In the wake of the worst terrorist attack in America since 9/11, President Obama could have used his Oval Office address on Sunday night to announce different policies than the ones that have obviously failed to keep America safe from radical Islam.
He could have explained why a long-feared arrival of low-tech, soft-target terrorism had occurred, and what he would do to rectify the problem—beginning with apologizing for giving a U.S. visa to a jihadist from Pakistan and agreeing to stop his plan to bring more Syrian refugees here.
He could have announced a plan to undermine the ideology of our enemies—radical Islam—which impelled Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik to wage war in San Bernardino last week.
Instead he did what he always does with security threats: blame others for his administration’s lapses and do the minimum to appear to be reacting to them without actually doing anything.
The president instinctively wants to react to every security threat by assailing his domestic opponents.
In calling for Congress to ban those on the no-fly list from buying guns, Obama is attempting one of his trademark shifts in blame for problems he has created. The president instinctively wants to react to every security threat by assailing his domestic opponents.
Even if his proposed ban and other gun control measures were in place, they would not have stopped the attack in San Bernardino. Recent attacks like those in Paris show that jihadists have little problem overcoming gun laws, which serve mainly to disarm the law-abiding. Obama could also look to his adopted hometown of Chicago to see that gun control doesn’t work.
Obama’s moralizing about avoiding “suspicion and hate” implied, once again, that Americans are bigoted — another attempt to shift blame. It echoed a statement last week by Attorney General Loretta Lynch that the government would prosecute anti-Muslim speech that “edges toward violence,” whatever that means.
Thus did our government reveal its contempt for us and our Constitution in the wake of an attack it failed to prevent.
Obama’s reassurances about the fight against ISIS fell flat. In effect, a ragtag army of about 20,000 men have stood up to a year and a half of a U.S.-led war and prevailed—all the while expanding their influence around the globe. Their success has inspired attacks like the ones in Paris and San Bernardino.
Calling for Congress to approve retroactively his anti-ISIS campaign, as he did again in his Sunday evening prime time address, will do nothing to improve the flagging effort. This is merely another attempt to shift blame for failure down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Congress.
Obama failed to climb down from his assessment that ISIS is “contained”—something that not even his own top general believes.
The president also preemptively surrendered to ISIS insurgents he said would sap any American-led ground forces, despite the success of the 2007 surge in Iraq that proved otherwise, and the fact that a U.S-led coalition could turn administration of Syria over to local tribes after destroying ISIS.
Sunday nights’ sad speech makes one wonder what the White House was thinking. Obama has always resisted addresses from the Oval Office for unclear reasons. In one of only two other such speeches during his tenure, he cheered our exit from Iraq, in which hard-won American gains were thrown away and the vacuum ISIS would eventually fill was created.
Whatever the reason, his aversion to Oval Office addresses may have been wise: the setting doesn’t suit him.
The office awaits a new president who can confidently explain how a restored America with restored alliances can defeat ISIS rapidly and with overwhelming force, fight back in the cultural and ideological war radical Islam is waging against us, and defend rather than blame the American people.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).