By Gene Lyons
Maybe next time, they'll award the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of a politician's tenure rather than the beginning. There was always something mildly farcical about the Swedish committee recognizing President Obama's lofty rhetoric in advance of real achievements.
It's like awarding the Oscar before the movie's released.
But here's the thing: If Obama can pull off the three-cushion bank shot he's attempting in the Middle East -- fighting ISIS extremists to a standstill without committing U.S. ground troops in a futile quest to remake Iraq and Syria in the American image -- he'll definitely deserve some kind of prize.
Odds would appear to be against him.
Not that anybody's got a better idea.
Polls show that while strong majorities of Americans support taking the fight to ISIS fanatics, few expect a mighty victory. Only 18 percent in a recent Pew Poll believe that striking the jihadists will decrease the odds of a terrorist attack against the U.S. Thirty-four percent think it's apt to make things worse. The rest don't know. Partisan differences are minimal.
Reality seems to be sinking in. There's never going to be another Middle Eastern "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier photo-op. The kind of melodramatic Chicken Little rhetoric favored by hyperventilating cable TV hosts and utopian political fantasists finds few adherents today.
Sen. Lindsey Graham recently got downright panicky on "Fox News Sunday." "This is a war we're fighting! It is not a counter-terrorism operation!" Graham all but shouted. "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home."
He sounded like somebody in a zombie movie.
Republicans more generally, as political columnist Kevin Drum points out, share mutually contradictory opinions: U.S. ground troops should never have been withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, but they should also never go back.
Georgia GOP Rep. Jack Kingston explains why Congress prefers not to vote on the president's plans: "A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, 'Just bomb the place and tell us about it later.' It's an election year ... We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long."
The good news is that for all its murderous zeal, ISIS may already have overplayed its hand. Writing in the Washington Post, Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Center for the Middle East, argues that Americans overstate ISIS's danger to U.S. interests. He writes that ISIS is hardly "in a position to topple the next city in its sights. Rather, the borders of its territory have, more or less, reached their outer potential."
Indeed, ISIS's advances on Kurdistan and Baghdad went into reverse as soon as U.S. warplanes showed up. Much of the territory it's seized is vacant desert land of no strategic significance. The terrorists' military success has been due to filling a vacuum created by Iraqi soldiers' unwillingness to fight for a Baghdad regime almost universally seen as a Shiite protection racket, but finally unable even to protect its own territory.
This then, the final legacy of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," launched in 2003 with the enthusiastic support of journalists "embedded" with the troops as if they were off on a Boy Scout Jamboree.
Mardini further argues that ISIS's extreme zeal and ruthlessness make it stupid. "The Islamic State's extreme ideology, spirit of subjugation and acts of barbarism prevent it from becoming a political venue for the masses. It has foolhardily managed to instill fear in everyone."
Filled with fanatical foreigners lacking a "deep connection" with local Sunni tribes, Mardini writes, "the Islamic State's core fighters are certainly devoted and willing to die for the cause, but its potential support across the region ranges from limited to nonexistent."
This all sounds right. However, as President Obama clearly understands, the problem's less military than political. Always was. But having recently argued that an army of "moderates" in a three-sided Syrian civil war was basically a fantasy, the president now finds himself needing to train one.
Another fantasy he's obliged to entertain is of America's Middle Eastern "allies" sending ground troops to fight there. At best, they'll maybe cut off ISIS funding and make it harder for foreign jihadists to enter Syria.
Iran and its client Hezbollah are likelier to join the fight, so long as neither they nor we have to admit it. The U.S. cannot be seen as backing Shiites in a religious war.
"Oh, it's a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than 'don't do stupid things,'" the New York Times reports Obama mockingly telling White House visitors. "I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn't make for good theater."
However, all politics is partly theater, as Obama surely knows.
And like it or not, Commander-in-Chief is the starring role.