The Humbling of a President
In the war with ISIS, the U.S. needs genuine presidential leadership, not a utility infielder playing everyone else's position.
By DANIEL HENNINGER, WSJ Opinion, Sept 11, 2014
Let us note briefly the commanding irony of Barack Obama delivering—hours before 9/11—the anti-terrorism speech that history required of his predecessor after September 11, 2001. There is one thing to say: If we are lucky, President Obama will hand off to his successor a terrorist enemy as diminished as the one George Bush, David Petraeus and many others left him.
If we're lucky.
There is a story about Mr. Obama relevant to the war, battle or whatever he declared Wednesday evening against the Islamic State, aka ISIS. It is found in his former campaign manager David Plouffe's account of the 2008 election, "The Audacity to Win."
Mr. Plouffe writes that during an earlier election race, Mr. Obama had a "hard time allowing his campaign staff to take more responsibility." To which Barack Obama answered: "I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I'll hire to do it." Audacity indeed.
In a 2008 New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza, Mr. Obama is quoted telling another aide: "I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors." Also, "I think I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters."
And here we are.
In the days before Mr. Obama's ISIS address to the nation, news accounts cataloged his now-embarrassing statements about terrorism's decline on his watch—the terrorists are JV teams, the tide of war is receding and all that.
Set aside that Mr. Obama outputted this viewpoint even as Nigeria's homicidal Boko Haram kidnapped 275 schoolgirls, an act that appalled and galvanized the world into "Bring Back Our Girls." No matter. Boko Haram slaughtered on, unabated.
Some of these gaffes came in offhand comments, but others were embedded in formal speeches from the presidential pen, such as the definitive Obama statement on terrorism last May at the National Defense University: "So that's the current threat—lethal yet less-capable al Qaeda affiliates." A year later, ISIS seized one-third of Iraq inside a week.
Worse than misstatements have been the misdecisions on policy: the erased red line in Syria, the unattainable reset with Vladimir Putin's brainwashed Russia, the nuclear deal with the ruling shadows in Iran. The first two bad calls have pitched significant regions of the world into crises of virtually unmanageable complexity.
What we now know is that Mr. Obama is not even close to being his own best Secretary of State, his own best Secretary of Defense, his own best national security adviser or his own best CIA director.
The question is: Does he know it?
Can a humbling experience of such startling proportions have sunk in? It had better. What the U.S. needs if it is to prevail in the battle Mr. Obama put forth Wednesday is the genuine article of presidential leadership. What the U.S. does not need in the Oval Office is a utility infielder playing everyone else's position. We are competing against global terrorism's heaviest hitters, who have established state seizure as a strategic goal.
If Mr. Obama still thinks he's better than Susan Rice, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, then he and the nation supporting his anti-ISIS effort are being poorly served. He should fire them all and bring in people who know more about fighting terrorists than he does. Barack Obama admires Abraham Lincoln. Act like him. Appoint the best people and let them win it.
Winning would also require a president willing to confront the political correctness that has undermined the U.S.'s battle against terror.
No more sophistry about whether a Benghazi qualifies as terrorism. After the videotaped beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, is anyone still lying awake at night worrying that their iPhone number is among millions of others in the National Security Agency's data mines?
Closing Gitmo goes on the backburner. "Boots on the ground"—kill that too. It has become code for boots going nowhere, as Mr. Obama's airpower-only campaign made clear Wednesday evening.
It has taken 13 years to this day, September 11, for the reality of global Islamic terrorism to finally sink in—here in the U.S. and everywhere else, including the ever-equivocal capitals of the Middle East.
In the years after 9/11 came London, Madrid, the Boston Marathon, multiple failed attempts to bomb New York City, Mumbai, Kenya, Boko Haram, the re-rocketing of Tel Aviv, Christian holy places destroyed, thousands of Arabs blown up in the act of daily life. That's the short list. ISIS is just the tip of the world's unstable iceberg. We're all living on the Titanic.
Now a reluctant progressive president goes to war without admitting it is war. It's even money at best that he or the Left will stay the course if the going gets tough beyond Iraq's borders.
A final irony. In that National Defense speech, Mr. Obama defended the drone killing in Yemen of the American-born jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki: "His citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team."
If Barack Obama would put a plaque with those words on his Oval Office desk, the world's innocents may have a shot at defeating the world's snipers. A long shot.