Give President Obama credit where it’s due. His continuing willingness to expose himself to reporters’ questions contrasts strikingly and favorably with the practice of his presumptive successor, Hillary Clinton – who has almost entirely shielded herself from freewheeling give and take with the media during this presidential campaign. Unfortunately, in the process the president also keeps showing that he’s learned absolutely nothing about protecting the United States adequately against the threat of Islamic terrorism. Just look at the transcript of his Pentagon press conference last week.
As Mr. Obama made clear, he keeps showing every sign of prioritizing the (impossible) task of achieving lasting victory versus terrorist forces on Middle East battlefields over the much more feasible strategy of keeping them out of the United States.
And the president is absolutely correct to claim that, after a string of alarming victories in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has lost considerable Middle East territory as well as some of its key leaders. He’s also correct to admit – as he has repeatedly – that the group’s “military defeat will not be enough. So long as their their twisted ideology persists and drives people to violence, then groups like ISIL will keep emerging.”
But as has also repeatedly been the case, he has failed to recognize genuinely the futility of, as he described it last week, “working to counter violent extremism more broadly, including the social, economic and political factors that help fuel groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda in the first place.” And this after how many dollars, and how many American lives, have been lost in this region over the last two decades? In an oil-rich area that has not exactly been starved for resources in recent decades?
Even stranger, in a series of interviews with The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg that culminated in a lengthy and comprehensive description of the president’s foreign policy views, Goldberg came away concluding that Mr. Obama believes there is “little an American president could do to make [the Middle East] a better place” and that “the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power.” The White House has never issued a denial. So it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president’s views on American engagement in the region have been at best completely incoherent.
At the same time, the president’s views on keeping terrorists out of the United States, and dealing more effectively with the special problems posed by America’s Muslim community, remain much more coherent – but troublingly so. For even though U.S. borders and developments inside the nation are much more controllable than events in the Middle East, Mr. Obama’s perspective is dominated by a clear-cut fatalism. As the president once again explained in last week’s press conference, he believes he’s wrestling with a moral dilemma that puts a low-ish ceiling on his ability to protect his countrymen.
On the one hand, “[P]recisely because they are less concerned about big spectacular 9/11 style attacks, because they’ve seen the degree of attention they can get with smaller scale attacks using small arms or assault rifles or in the case of Nice, France, a truck; the possibility of either a lone actor or a small cell carrying out an attack that kills people is real and that’s why our intelligence and law enforcement and military officials are all working around the clock to try to anticipate potential attacks, to obtain the threads of people who might be vulnerable to brainwashing by ISIL.”
On the other hand, however, “We are constrained here in the United States to carry out this work in a way that is consistent with our laws, and presumptions of innocence.” Moreover, “if we start making bad decisions [like] instituting offensive religious tests on who can enter the country, you know, those kinds of strategies can end up backfiring.”
The president isn’t wrong about the need to balance domestic security with civil liberties and tolerance. But with the significant exception of the Patriot Act and its authorization for U.S. intelligence agencies to expand their electronic data-gathering programs, he seems to view the Constitutional restraints on anti-terrorism goals as an all-but-paralyzing straitjacket.
For a compelling argument that his approach is not only overly timid, but veritably childish, take a look at this recent op-ed in The New York Times by David Rieff – a progressive. I fully agree with the author’s charge that the president refuses to admit that “In any war — including a just war — we lose a certain amount of our humanity,” and that “absent some miraculous end to terrorism, in fighting it we are going to compromise some of our values.”
This critique also applies specifically to Mr. Obama’s Muslim policies both at home and abroad. Indeed, they are greatly strengthened by the (a) president’s continued insistence – in the face of all the facts and common sense – that anyone calling for any types of curbs on Muslim immigration or refugee admissions into the country is a bigot, and (b) by his determination to respond to evidence of special security problems in the domestic Muslim community by suggesting that, if anything, its members are more patriotic and greater contributors to America’s safety proportionately than the population as a whole. As I’ve explained in a previous post, the lionization of Khizr Khan shows the extent to which this tactic has spread through the ranks of Democrats and mainstream journalists – notably by those who couldn’t even define “Gold Star Family” three weeks ago.
Presidents have no greater responsibility than national defense. If Mr. Obama took that duty to heart, he’d spend less time vilifying critics of his terrorism policies and propagating misleading anecdotes about fully assimilated American Muslims, and more time figuring out (as Rieff has so eloquently urged) how to fight the war that’s clearly underway while “controlling the worst excesses” and holding on “to enough of our humanity to have a chance of clawing back the rest when the war ends….” In particular, he’d emphatically denounce Clinton’s proposal to quintuple Middle East refugee admissions — which can only greatly worsen the domestic terrorism threat. Until he does, he’ll remain vulnerable to the accusation that his major concern isn’t protecting his fellow citizens, but ducking hard choices.