Let’s begin with a simple proposition: America faces a remorseless, savage jihadist enemy that is seeking — under the guise of various organizations and support structures — to kill as many Americans as it possibly can. Given the existence of this enemy, only the suicidal or the foolish refuse to defend themselves.
At the risk of over-simplifying, assuming we are not suicidal or (entirely) foolish, our methods of self-defense can be offensive in nature, defensive in nature, or a mixture of both. The PATRIOT Act is primarily defensive. It creates the legal mechanisms for greater intelligence-gathering and information-sharing that allows law enforcement to react more quickly to emerging domestic threats. It was specifically designed to close many of the legal holes in our defense that helped ennable the 9/11 hijackers. The Afghanistan invasion was offensive, designed to destroy the terrorist infrastructure, kill terrorists, and create a nation-state that would be an effective ally going forward. The Iraq invasion was similarily offensive, destroying a terrorist-supporting enemy regime, defeating the follow-on insurgency, then (at least by design) leaving behind a successful, democratic ally that could do military and ideological battle against jihadism in the heart of the Middle East.
The offensive strategy at least had the potential to render the comprehensive defense less and less necessary. After all, if jihadists were defeated and discredited, stripped of financial support, and decimated in the field, then they would have less capability to mount attacks against the United States. But if the offensive strategy failed or was abandoned, we’d leave behind a wounded enemy that would in time be able to reconstitute itself, re-establish safe havens, and resume its own comprehensive offensive operations against Americans at home and abroad.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration took a both/and approach. Facing a fully-empowered, combat-effective al-Qaeda force with an unknown number of already-deployed terror cells combined with an established safe haven, we had to go fight them on the ground, eyeball-to-eyeball, and erect our own defensive shield. Unfortunately — and for many reasons — the offensive portion of the fight was not complete by the end of his second term. In fact, until jihadism is utterly discredited, I’d argue that we should never view the offensive portion of the fight as entirely “complete.”
President Obama came into office selling the American people on a fiction: that we could quickly wind down the offensive fight, roll back the defensive security state, and we’d still be safe. This fiction couldn’t survive security briefings. So what did he do? He left the Bush defensive infrastructure in place while winding down our commitment to offensive military operations (with the notable exception of pinprick drone strikes). We wound down our offense without inflicting the damage we should have inflicted (in Afghanistan, primarily) on an announced timetable, and without leaving a residual force (in Iraq) or perhaps sufficient residual force (in Afghanistan). These factors give our wounded enemy an opportunity to hunker down, wait for our departure, and then face much weaker forces when it re-emerges in force and attempts to establish the kinds of safe havens and training camps that render it exponentially more dangerous.
If this happens, then our risks skyrocket, and our defensive capabilities become that much more important. He has to know this. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with our enemy has to know this.
But he didn’t level with the American people. He didn’t explain that his strategy contained inherent and substantial risks, that drones — while effective for limited purposes — could not suppress al-Qaeda and that the prime job of suppression was being left to Afghan, Pakistani, (and Iraqi) allies of dubious loylaty, reliability, and competence. Instead he sold the American public on an unmitigated success story: Bin Laden was dead, GM was alive, and our constitutional law professor president protected our civil liberties. So we are shocked, just shocked that he’s kept and perhaps even expanded President Bush’s defensive infrastructure.
Here is our reality: Al-Qaeda and its allies are wounded, not dead. A nation tired of supporting a ground war is pulling back, and in pulling back we are taking (and magnifying) risks that can only be reasonably mitigated through strong and effective defensive measures. That’s the reality that President Obama knows (or should know), and that’s a reality that he has utterly failed to adequately explain. It’s also — critically — a reality with which critics of our defense should grapple. Most of them, coincidentally, are also critics of our offensive measures. If we can’t go strike the enemy at his heart, and we dramatically limit our ability to create defensive information systems, how do we defend ourselves effectively?
After all, we can’t just wish our enemy away.