President Barack Obama desperately wanted to be a peacetime president, yet is ending his second term with Islamic terror attacks looming larger than at any time since 9/11.
The tide of war isn’t receding, as he famously contended in a speech on the Afghan drawdown in 2011; it is lapping onto our shores.
The left hates the notion that George W. Bush “kept us safe,” but after Sept. 11 — a plot set in motion before he took office — Bush prevented another significant attack the rest of his presidency, at a time when a follow-on strike here at home seemed all but inevitable.
It was easy to take this achievement for granted, especially given that Bush’s success itself diminished the urgency people felt about the terror threat. But with two domestic terror attacks in the past six months killing more than 60 people and wounding more than 70, the long stretch of safety at home is harder to dismiss.
The rise of terror attacks within the U.S. — in addition to the mayhem in San Bernardino and Orlando, there has been a drumbeat of smaller attacks — corresponds with ISIS conquering and holding swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. It isn’t a coincidence.
John McCain and other hawks warned so often during the Iraq War that if we retreated in the face of the jihadi threat overseas it would follow us home, the argument began to lose its force. But they were right. It is an iron law of nature that if a group like ISIS gets a safe haven, it will use it to train, recruit and propagandize for terror attacks against the West.
In his long, widely cited piece about President Obama’s worldview, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic that President Obama “has never believed that terrorism poses a threat to America commensurate with the fear it generates.” When ISIS was beheading American hostages, Obama told top aide Valerie Jarrett, according to Goldberg, that “they’re not coming here to chop our heads off.”
True. They are instead reaching into the U.S. through their radicalized sympathizers to shoot up holiday parties and gay nightclubs. If it were an option, they surely would behead their victims as well. (In a knife attack in Oklahoma two years ago, a radicalized Muslim, Alton Nolen, did just that.)
President Obama’s view is that attacks like the one on the Pulse nightclub aren’t an existential threat. While he certainly doesn’t want them to happen and finds them horrible and wrenching, they are the implicit price of what he conceives as a prudently crafted anti-ISIS strategy — in other words, one that doesn’t show much urgency about defeating the terror group and limits the resources devoted to fighting it.
So long as ISIS looks as though it is successfully resisting its enemies, though, it has a magnetic appeal to potential loyalists in the West. If it is impossible to snuff out the ideology of Islamic radicalism on the battlefield, it is possible to make it look much less alluring. Students of human nature from Osama bin Laden to Donald Trump agree that no one likes a loser. ISIS will no longer have such perverse cachet as soon as it is crushed in the field.
President Obama is certainly right that a San Bernardino or an Orlando isn’t going to bring the country to its knees, but he underestimates the price to American society of feeling under siege, should there be more attacks on this scale. Do we want to live in a country where every county agency or nightclub feels compelled to deploy metal detectors and armed guards?
President Bush used every tool in his power, from the Patriot Act, the NSA surveillance program and enhanced interrogations to relentless military operations overseas, in his zeal to protect the homeland. President Obama let up the pressure, and what he once dismissed as the JV team is exacting a terrible price.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.