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Thursday, December 8, 2016

President Obama has taken to heart at least two hard-won lessons from nearly six years in office: Don’t treat September 11 like any other day, and don’t entrust your fate to Congress.

There’s a third one that I hope he will stick with, even in the face of Islamic State advances and horrific executions, and that is to ignore demands like this one this week from former vice president Dick Cheney at the American Enterprise Institute: “Our president must understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win.”

Presidents and presidential candidates have gotten into trouble by describing the “war” on terror as hinging mainly on intelligence and law enforcement. Secretary of State John Kerry, running in 2004, even said the goal was to reduce terrorism to a “nuisance.” Bush-era officials used the same word, noting back then that terrorist attacks did not change military outcomes or signify political influence.

Nuisance is a jarring term, given the savagery and nihilism of terrorist tactics, and in any case it doesn’t apply at this point in history, with the Islamic State making inroads in Syria and Iraq. Yet Cheney, at the opposite extreme, is also wrong. A great nation should not talk about going to war against rogue bands of barbarians. That elevates them to a level they don’t deserve or warrant.

Obama was at the nuisance end of the spectrum — seeming entirely too casual and distracted — in 2012. In the stretch run of his re-election campaign, he and his administration appeared to be caught off guard by the September 11 murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But this year, with the grisly videotaped beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff fresh in the minds of Americans, Obama is engaged in highly visible, high-stakes preparations to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State perpetrators.

While he is making polite noises about consulting with Congress, the president has no intention of seeking a vote on his plans. A year ago, Obama asked lawmakers to authorize air strikes against the Syrian government because it had crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons. Americans were largely opposed, Congress was divided, and the outcome on Capitol Hill was uncertain. Obama found an escape hatch when Russian president Vladimir Putin offered a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.

This week, Obama told congressional leaders he has the authority he needs to go after the Islamic State. The wisdom of that approach was immediately apparent. House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi did not press for a vote after meeting with Obama — they know many members don’t want one. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, by contrast, said Obama “should be seeking congressional approval, period,” whether he thinks he needs it or not. But that would invite gridlock, grandstanding, knee-jerk Obama rejectionism — all the hallmarks of a Congress that two-thirds in a new CNN poll rated the worst in their lifetimes. It’s a risk Obama shouldn’t take.

There are of course honest differences among lawmakers about what we should be doing, and to some extent they mirror the larger picture. In that CNN poll, 36 percent said Obama is too cautious, 28 percent said he is not cautious enough, and 35 percent said his approach is about right. Whatever he does, he likely won’t please even half the country.

That said, a round of new polls suggests Americans are increasingly anxious about terrorism and receptive to military action. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 47 percent said the nation is less safe now than before the 9/11 attacks. That’s up from 28 percent last year. In addition, 61 percent said military action against the Islamic State would be in the national interest, compared with only 21 percent who felt that way a year ago about striking Syria.

The precipitating factor appears to be the beheadings of the journalists. An extraordinary 94 percent said they had seen, read or heard news of the incidents, only 6 percent had not.

For now, Obama has the public behind him and a chance to demonstrate that he’s learned a few more lessons, such as how to manage what he calls the “theater” and “optics” of the presidency and how to sound assertive without setting deadlines or issuing ultimatums that fall by the wayside. My hope is that he holds fast to a middle ground and avoids past mistakes, both his own and Cheney’s. No red lines, no declarations of war without end and no undermining his own passion and commitment with an ill-timed round of golf.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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