There's something odd going on with regard to this ISIL situation (and by the way, it would be good if we could agree on a name for it), or odd if your point of reference is the Bush era, the consequences of which we're still grappling with. Back then, the way things worked was that the president and his advisors would come out and tell us some swarthy Middle Easterners were coming to kill you and your family, and therefore it was imperative that we assent to the policies the administration wanted to pursue. When asked for evidence, they'd respond with statements like, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." The secretary of Homeland Security told us all to stockpile duct tape and plastic sheeting so you'd be able to survive when al-Qaeda launched a chemical weapons attack on your street. But over time, when most Americans were not actually killed by terrorists, the fear began to subside.
Today, we have a president once again asking for support for a new military engagement in the Middle East, but he seems to be working hard not to make people afraid. Instead, it's the opposition who's making the crazy predictions and putting out ads with ominous music. Oklahoma senator and angry old man James Inhofe said ISIL is "rapidly developing a method of blowing up a major U.S. city" (a piece of information I presume came to him in a dream, since no one else has any idea what he's talking about). Dick Cheney calls "the situation today one of the most dangerous we have faced certainly in my lifetime." Fox News is pushing the fear buttons hard. And look at these two new ads from Mitch McConnell and Scott Brown:
Almost makes you feel like you're back in 2003, doesn't it? And I promise you, these won't be the last.
In fairness, it isn't just Republicans—some Democrats are doing it too. "The threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated," wrote Dianne Feinstein in an op-ed. (Of course it can.) Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been particularly frightened, saying ISIL is "beyond anything we've seen," and characterizing them as a direct and imminent threat.
So why isn't Obama joining in the fear-fest? After all, it would serve his purpose of getting support for military action if he did so. The simplest explanation (and therefore the most likely one) is that he just doesn't think that much fear is warranted. As he said in his speech the other night, right now ISIL is a threat to the Middle East which is worth confronting, and it could become a direct threat to the United States, but it isn't yet. There's no reason to believe that isn't his sincere assessment. He also may be wary of creating too much fervor when the policy he's pursuing is rather limited.
I think that's probably a big part of it. Making people afraid is a good way to get the public behind a military action, but it also creates a certain set of expectations. If the fight against ISIL ends up being long and gradual, even if ultimately successful, people might end up wondering whether you were trying to con them when you told them we were all about to die. That's certainly what happened to President Bush.