Friday, September 26, 2014

Time War

“It’s harder to end a war than begin one. Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq—all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering—all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”
—President Obama, at Fort Bragg last December

“Certainly in my position as President of the United States and as a student of history, very rarely have I seen the exercise of military power providing a definitive answer either.”
—President Obama, in Seoul in April

“I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”
—President Obama, in the White House on August 7

“Last month I ordered our military to take targeted action against ISIL to stop its advances. Since then we’ve conducted more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq.”
—President Obama, from the White House on September 10

What is there about Barack Obama that begs for him to be compared to pop culture science fiction characters?

As I noted in the first days of Obama’s presidency, a lot of people back then kept comparing him to the Vulcans of Star Trek, particularly Mr. Spock. This was because people saw him as logical, intelligent, emotionally controlled and very, very cool.

As I noted on my movie blog, however, a much better comparison—at that point anyway—was with the character of Ambassador Kosh on the TV show Babylon 5. Kosh was a Vorlon, a member of a very old, very advanced race who kept himself hidden but when he revealed himself to inferior species (like humans) each observer perceived him as whatever religious figure (an angel for Christians, various prophets or deities for other believers) was significant to the observer.

This seemed apt to me because, up until Obama’s ascension to the presidency and even for a while afterwards, lots of observers were intent on seeing what they wanted to see. Obama won the 2008 election by a pretty healthy margin, meaning that a lot of moderates and even some conservatives joined liberals in voting for him. In TV panel discussions, you could hear pundits arguing that candidate Obama was everything from a far-left radical to a centrist to even (by some anyway) a moderate conservative. Some observers noted that the candidate had an uncanny knack for speaking to groups, no matter how diverse in their opinions, and having every member in the audience leave thinking that he agreed with them.

But now a different beloved TV icon screams out to be compared to the U.S. president—the title character from the venerable BBC series Doctor Who.

If you haven’t been watching Doctor Who lately, here’s a quick update. As a prelude to last November’s 50th anniversary special, a new past incarnation of the Doctor was born in a seven-minute web episode called “The Night of the Doctor.” The time-and-space-faring Doctor has always been a hero who eschews violence and spends much of his time saving people—if not entire planets or galaxies or sometimes the whole universe. In “The Night of the Doctor,” however, we see the eighth iteration of the Doctor (played by Paul McGann) confronted with an out-of-control conflagration (the Time War) between the nihilistic Daleks and his home world of Gallifrey, which threatens to destroy the whole of reality. He comes to realize that his current incarnation is not of much use in this situation and elects to regenerate into a warrior known as the War Doctor (played by John Hurt).

Somewhat similarly Barack Obama, whose six years in office have been marked by the continually stated goal of ending wars and avoiding conflict through cooperation and negotiation, has now transformed himself into the War President. Only a year ago he said in an address to the nation, “America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.” By contrast, at the United Nations on Wednesday, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said of the self-named Islamic State, “There can be no reasoning—no negotiation—with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”

Ironies abound in this transformation. And not just because of all the president’s quotes in the not-so-distant past in which he spoke of “core Al Qaeda” being on the run and declaring an end to the war on terror and dismissing what was then called ISIS as “a jayvee team.” There is also this quote from George W. Bush speaking in the White House in 2007: “To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous—for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to Al Qaeda. It would mean we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we’d allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean we’d be increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.”

Those who are nervous about the U.S. again getting entangled in Middle East warfare can at least take comfort in the president’s assurances that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground”—but only as long as they don’t think too much about the fact that this is the same leader who repeatedly said with complete authority that “if you like your health insurance you can keep it, period.” Lots of other people around him are saying that ISIL will not be defeated without boots on the ground.

One thing the president is certainly speaking straightly about is how long this war can be expected to last. “Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL,” he said in his September 10 televised address, and the military has said the fight will go on for years. This means that in three or four years, if the war happens to be going badly, his successor will be able to brush off the political blow-back by dismissing the war as the mess she or he inherited.

In the world of television fantasy, the War Doctor in the end wound up freezing Gallifrey and the Daleks in time and then regenerating into a new leather-jacket-wearing, northern England-accented Time Lord (played by Christopher Eccleston).

If only the real world provided those sorts of deus ex machina solutions to national leaders who start out with all the best intentions.

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