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 sophisticatedcommunications means that Islamic radicals need not employ Western-style bureaucratichierarchies. And the continuing evolution of terrorism’s asymmetric threat maywell include stronger command-and-control relationships in the future. Such acoalescence of terrorism’s “specific networks,” like the post-colonial wave of“Pan-Arabism,” would be much more serious than today’s threat. Sustained byexisting state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, potential sponsors like aMoslem Brotherhood-dominated Egypt, and exploiting failed states like Libya,terrorists would enjoy sanctuaries and operating bases far more appealing thanWaziristan. Moreover, the Middle East’s existing supplies of chemical andbiological weapons will soon be augmented by Iranian nuclear weapons, orPakistan’s nuclear arsenal coming under terrorists’ control.
Terrorism is hardly in its infancy, but we should rememberChurchill’s regret at not “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle.” Obama’swithdrawal from the war against terrorism will give extremists breathing spaceto increase their menace. And retreat is unquestionably Obama’s plan, from hisheedless Iraq withdrawal that allowed Iran a near-dominant position in Baghdad,to our impending final Afghan withdrawal that is giving the Taliban aninvaluable opportunity to retake control. American drone strikes, which Obamaeloquently justified and thereby legitimized for future administrations, havebeen devastatingly effective, as he himself contends, and yet he now proposesessentially to abandon them. The certainty of reduced drone attacks, renewedefforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and liftingrestrictions on transfers of current detainees back to Yemen, are all part ofObama’s defeatist ball of string.
None of these specifics, however, capture the main reasonObama’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 beconducting 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 distantand unforgiving places on Earth.” That of course is exactly where we want tokeep them and the key reason military power is necessary. Obama has reluctantlyused armed force because he could not immediately reverse the war he inherited,and because reality too frequently intruded into his theology that terrorshould be handled as a matter of criminal law. Accordingly, his administrationhas strained to avoid the phrase “global war on terror,” called the Fort Hoodshootings “workplace violence,” and referred to “man-caused disasters” and“overseas contingency operations.” These phrases are not merely awkwardneologisms; they reflect Obama’s deep-seated ideology.
Obama’s law-enforcement paradigm (as opposed to a law-of-warparadigm) appeals to both the anti-war left and isolationist Republicans, whosedifferent ideological perspectives bring them to identical conclusions—namelythat it is America’s strong international presence motivating those who attackus. In fact, however, terrorism is utterly beyond the competency of judges andprosecutors. It is not like securities fraud, or knocking over the cornerpharmacy, which are offenses that can be treated within a constitutionallystructured civil society. Terrorism is instead an attack by barbarians usingthe 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 ofFrance’s Bourbon kings that “they never learned anything and they never forgotanything.” Obama’s record on terrorism makes him a true Bourbon.