ISIS is indisputably evil. Its medieval-style execution murders shock the civilized conscience.
But do these Islamic extremists actually threaten U.S. national security? If so, how?
Absent good answers to these questions, which have not been forthcoming, why should the United States have primary responsibility for degrading and destroying ISIS? Regional powers, like Jordan, Egypt, and even Iran have the military capability and a self-interested motive to defeat their diabolical co-religionists.
A similar inquiry is appropriate with regard to Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is assuredly a tyrant, but does his dream of restoring the former Soviet Union really endanger American national security?
Our European allies are much more directly affected by the resurgent Russian bear than we are. Yet despite the bitter lessons they learned last century about appeasing rapacious dictators, they are unwilling to use much more than mere words to stop Putin.
What could America do in either situation anyway? The last fourteen years show that the U.S. is utterly incapable, in will and perhaps also in might, of actually winning a war and establishing a lasting peace in the Middle East. Nobody suggests fighting a land war, or worse, against Russia.
Hawks contend that power abhors a vacuum. They say that if America does not lead and project its power into these global hotspots other, less beneficent nations will. If the U.S. does not act to stop bad actors like ISIS and Putin now, the argument goes, we will have to do so later on less favorable terms.
The Obama administration has taken a middle course between bellicosity and passivity. In the Middle East it has chosen to use airstrikes in aid of ground activity by others, like the Kurds and Iraqi security forces. In Ukraine it has used, to little effect, limited economic sanctions.
This compromise course is understandable, but it has been ineffective in both theaters of conflict. Events probably will not allow Obama the luxury of continuing his cautious approach anyway.
Today's debates resemble those between isolationists and interventionists during 1939 through 1941 (as chronicled in Lynne Olson's excellent book Those Angry Days). Pearl Harbor put an end to that debate.
What will Obama do if and when a contemporary counterpart of that surprise attack happens? Is it inevitable that America must ultimately intervene more aggressively against adversaries who appear as committed to their agendas of atrocities and territorial acquisitions as Hitler and Tojo were?
It was said that the Soviets probed with bayonets until they encountered steel. Then they pulled back. Perhaps that is still true of Putin, who is presumably a rational actor, but it will probably require total annihilation to stop the barbarity of fanatical true believers like ISIS.
The contours of public opinion and the politically possible will soon become apparent by debates in two forums. One is Congress, where Obama has belatedly sought a resolution authorizing the use of force against ISIS. Another is the 2016 presidential campaign that is already underway, especially on the Republican side.
There is a risk that America will make its ultimate decisions based on the events of a few news cycles. We should instead rely on coldly rational and disciplined strategic thinking that looks beyond the short-term horizon to see years or decades ahead.
An even greater risk is that the nation will remain more or less evenly divided regardless of the road we eventually take and never unite as necessary for success. Policy decisions in these two arenas are also being made against the backdrop of other threats, ranging from a rapidly militarizing China, a soon-to-be nuclear Iran, and an already nuclear North Korea now apparently waging asymmetrical warfare in cyberspace.
These, too, are angry and dangerous days. One thing is certain: our leadership, be it Obama, Congress, or presidential candidates, must do a better job of explaining the reality of the threats and making the case to the American people for their policies to keep the country safe.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche)