Properly angry and understandably frightened, Americans are being presented these days with two prominent leadership styles — one appalling, the other lame.

Donald Trump seeks only to inflame and exploit the nation’s anxieties and is more likely to shatter the GOP than become president.

But the president he is so impatient to replace seems able only to patronize and scold a worried people.

Obama’s problem is not that he has no strategy for combating Mideast jihadist terrorism. His problem is that he has a strategy he dares not plainly describe.

At times the president seems merely adrift, armed with little more than trendy clichés.

“My fellow Americans,” he intoned near the conclusion of his Oval Office address a week ago, designed to reassure a nation shaken by the holiday party massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., “I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.”

Heaven (or History) help us if our commander-in-chief’s confidence truly is grounded in this dreamy benediction. Like many ideas fashionable among left-leaning intellectuals, staking a claim to “history” has been the very latest thing for centuries.

That there is some inevitable (and inevitably pleasing) destiny for human events was central in Marxist thought, and rooted in the French Enlightenment’s mystical faith in reason and progress. But its deepest origins are in various apocalyptic religious visions.

Logically, history can have a “right side” to be on only if some inexorable power steers history’s course. To say we are on the right side of history, if it means anything at all, is to say that God is on our side.

Maybe so. Let’s hope so. But that’s what’s our adversaries think, too — only they claim the Divine as an ally bluntly and clearly, inspiring bloodthirsty holy warriors. Secularizing the same sentiment, making it sound more subtle and sophisticated, merely drains away its power.

“Men will die for a dogma,” G.K. Chesterton said. “They won’t skip lunch for a conclusion.”

Most likely, Obama’s efforts to rally the nation are so strangely weak precisely because his strategy against terrorism demands so very much of the American people. His widely noted lack of passion, anger or energy in responding to the attacks in San Bernardino and before that in Paris hint at the truth.

The truth may simply be that the president has come to accept that civilian mass murders like those we’ve seen in recent weeks are the kinds of casualties we are going to suffer in what he calls the “new phase” of the terror war. And he may have come to accept, as every war leader must, that casualties are a simple reality of war that can’t be allowed to derail or distort one’s plans.

But clearly calling on the American people to face such facts and accept such realities is apparently more than the president can stomach. The result is Obama’s lukewarm and ineffectual communication as a war leader.

Still, his strategy may not be as hopeless as his rhetoric. Just before the Paris attacks, Obama had declared that his policies had “contained” the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a remark often ridiculed since. Yet “containment” as a long-term strategy against an entrenched enemy has been central to American foreign policy for at least seven decades, and a variation of it seems to be Obama’s approach toward the chaos of the Middle East.

America’s containment policy toward communism after World War II accepted that loathsome ideology’s long-term survival and enslavement of hundreds of millions. It accepted that communists would score new victories in some places. But it aimed to slow and limit the spread of totalitarianism — sometimes using military force, sometimes using economic and political countermeasures — in the hope that over time the free world’s economic, social and political systems would prove superior and prevail.

Was it a “right side of history” strategy, then? Yes, in a sense. But note that John Kennedy, the archetypal Cold War orator, called on America to “pay any price, bear any burden” to prevail in what he admitted was a “long twilight struggle” and a task in which “here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

Despite his less forthright description of our mission, Obama seems to be pursuing a containment-like policy. That he sees a significant commitment of ground troops, if it can possibly be avoided, as a mistake for America has been perhaps the clearest principle in his political life. So he aims to limit the advances of terrorist entities mainly using air power; through the arming and advising of allies, and through diplomacy and economic leverage. Over time, the hope seems to be that other powers closer to the action — even including Russia and Iran — will join together to defeat ISIL’s main force on the ground.

It’s not clear whether the terror threat against Western civilians could be reduced if the U.S. launched a major miliary action against ISIL. But Obama’s containment strategy means we won’t find out, or enjoy the boost in morale forceful action might bring.

It also isn’t always clear whether Obama has made peace with how little control over the ultimate political structure of the Middle East America is likely to have under his approach — witness his persistent calls for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad (a prized ally of Russia and Iran).

But Obama does seem to have made peace with containment once again being a prolonged undertaking, and one in which we will suffer losses through what he clinically called in his speech “less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society.”

Anti-communist containment worked in the end to undermine the Soviet Union. America paid steep prices and bore heavy burdens to win the Cold War, and much about Russia and Eastern Europe today illustrates the ambiguities of “victory.” But it’s not clear there ever was a plausible alternative policy.

Similarly, Obama’s containment strategy may have disappointing results. But is America prepared to bear the burden and pay the price of re-establishing order and keeping the peace indefinitely in the Middle East?

With an election year looming, it might help us to think about competing strategies more clearly if we could talk about the civilian lives lost in our current twilight struggle less as mere victims and more as martyrs or heroes in their nations’ causes. As honored casualties of a new kind of war.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.