“When you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea: Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.”
So said Steve Martin’s character to the Chatty Cathy played by John Candy in the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s advice President Obama should have heeded before his big speech last week at National Defense University. But he didn’t.
Instead, Obama moseyed through a 7,000-word speech that read like a graduate student’s thesis. It was less a statement of vision or a path to solving problems and more of an allegory of myths that remain as vivid for progressives as they are make-believe.
No Democratic speech on anything related to security would be complete without blaming George W. Bush and the Iraq War for what ails America. True to form, Obama recounted the well-worn tale: “We quickly drove al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but then shifted our focus and began a new war in Iraq. This carried grave consequences for our fight against al Qaeda, our standing in the world and — to this day — our interests in a vital region.”
Obama is right, but not the way he thinks. The USA and its allies did not invade Iraq in 2003 because of al Qaeda, but our warriors would fight them there soon enough. A major part of the Iraq insurgency was fueled by al Qaeda. The surge of forces Bush ordered in early 2007 defeated that insurgency and bequeathed Obama a stabilized Iraq with al Qaeda all but defeated there.
It was in Iraq that Bush began to prove the idea he expressed when he said: “We’re fighting them there, so we don’t have to fight them here.” Progressives wallowing in their supine nuance rejected this important corollary to the Bush Doctrine as naively simplistic. But progressive Obama was the one who proved it. By ceasing seriously to fight them “there,” we now fight terrorists here. Just ask the victims of the Boston bombing. Or those whom Major Nidal Hasan murdered in his jihadist rampage. Or the hundreds whom the Underwear Bomber or Times Square Bomber would have killed had luck not been on our side.
As has been his custom amid mushrooming scandals, Obama addressed this unpleasant fact with bald-faced mendacity, saying: “There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure.” No serious person outside of the West Wing believes this.
Having incanted anew the most essential progressive myths about national security, Obama then assured his audience that he remains committed to closing the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention facility — the same facility that most Americans want kept open and that a Congress then dominated by his own party prevented Obama from closing in 2009.
Nowhere in the meandering speech did Obama even mention the two governments that pose the greatest risks to the USA. The words “Iran” and “China” never crossed Obama’s teleprompter.
Neither did “Islamism” or “Islamist.” Obama did have a surprising, brief moment of lucidity — generally an inevitability in any 7,000-word compilation — when he said, “Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology.” This breakthrough perception is obvious to most Americans who ponder what gives rise to terrorism, but it is lost on Washington’s establishment defense experts, both Democratic and Republican.
Unfortunately, Obama’s definition of the ideology — “a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West” — misses the real essence of the tyrannical ideology that in its modern form has been brewing for a century and has made deep political and military inroads during Obama’s tenure. More importantly, Obama made clear he has no idea how to combat the ideology, nor even the will to name it.
Lingering throughout Obama’s remarks was the big lie of his foreign policy: that our only real enemy is the senior leadership of al Qaeda. The lie fits nicely with the progressive view that we may fight only those who attack us directly and conventionally at home. The lie has ensured American docility as the Chinese government has challenged our allies in the Pacific, stolen our technology and waged cyber war on us. The lie has let the Iranian government arrive at the brink of a nuclear weapons capability and dominance of an important region. It drove poorly managed exits from Iraq and Afghanistan. And it paved the way for Islamist political victories in places like Egypt and Tunisia and combat victories in places like Benghazi and Boston.
Obama could have articulated anew what our national interests are, who challenges them and how we will make life difficult for those people. What he delivered instead was mush. It had no point. Allies who read the speech will see again the unreliable American leader for whom “red lines” set against enemies are mere rhetorical gestures, easily forgotten when crossed. Enemies will draw a similar conclusion, seeing again the president for whom progressive orthodoxy triumphs over all else, making their schemes easier.
At home, the speech will be remembered mostly for its interruption by a representative of Code Pink in the audience. Obama oddly complimented his pacifist heckler, saying her voice was “worth paying attention to.” She was actually twice blessed that day. Security saw to it she was able to leave early after her outburst during the interminable speech. Lucky lady.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor during the George W. Bush administration. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”