Political columnists regularly list national and international threats to our nation’s peace and security and then attack President Obama for not ending the threats. They are under the influence of the Gunsmoke Syndrome. That TV western ended its network run in 1975, but its impact on our thinking lingers on. You remember the plot line. One or more individuals cause trouble in Dodge City because they are evil, foolish, or both. Eventually, Marshal Dillon restores peace and tranquility, usually with a well-placed bullet after all his advice and warnings have been rejected or ignored. The peace of Dodge City, of course, only lasts until the next week’s episode. The question the columnists implicitly ask is why is President Obama not more like Matt Dillon?
They ignore the unspoken premises of the show. The problems come from individuals. Dramatic action against them is both possible and guaranteed of success. Only the trouble makers will suffer negative consequences. Whatever happens next week will not be connected to this week, except that the marshal, Miss Kitty, Doc, and Chester will be present.
Fortunately, President Obama can see the complexity of the real world, although he should restrain his rhetoric. He recognizes the systemic nature and the underlying causes of the threats that face us. Removing the troublesome individuals we blame for our problems will not solve the problems. Individuals are quickly replaced. The drone attacks the President favors provide enough examples of that. Individuals, organizations, and nations will respond to our actions. While we can predict some of those responses, others will be unexpected, and therefore not preventable. The consequences of our actions may not become apparent for decades and emerge in circumstances we cannot even imagine now. Neat, satisfying conclusions work well on television. But Obama is right to weigh carefully how present actions will shape our future.