Barack Obama’s prime-time address to the nation on Sunday—delivered four days after the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11—was intended to reassure an anxious nation that America was nevertheless on course to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Instead, the president’s predictably languid, misleading, and often banal remarks have reinforced widespread disapproval of his entire approach to combatting Islamic terrorism.
Let’s consider just a few of Mr. Obama’s claims from his speech following the assault in San Bernardino, California that killed fourteen people and injured twenty-one.
“So far, we have no evidence that the killers were directed by a terrorist organization overseas, or that they were part of a broader conspiracy here at home.”
The statement suggests that Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were self-taught, self-funded “lone wolves.” Mr. Obama seems determined to convince us that ISIS has been “contained” by his policies, that this was not a Paris-style attack.
But the evidence in hand, and an ounce of common sense, tell us the statement is meaningless. We know that Malik attended a Pakistani school renowned for its militancy. We know she pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi on Facebook just before the assault. We know that Farook spent time in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, hotbeds of Islamic radicalism, and contacted people from at least two terrorist organizations overseas, including the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Syria. We know the couple engaged in target practice, wore tactical vests to the assault, acquired thousands of rounds of ammunition for their rifles and handguns, and converted their home into a virtual “bomb factory”—all the earmarks of an ISIS-funded operation. We know that a large sum of money was reportedly deposited in the couple’s bank account shortly before the attack. And we know that the terrorists tried to destroy their cell phones and laptops, something only members of a larger network of conspirators would bother to do.
The statement is also misleading at a deeper level, as it exposes the president’s inability to grasp the religious character of the threat. ISIS has anointed al Baghdadi as “Caliph Ibrahim,” the only legitimate religious and political authority for the entire Muslim community. Under this vision, all Muslims must swear complete loyalty to him. Refusal equals rebellion, (khuruj), an act deserving death by crucifixion. Under this vision, Muslims everywhere are foot soldiers in an apocalyptic conflict that respects no borders, no norms of civilized nations, no rules of war.
This is the malignancy that Mr. Obama declines to name, or to explain to the American people. Instead, we are told:
“For seven years, I’ve confronted this evolving threat each morning in my intelligence briefing. And since the day I took this office, I’ve authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad precisely because I know how real the danger is.”
The one thing—the most consequential thing—that Barack Obama has failed to do over the last seven years of his presidency is to actually confront, with intellectual seriousness and moral resolve, the great scourge of radical Islamic jihad. This is the conclusion, put in more diplomatic terms, of his own former defense secretaries, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.
Thus, in a recent study, “A Global Strategy for Combatting al Qaeda and the Islamic State,” lead author Mary Habeck describes an enemy that is gaining strength, while the United States and its allies mount a defensive—and ineffective—counter-reaction. “American leaders still have not recognized the nature of this war and have a dangerous misconception of the threat,” she writes. “At the same time, our global position is materially worse than it was just three years ago. We have fewer allies, fewer capable partners, fewer forward bases, fewer available resources, and fewer forces to deal with the threat.”
Rather than face these troubling realities in his address, President Obama chose to lecture the American people about their instinct to over-react and to discriminate against their Muslim neighbors:
“Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving in to fear. That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for.”
Of course Americans must not abandon their political ideals of equality under the law, religious pluralism, and so on. Donald Trump’s latest tirade about keeping Muslims out of the United States is a symptom of Mr. Trump’s egomania, eager to exploit deep distrust in the president’s capacity to protect the homeland. Mr. Obama’s statement, an exercise in self-evident pabulum, is yet another attempt to change the subject: ISIS doesn’t give a damn about tough talk, or American values, or whether or not we are, by the president’s definition, “giving in to fear.”
What the Islamic fascists are hoping for is precisely what Mr. Obama’s policies have delivered to them: the disintegration of Syria, profound insecurity in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a morbid fear of committing America’s diplomatic and military resources to actually defeating them on the battlefield.
The forces of ISIS have outmaneuvered and fought off a U.S.-led “coalition” of 53 nations, armed with superior weapons, for over 18 months. They have emerged militarily stronger, seized vast resources and strategic territory, committed genocide with impunity, downed a commercial airliner, struck into the heart of Europe, and now terrorized an American city. They continue to attract thousands of fresh recruits to their transcendent cause, because victory against the infidels has become their greatest recruiting tool.
This, as any honest and rational mind knows, is what the barbarians were hoping for.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.