Confused, contradictory and often detached from reality, Barack Obama’s speech on terrorism last Thursday closely resembled his overall national-security policy. Rambling on for nearly an hour, the president broached many topics, but rolling pieces of string into a ball does not constitute a strategy. When Obama finished, America had less of a strategy against international terrorism than before he began.
Acknowledging that terrorism today “is fueled by a common ideology … that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West,” and that ours is “an age that ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant,” Obama nonetheless ignored the plain consequences of these realities. Rather than targeting terrorism’s similarities and global reach, Obama embraced the opposite, namely countering terrorists through “a series of persistent targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
But possessing a common ideology and sophisticated communications means that Islamic radicals need not employ Western-style bureaucratic hierarchies. And the continuing evolution of terrorism’s asymmetric threat may well include stronger command-and-control relationships in the future. Such a coalescence of terrorism’s “specific networks,” like the post-colonial wave of “Pan-Arabism,” would be much more serious than today’s threat. Sustained by existing state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, potential sponsors like a Moslem Brotherhood-dominated Egypt, and exploiting failed states like Libya, terrorists would enjoy sanctuaries and operating bases far more appealing than Waziristan. Moreover, the Middle East’s existing supplies of chemical and biological weapons will soon be augmented by Iranian nuclear weapons, or Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal coming under terrorists’ control.
Terrorism is hardly in its infancy, but we should remember Churchill’s regret at not “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle.” Obama’s withdrawal from the war against terrorism will give extremists breathing space to increase their menace. And retreat is unquestionably Obama’s plan, from his heedless Iraq withdrawal that allowed Iran a near-dominant position in Baghdad, to our impending final Afghan withdrawal that is giving the Taliban an invaluable opportunity to retake control. American drone strikes, which Obama eloquently justified and thereby legitimized for future administrations, have been devastatingly effective, as he himself contends, and yet he now proposes essentially to abandon them. The certainty of reduced drone attacks, renewed efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and lifting restrictions on transfers of current detainees back to Yemen, are all part of Obama’s defeatist ball of string.
None of these specifics, however, capture the main reason Obama’s speech was so chilling. He is not declaring victory and coming home. Rather, he never believed, from the 2008 campaign forward, that we should be conducting a war or terror. No theme in his speech was more prominent than his “strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists.”
Obama regrets he has not always adhered to this preference, mostly because those rascally terrorists operate from “some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth.” That of course is exactly where we want to keep them and the key reason military power is necessary. Obama has reluctantly used armed force because he could not immediately reverse the war he inherited, and because reality too frequently intruded into his theology that terror should be handled as a matter of criminal law. Accordingly, his administration has strained to avoid the phrase “global war on terror,” called the Fort Hood shootings “workplace violence,” and referred to “man-caused disasters” and “overseas contingency operations.” These phrases are not merely awkward neologisms; they reflect Obama’s deep-seated ideology.
Obama’s law-enforcement paradigm (as opposed to a law-of-war paradigm) appeals to both the anti-war left and isolationist Republicans, whose different ideological perspectives bring them to identical conclusions—namely that it is America’s strong international presence motivating those who attack us. In fact, however, terrorism is utterly beyond the competency of judges and prosecutors. It is not like securities fraud, or knocking over the corner pharmacy, which are offenses that can be treated within a constitutionally structured civil society. Terrorism is instead an attack by barbarians using the only military means they now possess.
Most importantly, we tried the criminal-law paradigm against terrorism’s metastasizing threat in the 1990s, and it failed horribly, costing America dearly on Sept. 11, 2001. It is failing today as Benghazi, the Boston Marathon bombing, and cold-blooded murders in London and Paris show. Nonetheless, resurrecting the law-enforcement approach is the flip side of Obama’s failure to comprehend the essence of the terrorist threat itself. Obama’s policy therefore both fails to recognize the dangers we face, and marshals the wrong (and utterly inadequate) resources to deal with it. You don’t need an oracle to predict what’s coming.
The Marquis de Talleyrand is credited with having said of France’s Bourbon kings that “they never learned anything and they never forgot anything.” Obama’s record on terrorism makes him a true Bourbon.