There’s this scene in The West Wing when President Bartlet (brilliantly played by Martin Sheen) has to make the hard call whether or not to intervene with known leader of a terrorist network in Qumar (a fictional state in the Middle East) or to step aside. The entire episode grapples with President Bartlet’s decision: his personal morals are at stake, but so are people in the United States and in Qumar. It’s really a remarkable scene, the moment where he makes his decision. President Bartlet is attending a Broadway play, so the music is dramatic and already morose. It’s as if we are given the answer through the tone of their surroundings. President Bartlet gives the go-ahead to take down Abdul ibn Shareef … and we the audience are left slightly stunned.
This is an episode that I refer to most when it comes to our current political atmosphere. It is an interesting thing to see presidential candidates stand before thousands of people and glow beneath spotlights, shouting into microphones their plans to destroy countries that do not belong to them, all in the name of American safety. My stomach turns at the thought of seeing a future President react — rather than respond — to the tension that (literally) is the Middle East. I may not know everything about politics and foreign policy, but what I do know to be true is how our meddling in other countries affairs is a root within Washington, D.C. that runs deep and wide.
What’s interesting about that particular West Wing episode titled “Posse Comitatus,” is its timing. Season three of the show is the season where jihadi terrorism is introduced. In fact, the writers of the show chose to write in an episode (fun fact: my favorite episode) as a response to September 11th. It premiered October 2001. The audience is introduced to how this fictional Bartlet administration would respond to jihadi terrorism from the onset. When “Posse Comitatus” comes along, they are still in the grips of fear when faced with another threat. President Bartlet tosses and turns and chooses to take Shareef’s life. What they continue to show throughout the series, though, is the effects of the decision. President Bartlet has a near breakdown from a moral dilemma in making this call. Furthermore, their fears were answered when Qumar retaliated. An eye for an eye.
Much of what I am writing about refers to terrorism and defense, and ultimately, a President’s response … the one thing I want to hone in on. Though I have only ever voted in (now) two elections, I grew up understanding what fear-driven, politicized retaliation is. If you’re a part of Generation X (a Millennial) maybe you remember watching a broadcasted first attack on Afghanistan? I remember. I remember staying up too late watching it on live television. I watched jets fly over to bomb this place I had not heard of until September 11th. (President Bush would later be accused to be found guilty of War Crimes after this move.) As I have gotten older, and have been able to form my own opinion on the matter, I’ve drawn the conclusion that our nation demanded a reactionary response.
“People who fetishize leadership sometimes find themselves longing for crisis. They yearn for emergency, dreaming of a doomsday to be narrowly averted. Last month, Donald Trump’s campaign released its first official TV advertisement. The ad features a procession of alarming images—the San Bernardino shooters, a crowd at passport control, the flag of Syria’s Al Nusra Front—designed to communicate the idea of a country under siege. But the ad does more than stoke fear; it also excites, because it suggests that we’ve arrived at a moment welcoming to the emergence of a strong and electrifying leader.”
– Joshua Rothman, “Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the leadership industry rules”
The New Yorker
Isn’t this a position that we find ourselves in more often than not these days? A position that corners us with fear that something is looming in the distance and we must do something about it. Then, like the beast self-fulfilling prophecy is, an attack happens. With fear as our guide, we are looking to someone who would face and react to danger without question or qualms.
But I don’t want that in a president.
I want a president who is willing to measure every angle before giving their command. Because a president who is willing to take out the ruler and look into some figurative crystal ball (to me, this mostly means consulting every wise person you know) to foresee the rippling effects of their decision (Ex: “How will this affect our kids’ generation?”), is one that cares deeply for our nation. Recently, The Atlantic did an interview with President Obama. It was beyond fascinating, friends. I will miss that man. In it, our President talks about his backtracking on invading Syria during their crisis. I could probably quote the article in its entirety, but what stood out most to me were two quotes that sum up Obama’s outlook:
“‘The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.’ The message Obama telegraphed in speeches and interviews was clear: He would not end up like the second President Bush—a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East, whose decisions filled the wards of Walter Reed with grievously wounded soldiers, who was helpless to stop the obliteration of his reputation, even when he re-calibrated his policies in his second term. Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was ‘Don’t do stupid shit.'”
“Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of ‘credibility’—particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. The preservation of credibility, he says, led to Vietnam. Within the White House, Obama would argue that ‘dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.'”
Obama, with eight years of presidential experience under his belt, has a keener awareness of what it means to react. Time and time again, he has gone on air to grieve the differences that he has with Congress, things like better gun control and attention to climate change — things that ultimately play a role in our everyday lives. And it’s embarrassing to see Presidential candidates take the stage, not to discuss the issues that truly plague our nation (socioeconomic inequality, wage gaps, broken school systems), but infecting mindsets that Muslims and ISIS are our biggest threat, and we must be rid of “them.” Guess what? You try to rid one terror network and another one is bound to form in your distraction. Look at our history of invasion, voting Millennials. The breeding ground for ISIS is our Iraq War decision.
“As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face,” he said. “If you start seeing more severe drought; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse. That’s above and beyond just the existential issues of a planet that starts getting into a bad feedback loop.”
Terrorism, [President Obama] said, is also a long-term problem “when combined with the problem of failed states.”
Looking at the landscape of a very fictional show called The West Wing and comparing it to the Obama administration, I have found significant similarities. President Bartlet and President Obama always sought to put We the People and long-term effects first. They both sought to seek counsel and wisdom first and foremost before responding, never to play on the fears of a population of people you oversee (our President talks of this in The Atlantic article), and lived with the consequences as they said “yes” or “no” to their decisions … with a dash of “Don’t do stupid shit,” too.
Our current landscape for this election is sad. I don’t quite know what will happen, but I do see a lot of confusion and frustration happening on both sides. We all must narrow in on what is healthiest for our nation. What I can promise you is it won’t be bombs over or grounded boots in a foreign country.