September 11, 2014 12:53 PM EDT

The President laid out a measured, prudent approach to handle the ISIS threat last night. A lot was unstated–as it should be–concerning the role of US special ops on the ground and surreptitious alliances with countries like Iran, whose interests now coincide with our own in the region. The McCainiac Republican reaction–more! bigger! now!–is so far beyond foolish that it needn’t be taken seriously. If John McCain had been elected President–and actually governed the way he runs his mouth–we’d have troops stuck in perpetuity in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and quite possibly Iran, not to mention Ukraine and Georgia (if we were lucky enough to avoid a nuclear exchange with Russia). McCain, in his tussle with Jay Carney on CNN last night, said we’d had troops in Korea and Bosnia for many years and nothing awful had happened–true enough–but neither Bosnia nor Korea (nor Germany, or Japan, he might have added) have the history of rampaging western imperialism that the Middle East does.

And that history of imperialism represents the greatest obstacle to success for Obama’s plan. George W Bush’s foolish invasion of Iraq, plus the increasing power of communication among jihadists, unleashed the possibility that the straight line borders and imaginary countries drawn by Europeans in the Middle East 98 years ago might erode (as the border between Syria and Iraq has now vanished). This is the most critical problem with the President’s plan: It assumes that Iraq is a country, that it will be able to organize a plausible, multi-sectarian government and Army–his proposed “boots on the ground” in the war against ISIS. It also assumes that Syria, in its current borders, is a country. But it’s equally possible that Syria splits apart into Sunni and Shia (plus Druse and Maronite) zones, perhaps compromising the future existence of Lebanon and Jordan. And that the Kurds split off from Iraq. And maybe even that the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province make common cause with their Arab Shi’ite brothers across the “border” in southern Iraq. Or, worst of all, that we’re on the cusp of a regional Sunni-Shia conflagration–which our actions might help precipitate. The possibilities are myriad, and defy anything we now assume.

It is a safe bet that this area will have fractures and bloody amputations, stuggles over new borders and perhaps new countries for the rest of this century. The forces pushing toward a tribal and sectarian rationalizing of borders are far too primal for the U.S and the West to control completely. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? No. We should try–humbly–and with low expectations. We should certainly try to take out as many of ISIS’s assets as possible and proceed–as the President suggested we should–in the same targeted manner we have in Somalia and Yemen. Keeping the terrorists on the defensive is very much in our national interest.

There is constant talk of hard and soft power, but in the 13 years since 9/11, we have learned of a third source: viral power. Terrorism is a constantly metastasizing virus. It can be suppressed but it is too mutable to be swept away. It is difficult to fight with conventional means, under the traditional rules of war. What the President was trying to communicate last night was that this struggle is not going to end with a signing ceremony on the deck of a battleship. As John Kerry said in 2004, it will continue as a low-grade fever for many years, quite possibly for the rest of our children’s lives. It is a chronic condition that will have to be managed, until the real nations in that benighted region are sorted out, built, governed and controlled–not by us, but by the people who live there. Our job between now and then is to be realistic, defend our national security interests and to help, diplomatically and economically, to build a stable peace, if such a thing is possible.

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