President Obama in danger of failing the terrorism test

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as chair of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By Marty Rochester

The New Year began with two train stations in Munich evacuated, nine people shot outside a Tel Aviv pub, and a fire roaring through a luxury hotel in Dubai, near the Burj Tower, the world’s tallest building – all connected to suspected terrorism.

Following the earlier mass murder in San Bernardino, Calif., committed by two “radicalized” Muslims (Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik), President Barack Obama addressed the nation in December on how he planned to win the “War on Terror.” What grade should we give his overall handling of the problem? 

The president, to his credit, finally did use the word “terrorism” after studiously avoiding the term for most of his tenure. (He had previously called U.S. counter-terrorism efforts “overseas contingency operations,” while calling the Fort Hood killings “workplace violence.”)     

It was comical how CNN and other media, sharing his concern not to exacerbate Islamophobia, seemed to be praying the night of the San Bernardino shootings that the names of the perpetrators would sound more like John Smith and Mary Jones, as they were leaning toward the workplace violence explanation of the carnage until they had to acknowledge grudgingly the jihadistexplanation once the FBI reported that Malik had sworn an online oath to ISIS. No amount of political correctness could trump the evidence staring Anderson Cooper and other commentators in the face.

Not so the president. The reluctance to call the brand of terrorism by name — radical Islam — was a hallmark of Obama’s speech, as he spent as much time trying to defuse hatred toward Muslims as he did presenting his plan to defuse the threat posed by ISIS and other jihadist groups. 

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Mr. President, we get it: Most Muslims are not terrorists. Most people understand it is not the Quran, but an ultrafundamentalist, distorted interpretation of the Quran, that inspires many terrorists. A Rasmussen poll in November revealed that  92 percent of the American public viewed “radical Islamic terrorism,” not Islam, as a “serious threat.”  

The caution against stereotyping Muslims seems a straw-man argument, designed as much not to offend the terrorists themselves for fear it will justify their “hatred” of us, enable them to increase their recruiting efforts and make them more inclined to attack American targets. It reflects his commitment to the use of “soft power” more than “hard power.” 

During his presidency, Obama has constantly avoided antagonizing Muslims at home and abroad, projecting an image of America as a peace-loving, nonexceptionalist country. However, the result has been an increase, not decrease, in the terrorist threat. 

Recall he once referred to ISIS as the “jayvee team,” claimed as recently as November (immediately before the Paris attacks) that the group was “contained” and, in his Dec. 6 speech, insisted his strategy was working. One wonders what it would take to change the strategy — an attack on the New York City subway system that paralyzed Manhattan or an assault on the White House itself? 

The president’s counter-terrorism strategy in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere has consisted largely of drone strikes. True, he has authorized five times more drone strikes than George W. Bush. Not wanting to risk loss of American soldiers through use of ground forces, and preferring killing terrorists to capturing them lest he be saddled with a “Guantanamo” problem, this has denied us potentially valuable intelligence data and has hardly made a dent in the war on terror in South Asia. 

Meanwhile, we are pounding ISIS-held territory with air bombing — each Tomahawk missile costs a million dollars — but to little avail, as the Islamic State continues to operate throughout the Middle East.  Even liberal Washington Post commentator Dana Milbank (Dec. 11) expressed frustration at our military’s “timid approach to the Islamic State.”

In his speech, the president argued that the combination of “air strikes, special forces and working with local forces” will lead to a “sustainable victory” over ISIS. He mentioned “65 countries that have joined an American-led coalition.” This is even more laughable than Bush’s “coalition of the willing” during the Iraq War that Democrats ridiculed, which, other than the British, included three civilian workers from Iceland and a few thousand troops from 40 countries. 

As The New York Times reported Nov. 30, the coalition is barely “a handful,” with the United States carrying out two-thirds of the  air strikes on ISIS over Iraq and 95 percent over Syria. 

The Times story quotes Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Riedel as saying, “The striking note about this coalition is that not one of the 65 members is ready to put boots on the ground.”

There is the rub. 

ISIS and international terrorism represent an existential threat to the United States and the civilized world. ISIS is busy raping and slaughtering Christians, Jews and — even more so — other Muslims, displaying a level of barbarism we haven’t seen in recent memory; they have destroyed invaluable treasures of antiquity; they control oil fields and other resources in an area the size of  Great Britain; through social media they are infecting young minds; and they are seeking WMDs. 

Yet Obama’s speech, on the eve of the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, was not exactly a Rooseveltian call to arms. He seemed as passionate about gun control in the U.S. as he was trying to control terrorist arsenals; background checks on gun owners preoccupied him more than background checks on immigrants who could pose security threats. 

What remains puzzling is why we have been unable to get the United Nations Security Council to authorize a global “collective security” military operation that would include the “Perm Five” (Russia, China, France, the U.K. and U.S.), the entire European Union and NATO, Israel, virtually the entire Arab world, and even Iran as well as nonstate actors such as Hezbollah, all of whom have reason to despise ISIS and make common cause against it.   

All it takes is U.S. leadership, precisely what is lacking today, as we have no credibility or respect. So, President Obama gets a “Delayed” gradewhich, unless things improve, will become a D-minus.