Washington Matters


Is Obama Weak on Terrorism?

Mark Willen

The charge may win the GOP political points, but it won't help protect the country any.



Maybe it’s not a good idea to start the new year in a cranky mood, but as I read about and watch the finger-pointing over the Christmas Day terrorism attempt, I’m finding it awfully hard to take it seriously. That’s not to say the attack, which almost succeeded, isn’t very serious (it definitely is) or that we don’t need to keep fighting the war against evil forces determined to destroy everything Americans believe in (we absolutely must).

But it’s getting increasingly hard to take what passes for a national security debate in this country with any degree of seriousness. Whether it’s Janet Napolitano’s lame claim that the system worked or Dick Cheney’s insulting charge that Obama is “trying to pretend we’re not at war,” it’s demeaning to even listen to it. And don’t get me started on the congressional hearings about to unfold – more like stage-managed platforms where politicians who care far too much about the upcoming elections and far too little about making sure the U.S. is being smart and effective in prosecuting the war on terror.

Cheney and his allies – from GOP Rep. Pete Hoekstra to columnist Charles Krauthammer to book promoter Sarah Palin – are having a field day accusing Obama of “not getting it.” Never mind that Obama is pressing the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan and, yes, Yemen, far more than Cheney ever did. No, Obama doesn’t get it because he doesn’t walk with a swagger and doesn’t like the term “war on terror” and agrees with the courts that torture is bad and wants to close Guantanamo Bay. Never mind that it was Bush, not Obama, who released the Gitmo detainees who allegedly plotted the Christmas attack. Never mind that Obama is tripling the number of troops and doubling the money spent to fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been pushing and coordinating attacks against them in Yemen. In fact, the Christmas attack was in retaliation for the increased U.S. effort in Yemen. Obama is bringing the fight to al Qaeda in ways Cheney and Bush promised but never delivered. Why doesn’t anyone press Cheney on that score?

There are several lessons to be drawn from the Christmas attempt, but the unreasonable GOP attacks and the knee-jerk Democratic responses are overshadowing them. And that’s depriving the American people of the debate they need and deserve. And that, in turn, may mean we don’t reach the appropriate conclusions and policy formulations that we must make to improve our chances of keeping al Qaeda at bay.

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First, let’s acknowledge that the system most definitely did not work. Maybe there was no smoking gun, as Obama aide John Brennan put it Sunday, but there were plenty of smoking gun parts that weren’t put together the way they should have been. That system didn’t work. Admittedly, there is an incredible amount of data being processed each day by the U.S. government, and some of it is bound to get delayed or overlooked. But it was surely no everyday occurrence when a prominent Nigerian banker went to the U.S. embassy and reported his own son. Common sense suggests that had to be a whopper of a warning, and some U.S. official hearing it should have been screaming to call attention to it.

Second, we have to recognize that a lot more terrorist plots get foiled than we’ll ever know about. The brave and dedicated people who run our intelligence and security apparatuses hardly ever get praised for their successes because so many must remain secret. But we should recognize they have an awfully good score and not be so quick to call them incompetent.

Third, no system will ever be perfect. As New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out recently, it’s childish for us to expect the government to do the impossible and take complete care of us in all ways all the time. We can demand that it do its best, but we have to do the rest. And that’s why we shouldn’t forget that the Christmas plot ultimately failed because brave and alert citizens of this country and others reacted swiftly and effectively. That’s part of a new awareness that is ultimately the last line of defense. And in this case, that part, at least, did work.

Fourth, in judging President Obama, we have to look at the full picture. His actions have been much tougher than his words, but his words have been plenty tough, too – tough enough, in fact, to anger his base. He won praise, even from conservatives, for his Nobel Peace Prize speech in which he insisted war is sometimes justified because real evil exists in the world. That wasn’t what his Oslo audience, or his liberal supporters at home, wanted to hear, but it’s what he believes, and he has committed the troops, money and effort to show he means it.

So instead of the finger-pointing and the silly public hearings designed to win votes in November, let’s have a real discussion and investigation of what went wrong and tighten up whatever needs to be tightened up. And let’s back the effort to go after al Qaeda anywhere and everywhere.

I know that’s unlikely to happen because it would require a spirit of bipartisanship that wouldn’t appeal to the political bases so important in midterm elections, and it wouldn’t earn big bucks for pundits, blowhards and cable networks that always argue for one extreme or the other. But that’s what we need, and it’s getting more and more costly that it’s become so impossible to get it.




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