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Off to a war, maybe

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published Sept. 12, 2014

Off to a war, maybe
Douglas MacArthur got it right, two or so generations ago. "In war," he said after he was sacked by President Truman for wanting to spend the blood and muscle of young Americans for something greater than stalemate in Korea, "there is no substitute for victory."

Barack Obama, for all his gifts of $2 dollar-a-word rhetoric, can't bring himself to say anything as heroic and inspiring as that, though his vow to "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State (or ISIS) has a ring to it. It would have been more convincing if he had not added the ritual promise never to consider sending boots on the ground (isn't it time to retire this tiresome cliché?) or his reassurance to the barbarians that he intends to get tough, just not too tough.

Mr. Obama sounds like he's still counting on a lick and a promise to do what can't be done with words. He's sending 435 more soldiers, to what end is not yet clear, and dispatching more bombers to do what might not be possible from the air.. Mr. Obama, like many with a limited understanding of war and how the successful ones are fought, imagines that those boots on the ground are not necessary if a president can substitute a bomb for a magic bullet.

He promises that his new war in Iraq "will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil." But how can he know, if he intends to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic state? Who knows what it might take.

FDR, on the morning after Pearl Harbor, did not exclude boots on the ground or fire on the water in a campaign to degrade and destroy the Japanese empire, nor did he reassure the Nazis that he would only damage Germany a little. Even Abraham Lincoln, sainted though he was, did not tell Sherman to merely scorch the South a little when he freed him to burn a path from Atlanta to the sea, and, as Sherman put it, to kill even the puppies lest they grow up to be Confederate dogs.

In his attempt to reassure the America that he assumes is weary of war, he only reassures the enemy, which is not weary of war and remains as determined as ever to make war on Jews and Christians or anyone else who won't surrender to the domination of an Islamic caliphate. Mr. Obama cannot bring himself to the reality that war is what it is, like it or not. Nobody in the West likes war.

Nobody likes what it takes to fight and win a war. "This effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president saidWednesday night." He wants everyone, from Baghdad to Birmingham, from Damascus to Denver, to know that he's not like that warmongering George W. Bush. He's merely adopting George W.'s strategy (without even a wink or a nudge of appreciation) for killing terrorists overseas so he won't have to degrade and destroy at home.

He could have said something like this: "We have many weapons at hand, from diplomacy to financial to weapons of devastating power and the will to use whatever we must to destroy the Islamic State, and destroy it we will. We intend to take no prisoners." Terrorists sweat like everybody else.

The president is entitled to both our support and perhaps even a little grudging pity for a man who so foolishly invites scorn and ridicule. There are a few reluctant Republicans and silly others on the right who think that wishing the threat will make it go away, to leave noble liberals with a coveted place on the moral high ground.

Some of the things reluctant warriors in Mr. Obama's party say are true enough, but saying them on the eve of war is not helpful. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, a Democrat being hotly pursued in a race for re-election, says he's not a fan of those smelly boots, either, and he says the president must ask him (and other members of the Senate) to explain the details of his strategy, such as it might be, before anyone gets to pull a trigger.

Sen. Mark Begich, fighting for survival in November in Alaska, says he supports air strikes but that's about all. Al Franken of Minnesota, a refugee from "Saturday Night Live" who usually sounds like it, says he wants to hear more about "ramifications" before he signs his recruitment papers.

Mr. Obama has nobody to thank for this thin soup but himself. He dithered and dissembled himself into irrelevancy while the crisis accumulated. If this war, of whatever size it becomes, is worth spending the life of a single soldier, it is worth victory. That was once the American way.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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