statements today, all about what to do about ISIS (I note we still call it ISIL from time to time as well, meaning just who the hell is “it” if we cannot agree on a name for “it”)

    It all goes as far back as Sun Zu and Clausewitz, know, exactly who your enemy might be and then kill the center of gravity of that enemy. We did that in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWI and WWII and even the Cold War.

    You know and I know that our enemy was, is and will remain radical Islam, a segment of the larger Islamic Faith,a virulent segment, spreading all over the Arab World using petrodollars to fund it. My guess is almost all those “fighters” we face today came from those Wahhabi schools we have long seen on videos. Kill that “head” and the funding from petrodollars to it and no more ISIS, Al Qaeda, etc.

    Even many Arabs would like just that, to kill the head of Wahhabi’s, including many in Saudi Arabia. But to say ISIS is not Islamic is like saying Southern Bapists are not Christians, If they think they are Islamic, use a cherry picked version of the Quran, have preachers all over the Arab world (and even some in America) spewing forth that hatred then they are radical Islamists no matter what we call them, politically. As well I believe the term synonymous with “terrorosts” at least within the context of our “war” in the Middle East.

    You and I are both frustrated with our lack of success in the War on …….. for the last 13 years. We both just want to STOP that war, like most Americans. Funny thing about combat however. If the enemy remains in the field, still armed and with lots of money, no war stops until ……..

    And when one just claims victory and leaves the field of battle, well …….? I know you won’t do it but I will at least ask you to do so. Go back to July 12, 2007 and listen to Bush II speak on how to leave Iraq. His prediction of what would happen if we failed to leave Iraq properly was exactly what we face right now, in Iraq.

    Had we done it his way, who knows the results. Maybe there was a better way to leave Iraq when we did. But for sure, leaving it as we did in 2010, well welcome to today in Iraq and Syria. As well the “Cairo appoach” has not worked very well, either.

    So for now I am looking for the head of a snake to KILL, not try to “talk to the snake” who believes very different and fundamental things that you and I believe.

    So I too say “Geez”.



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