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

President Barack Obama


Bing West

Based on their performance over four years, it’s clear this national-security team looks at war as a deliberate, slow-moving planning exercise. This is the perfect model for employing special-operations commandos who spend months developing a target package, with every contingency anticipated. The result is a dead Osama bin Laden. But that’s not war; that is excellent detective work, capped off by a professional SWAT team.

War is chaos, with the enemy usually holding the initiative and surprising us, as at Benghazi. War is the Twin Towers crashing down and firemen from all different units spontaneously rushing forward. War is hurling whatever force is at hand into the fight, when your ambassador is missing and terrorists are running amok. One motto of the Marines has always been: “We’re the nation’s 911 force.” A few days ago, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs defended the lack of prompt military response by repeatedly saying, “We’re not a global 911.”

That comports with this administration’s view of war; it does not comport with actual events. The iconographic image of Obama’s warmaking shows policymakers in the White House clustered in fascination around a video screen, watching the killing of Osama bin Laden. In a similar vein, White House aides have portrayed Mr. Obama as poring over photos of terrorists, selecting which to execute by drone strikes. These antiseptic images portray war as an impersonal, bloodless video game with the president, like a prison warden, approving executions at midnight.

War’s chaos, gore, and mistakes — rectified only by dogged determination — should not be airbrushed. A president, a secretary of defense, and a secretary of state must not conduct war by stealth — privately choosing targets across the globe while publicly bemoaning a bloated military. Our policymakers must be morally and mentally engaged in concert with the warriors they have deployed to kill the enemy.

Yet rather than bonding with the warriors, too many policymakers vote to make war and then stand aside as spectators, free to boo and jeer. Senator Harry Reid declared Iraq “lost,” even as a surge of American troops was stabilizing the country. Mr. Chuck Hagel, nominated to be the secretary of defense, has railed against “senseless” war. There is no worse symbol of inconstancy than throwing away one’s medals or objecting to a war while citing one’s service in that same war as a reason for holding public office, as the president’s new secretary of state has done.

The role of the secretary of defense is to lead, not to wring his hands. Outgoing secretary of defense Panetta struck the right chord when he proclaimed that “terrorists . . . will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere.” “No sanctuary” means terrorists will be attacked wherever they gather. Yet for over a year, the Obama administration has attempted to create a “playbook” specifying when drone strikes against terrorists can be legally authorized. Strikes inside Pakistan are excluded from the rules; for all other countries, consult the playbook. This means there will be no sanctuaries, except when there are.