One of the things you learn watching television as a kid is that the hero wins. No matter how dire things look, the star is going to be OK. MacGyver always defuses the bomb with some saltwater taffy before the timer reaches zero. There was no way Fonzie was going to mess up his water-ski jump and get devoured by sharks.
Life doesn’t actually work like that. That’s one reason HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is so compelling. Despite being set in an absurd fantasy world of giants, dragons and ice zombies, it’s more realistic than a lot of dramas set in a more plausible universe in at least one regard. Heroes die. The good guys get beaten by more committed and ruthless bad guys. No one is safe, nothing is guaranteed. There is no iron law of the universe that says good will ultimately triumph.
President Obama often says otherwise.
In his mostly admirable remarks about the beheading of American journalist James Foley by the jihadists of the so-called “Islamic State,” Obama returned to two of his favorite rhetorical themes: 1) the idea that in the end the good guys win simply because they are good, and 2) that world opinion is a wellspring of great moral authority.
Obama invokes the “right side of history” constantly, not only as if such a thing exists but that he knows what it is and actually speaks for it as well. Perhaps his favorite quote comes from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
As for world opinion, particularly in the form of that global shmoo the “international community,” there’s apparently nothing it can’t do. It is the secret to “leading from behind.” Behind what, you ask? The international community. What is the international community? The thing we’re leading from behind. From Russia to Syria, Iran to North Korea, the president is constantly calling on the international community to do something he is unwilling to do. When Russia was carving Crimea away from Ukraine, Obama vowed that “the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” After pro-Russian forces shot down a civilian plane over Ukraine and as Russia lined troops for a possible invasion, Obama sternly warned that Russia “will only further isolate itself from the international community.”
Taken together, these two ideas — that everything will work out in the long run and that there’s some entity other than the U.S. that will take care of things — provide a license to do, well, if not nothing, than certainly nothing that might detract from your golf game.
“One thing we can all agree on,” the president said in his statement Wednesday, “is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.” The jihadists will “ultimately fail ... because the future is won by those who build and not destroy. The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him.”
It’s a very nice thought. But is it actually true? The jihadists are building something. They call it the Caliphate, and in a remarkably short amount of time they’ve made enormous progress. If I had to bet, I’d guess that they will ultimately fail, but it will be because someone actually takes the initiative and destroys — as in kills — those trying to build it. Until that happens, there will be more beheadings, more enslaved girls, more mass graves. Obama has been very slow to learn this lesson.
Perhaps this is because there’s a deep-seated faith within progressivism that holds that the mere passage of time drives moral evolution. As if simply tearing pages from your calendar improves the world. It is as faith-based as saying evil will not stand because God will not let it, and far, far less effective at rallying men of goodwill to fight. No doubt some people will face death to defend an arbitrary date, but not many.
Sometimes lazy TV writers will resort to what is called a deus ex machina, a godlike intervention or stroke of luck that saves the day and ensures a happy ending. But in real life, as in “Game of Thrones,” that doesn’t happen. The good guys get beheaded while scanning the horizon for a savior more concrete than world opinion and more powerful than a date on the calendar.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.