Another reluctant warrior in the White House

President Barack Obama's latest war strategy makes one wonder: Is another Woodrow Wilson in the Oval Office debating with himself about how to meet the existential threat that faces him?

In laying out his call to Congress for a new authorization for use of military force in the Middle East, Mr. Obama said the resolution "reflects our core objective to destroy ISIL," referring to the Islamic State in the Levant — also called ISIS or simply Islamic State — which holds territory in both northern Iraq and Syria.


But he seems to be tying one hand behind his back by reiterating that he is not seeking "the authorization of another ground war like Afghanistan or Iraq." The American troops still in Iraq, he says, "do not have a combat mission," but rather are there to continue training up Iraqi and Kurdish forces to carry the brunt of the fighting.

While seeking the new force authorization for three years, Mr. Obama insisted "it is not a timetable" and "Congress should revisit the issue at the beginning of the next president's term," if he or she so wishes, suggesting another debate on Capitol Hill at that time.

Meanwhile, the lame-duck president also stands on the sidelines over the other major threat to peace in Ukraine. He symbolically holds the coats of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande as they negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a cease-fire in Ukraine that may or may not hold for very long.

Obama said he is considering sending "lethal defensive weapons" to the Kiev regime to hold the Russian bear at bay. But he pointedly emphasized that "a decision has not yet been made" and remained convinced that "there is no military solution" to the Ukraine crisis." That is, unless Mr. Putin chooses to solve it himself. Mr. Obama openly acknowledged the other day that it "has always been unlikely" that "Ukraine can fully rebuff a Russian army on its own."

Woodrow Wilson comes to mind in this context for his memorable comment after the German sinking of the Lusitania in 1915: "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force."

Wilson also for a long time turned a blind eye to acts of sabotage by German agents in the United States, eventually ordering the recall of the German ambassador who had been overseeing such acts. After saying he saw no need "to stir up the nation in favor of national defense," Wilson finally supported greater military preparedness while running and winning re-election in 1916 on the slogan: "He kept us out of war."

But the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans in 1917, and the disclosure that Berlin had offered Mexico the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona if it would join the war against the U.S., convinced Wilson to seek and get a declaration of war from Congress in April. His efforts after the war to join a League of Nations failed to win Senate support, however, and broke his health as he pursued his dream of ending all wars.

Mr. Obama seems to embrace the same Wilsonian ideals, even as he defended in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 the concept of the just war to combat aggression and national aggrandizement in the real world.


His ambivalence toward using military force may be frustrating to the John McCain war hawks, but the impulse to go the last mile to avoid war remains an admirable instinct in any American president positioned to wage one.

Confronted by the emergence of the Islamic State and particularly its brutality and barbarism in the beheading and other murders of American hostages in the Middle East, he has committed himself to do whatever it takes to eradicate this latest threat.

Ironically, Mr. Obama faces the same decision George W. Bush encountered on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in Manhattan and attacked the Pentagon here, and he is on course to undertake the same remedy, still not achieved in either case.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.