Obama's Still Trying to Define the War
President Obama visited the National Defense University this week to take another shot (no pun) at defining the war in which the United States is embroiled. He talked about the world-view of the enemy.
The terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology -- a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause.
He separated America's enemies from its friends.
Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam; and this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist acts.
He framed an American response.
We must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' -- but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.
But having had nearly a dozen years to think about it, four of them as President of the United States, he didn't do as well as President George W. Bush did on 20 September 2001 when the smoke was still rising from the World Trade Center:
The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them... And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.
Contrary to the President, it was never a "global war on terror." It is, said President Bush, against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them. Terrorist networks do not live in The Cloud. They require arms, money, space to hide and train, passports and diplomatic cover to operate; assets that can be provided only by governments. President Bush did not attack Afghanistan to avenge 9-11, but because the Taliban, its government, refused to be accountable for harboring and supporting al Qaeda. He warned them:
By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder. And tonight the United States of America makes the following demands on the Taliban:
- Deliver to United States authorities all of the leaders of Al Qaeda who hide in your land.
- Release all foreign nationals, including American citizens you have unjustly imprisoned.
- Protect foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers in your country.
- Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. And hand over every terrorist and every person and their support structure to appropriate authorities.
- Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps, so we can make sure they are no longer operating.
These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion.
The ouster of the Taliban was its punishment. Why we remain there, fighting amorphous enemies of Hamid Karzai when al Qaeda has morphed and spread across the region is much less clear. Perhaps it is because President Obama couldn't admit that President Bush was on the right course from the beginning. In 2009, speaking at the National Archives, Mr. Obama said:
Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions.... too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent. In other words, we went off course.
"In other words," the Bush Administration lied and set aside American principles of government to fit his ideological predispositions, and, evidently, cowed "Democrats, Republicans, politicians, journalists and citizens" who "fell silent" before President Bush's enormous ideological power grab. In 2013, Mr. Obama, having to defend his own four years, reflected a different attitude:
We were attacked on 9/11... Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war - a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.
Now the President now sees "the war" as "just" and more important, as "proportional." But with daily reports about drone strikes, Benghazi, the IRS, the FBI wiretapping and seizing the private e-mails of reporters, Mr. Obama was forced to bow to public and congressional concerns about Executive overreach.
Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions," he said, "We may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.
But part of the war is in nation states. While al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, the war against the United States, Israel and the West began with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Argentine Jewish Center and Israeli Embassy bombings in Argentina; the American Embassy bombings in East Africa; the French and American Embassies and the Marine barracks bombings in Lebanon were orchestrated by Iran and its proxies before 9-11.
Today there are both Sunni and Shiite terrorists and state sponsors. Iran on the Shiite side, of course, but Saudi Arabia, Qatar and sometimes Turkey provide money, arms and training to Sunni radicals. Al Qaeda, Hezb'allah, the al-Nusra Front, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Assad's Alawite government are all players; Chechens, too. They despise and fight one another -- the monstrous bloodshed in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has nothing to do with the West -- and despise the West on parallel, rather than congruent, paths. The enemy of my enemy can just as easily be my enemy as not.
Even the "unbounded powers" the President fears won't "end the war" if the war remains without definition. George W's "war against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them" might be a place to start.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center