President Obama's speech to the nation on ISIL and the follow-up statements by the White House and administration officials reveal the political bind that American policy makers find themselves in when dealing with the chaos in the Middle East, or in the Ukraine and Sudan for that matter. Beginning with the disillusionment over the war in Vietnam, followed by a series of misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people are much more skeptical of adopting the role of the world's policeman.
At the same time, American presidents -- and much of the American public -- take seriously our position as the most powerful and militarily dominant nation in the world, and, more importantly, as defender of the freedom and human rights of all people. A stark example of this in recent weeks was the abrupt shift in public opinion after the execution of hostages by ISIL. Prior to those barbaric acts, polls indicated a distinct aversion to returning to the battle in Iraq. After the executions, public support for intervention grew to over 70 percent.
What had really changed? While the executions were gruesome, the threat from ISIL had not changed because of this horrific act. As brutal as ISIL's actions were, it did not alter the complex calculus of the Middle East, where sectarian strife, tribalism, dictatorship and divided loyalties make for chaotic and shifting landscape. The purity of evil is not confined to ISIL -- witness the brutal oppression of many of the Arab regimes and the terrible violence inflicted across the region on innocent civilians.
President Obama, along with political leaders from both sides of the aisle, has cited the national security threat of ISIL, specifically the potential for attacks on the United States homeland. However, most counterterrorism experts agree that the threat is relatively low from ISIL, probably less than from other terror groups or individuals acting alone. Still, the White House and the administration invoke our national security in proposing air strikes and other military action. At the same time, it is evident that most policymakers, including probably Obama himself, do not see much chance of eliminating ISIL or similar groups for a generation or more.
So goes the political dance in America between reality and rhetoric. However, most Americans see past the rhetoric. They understand the reality that the Middle East is a mess and that American military action is not going to do much. Nevertheless, they also understand that the United States has a unique role to play in the world, and when we see stark examples of brutality and suffering on our television screens, we recognize that America must step forward, if only as a symbolic gesture. Despite our reluctance to assume the role of world's policeman, we are also unwilling to give up our status as a beacon of freedom and human rights. Unlike other nations, we believe that we should not act solely in our own interests; rather we assume a greater responsibility for human suffering around the world.
Certainly, there are lots of places in the world where evil exists and America refuses to act. In fact, there are many more instances of violence and suffering that we choose to ignore. However, America is still the only nation that consistently enters the fray when dangerous disputes break out. And that is because the American people -- not the politicians or the media or the power elite -- want it that way.
Of course, this has led to disastrous overreaching in the past -- Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are stellar examples. But despite these epic failures, Americans retain the impulse to do the right thing, even though we often get it wrong. As Winston Churchill famously said, "Americans will always do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other alternatives."