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With his speech on San Bernardino, Obama is confronting a problem he's long feared

President Obama took the unusual step of delivering a primetime Oval Office address on ISIS and terrorism because the San Bernardino shooting was a variety of terrorist attack that has long been seen as a unique nightmare by the president and his staff.

Members of Obama's national security team have been wrestling with how to respond to a San Bernardino–style scenario for a long time now, as I understand from conversations with them dating back to long before those events or the earlier shootings in Paris or Colorado Springs. The problem isn't that these attacks are uniquely damaging to the United States, but that they're uniquely difficult to respond to in any way that isn't wildly counterproductive.

Many senior administration officials at this point are part of the permanent national security apparatus, but the core group of real "Obama people" has a surprisingly dovish self-conception, where they see themselves operating in a world in which demands for military intervention are constant and endless — from the media, from congressional Republicans, from foreign governments and their allies in Washington, and from the permanent security bureaucracy itself — but America's actual ability to engage in non-counterproductive interventions is quite limited.

The Oval Office address represents Obama's best effort to meet the psychological needs of a frightened nation under attack while sticking on a policy level with a restrained approach that Obama recognizes is emotionally unsatisfying but that he regards as offering the best chance for success.

Not the shooting but the aftermath

The deaths in San Bernardino were both tragic and horrifying. But if there is one thing the United States has learned from Sandy Hook and Charleston and Colorado Springs and scores of other mass shooting events, it is that the United States of America is fundamentally robust to the occasional spree killing.

The real nightmare is what comes next. We saw in Paris that firearms attacks lead major newspapers to leap toward declarations like "war in the heart of Paris" (la guerre en plein de Paris) and "this time it's war" (cette fois, c'est la guerre) that are, of course, reminiscent of the post-9/11 declaration of a "war on terror."

But a war against whom? And with what purpose in mind?

Public policy wars are at times metaphorical (war on poverty, war on drugs), but given that terrorism is a matter of hard security, a literal military war is clearly what the media and the political system desire. But it's far from clear that extended control over physical territory abroad is necessary for orchestrating violent acts in Western cities. On the contrary, as the president said last night, drawing more Western troops onto Muslim soil appears to be one of ISIS's objectives:

We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That's what groups like ISIL want. They know they can't defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq, but they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.

The attack in San Bernardino was new and horrifying. But the problem of ISIS is not new. The previous American policy — airstrikes, training, diplomatic work in Syria, no big ground troop presence — was already the policy that Obama thought most likely to succeed. A new attack appears to require a new response, but there is no new response that Obama thinks makes sense.

The inaction problem

The problem is that inaction seems like a political impossibility. Having discussed this problem with several members of Obama's team, I believe this inaction problem is what the president had in mind when he said something to me that wound up getting him in hot water over a minor question of word choice:

Look, the point is this: my first job is to protect the American people. It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris. We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that — the same way a big city mayor's got to cut the crime rate down if he wants that city to thrive. But we also have to attend to a lot of other issues, and we've got to make sure we're right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn't counterproductive. I would argue that our invasion of Iraq was counterproductive to the goal of keeping our country safe.

The use of the term "random" when the attack was, in fact, deliberately targeting a kosher deli became a dumb two-day gaffe story. But it's the possibility of random attacks that Obama was worried about, because he knows better than anyone that there's nothing he can do to ensure that America isn't afflicted by the occasional mass shooting.

When these shootings are carried out by lone wolves, America responds by arguing for a few days about gun control and then moving on. But a mass shooting perpetrated by a suspect — or several suspects — with known ties to international Islamist terrorism would, politically speaking, demand a more robust response.

"Don't do stupid shit"

A situation like the one above would demand a response that — like the invasion of Iraq — would almost certainly be counterproductive. It would be a violation of the "don't do stupid shit" principle that constitutes a more profound national security doctrine than Obama is given credit for. After all, whether an attack comes tomorrow or next week or next month or next year, the US government is already well aware of the threat posed by ISIS.

If there were any ideas for countering it that the White House thought made sense, the administration would be executing them already. But an actual attack on US soil demands that we "do something" — something that would already have been rejected as unworkable or counterproductive.

This line of thought led some in the White House to conclude that the hardest problem in US counterterrorism policy was in some ways as much a speechwriting challenge as anything else. How do you sell the American people on the idea of not really doing much of anything new in response to an attack? The Oval Office address was the Obama team's best effort to answer that question.

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