Defensive Drift
The president and his policymakers do not understand war.

President Barack Obama


Bing West

‘A decade of war is now ending,” President Obama declared in his inaugural address a few weeks ago. That was an odd statement, considering that we have entered a second decade of war. In the same speech, the president referred to having won “peace in our time.” Neville Chamberlin said something similar. Wars are not ended by historically tone-deaf rhetorical flourishes.

Two weeks ago in Algeria, Islamist terrorists conducted their bloodiest raid in years. The attack came only a few months after President Obama proclaimed that al-Qaeda had been “decimated.” The Algerian government launched an immediate counterattack, refusing to consult with the U.S., France, or Great Britain. That refusal reflected concern that Western nations would argue against using force, resulting in negotiations that would weaken Algeria’s internal war against Islamists.

Doubts about America’s resolve are disturbing, because competition among nations and radical sects will persist. Nations such as Russia, Iran, or China will extend their influence by intimidation in the absence of America as an offsetting force. Who is least feared by his adversaries: Putin, Xi Jinping, or Obama?.

The military has little standing within the Obama administration. The hardest-fighting commander in the past ten years is General James Mattis, called “Mad Dog” by the troops for his implacable combat aggressiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put in charge of the Central Command by Secretary of Defense Gates, he broadened attacks against Islamist terrorists and developed contingency plans against Iran. A month ago, he learned via a Pentagon press release that he was to retire in March, five months early. It seems his questions about Iran had irked Obama’s national-security adviser, Tom Donilon.

All four-star generals are appointed by the president. The commander-in-chief can make a change whenever he wants and give no reason. That is right and proper under our system of government. But what message does it send to the services when the one leader known for his war-fighting skills rather than bureaucratic and political talents is retired early via a press handout? Mattis’s toughness was well known across the Middle East. The image of a determined warfighter is precisely what a commander-in-chief should cherish when trying to exert leverage upon a recalcitrant Iran, and yet the president was apparently happy to dismiss him.

This standoffish attitude keeps repeating. The night Osama bin Laden was killed, President Obama and his top officials sat before a video screen in the White House; a famous photo was released depicting the commander-in-chief so deeply involved n the situation from the White House briefing room, epitomizing their hands-off approach to war.

As Islamist terrorists have spread across the Maghreb, the hesitancy of our policymakers has become obvious. According to the Wall Street Journal, some administration officials believed “the U.S. shouldn’t get involved because these Islamists aren’t targeting the U.S.” Last September, when our ambassador to Libya was missing for ten hours during a terrorist assault, no U.S. military force responded. When French forces attacked Islamist militias in Mali in January, the White House dithered even about sending modest logistical aid to our NATO ally.

And even then, it’s not enough to promise behind-the-scenes aid while other countries do the rough work. Throughout Mr. Obama’s second term, our warriors will remain in combat. What defines a warrior? A warrior is a volunteer who risks death to kill the enemy at close quarters in ground combat. It is not that pilots, submariners, surface warfare officers, logisticians, and those in other military specialties lack fortitude. But they do not face daily the imminent threat of death by choosing to patrol or to raid in order to kill the enemy. Those who choose ground combat comprise the nucleus that inspires others in the military who face less risk, but share the same dedication.

The dedication of our policymakers is less clear. When Congress or the president orders our warriors to unsheath their swords, they as policymakers have decided to kill, too. Sending our troops into Afghanistan was the same as swinging an axe at the enemy. But our policymakers behave as if they are clicking the mouse on a computer.