Why is the White House downplaying the terror threat?

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," February 14, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," the administration lays out its new national security strategy and puts climate change on par with terrorism. Are they downplaying the real threat?

Plus, President Obama's war irresolution. Should Congress endorse his ambivalent ISIS strategy?

And move over, Scott Walker. A new Midwestern governor is taking on public-sector unions. So can Bruce Rauner clean up the mess in Illinois?

Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

The White House released its 2015 national security strategy last week with Susan Rice telling a Washington, D.C., audience that, quote, "As a nation, we're stronger than we have been in a very long time." The president's national security adviser accused administration critics of lacking perspective and claimed America no longer faced existential threats.


SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: While the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they're not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War. We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism and a nearly instantaneous news cycle.


GIGOT: In an interview with vox.com, Monday, President Obama agreed that the media has overhyped the threat from terrorism while downplaying the risk of climate change, a charge White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, doubled down on a day later.


JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The point that the president is making is that there are many more people on an annual basis who have to confront the impact, the direct impact on their lives of climate change, or on the spread of a disease than on terrorism.


GIGOT: Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens; and editorial board member, Dorothy Rabinowitz.

So, Dan, not too long ago, Eric Holder, the attorney general, said that the threat of terrorism kept him up at night. And Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary, soon-to-depart, said that the world is exploding all over. Now, we get the president and Susan Rice telling us, well, calm down, really, we're pretty safe, don't worry about it. Whose message are we supposed to believe here?

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST, DEPUTY EDITOR: Well, we do have to come up with an answer, don't we, Paul, because if you --


GIGOT: Because we asked the question.

HENNINGER: There's that. Anyone who's been watching this has started going, what is this all about? So we'll come up with what I think is an explanation. Barack Obama is in the last two years of the presidency. He does have an agenda. It is, by and large, a domestic agenda. A little history. Go back to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. There was a famous phrase during the Johnson presidency, it was "guns versus butter," spending on the Vietnam War versus spending on the Great Society. It was a dilemma because it was hard to do both. I'm convinced that Barack Obama has concluded he's not going to allow the last two years of his presidency to be dragged into what he calls a long-term overseas expensive military commitment. He simply won't go there. He wants to take that money and spend it on his domestic policy.

BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: The way to understand this national security strategy, it's the third term of the Jimmy Carter administration that we're in. Jimmy Carter came into the White House, gave a speech in, I think, 1977, and said we have to get over our inordinate fear of Communism. That was the mantra -- at least until the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, that was the mantra of his term. Now, what the president is essentially telling us, along with Susan Rice, is we have to get over our inordinate fear of terrorism, we have to get over our inordinate fear of Vladimir Putin, and our inordinate fear of Iran acquiring nuclear capability. The essential ides is that this is a president who believes we need nation building at home. And just as Dan mentioned with the guns versus butter dilemma, he wants the money for butter. So as a result, he has to convince Americans that everything they're seeing on their TV screens is some kind of illusion, it's overhyped, we needn't worry about it.

GIGOT: So Susan Rice and the president are really the people we should believe here? They're the ones telling us what the real administration policy is.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Well, here's the thing that I wonder at. It's very dangerous for a member of this administration to invoke World War II because, ultimately, it reminds us of a time when the president of the United States understood that if our allies abroad were faltering, we would be living at the point of a gun. And he said this to an isolationist Congress. This is a time when one vote separated us from the draft, when we desperately need an army, and General Marshall called begging. It is an amazing error for them to bring us back to a time when there was leadership of the United States. And


GIGOT: But, OK, Dorothy, fine. But they're saying, basically, look, this isn't the Hitler threat. This isn't even the Soviet Union threat. This is a rag tag -- I'm putting words in their mouth here -- but it's a bunch of largely disorganized terrorists, who are -- they are spread out all over and they can hit here or there, but that doesn't threaten the essence, the existence of the U.S.

RABINOWITZ: But here's the thing. This is precisely what people said at the time of World War II. They had signs saying, "Let us fight Hitler from here," not go to war, not put boots on the ground. These were also very distant threats.

STEPHENS: We just interviewed a senior NATO commander who is saying - - an American commander, who is saying we expect that Russia will be in a war in five to six years.

GIGOT: That Putin believes that he will be.



GIGOT: Preparing as such.

STEPHENS: So for the first time in 25 years, the security of Europe is seriously in jeopardy. We are looking at an Iran that's coming so close to a nuclear capability that, as Henry Kissinger recently reminded us, it will cause a chain of proliferation in the world's most volatile region. We've just learned that ISIS has as many as 20,000 foreign fighters, of whom perhaps some 5,000 have Western passports with visa -- with visa waivers in order to get into the United States. So it really makes you wonder what kind of lotus land Susan Rice is living in.

GIGOT: I also think that if you -- that the threat is existential if these jihadists ever get a nuclear weapon.

HENNINGER: And even if you accept their premise, Paul, the next question is, are they doing enough to meet the threat as it exists? I mean, just late this week, we had Yemen overrun by an al Qaeda army. The secretary general of the United Nations said Yemen is a collapsing before our eyes. We cannot stand by and watch. But it looks like we are. We have.

RABINOWITZ: And the amnesia. What does it take for a national security head to say we have no existential threat when we have witnessed not long ago the destruction of the World Trade Center, where 3,000 Americans who were killed? Nothing like this ever happened in the 1940s.

GIGOT: Briefly, Bret, the deal with the -- the cease-fire with Ukraine this week, victory for Putin?

STEPHENS: Yeah. Of course. This is a tremendous victory for Putin because he alternates between the use of brute force and fake diplomacy. He's now in the fake diplomacy stage. We'll see if this cease-fire lasts at all, but it won't. This will entice further aggression.

GIGOT: All right, thank you all.

When we come back, President Obama's war irresolution. He's begging Congress to try his hands and endorse his ambivalent ISIS strategy. So should they comply?



PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This resolution reflects our core objective to destroy ISIL. It supports the comprehensive strategy that we have been pursuing with our allies and partners.


GIGOT: That was President Obama Wednesday calling on Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State and support what he says is the administration's comprehensive strategy for defeating the terror group.

So, Dorothy, a couple of things. Limitations he's asking Congress to impose. One, no authorization for "enduring ground combat operations," quote/unquote, and then also a three-year time limit. You have followed these things for a long time and looked at presidents in war. Can you recall a president asking Congress to put limits on his ability to fight that war?

RABINOWITZ: This is like many other aspects, only a more important one, unique in our history. Most of our history has consisted of calling for maximum strength. Voice, however, yes, by Winston Churchill, who said, "You ask what is our policy, our policy is to wage war, to wage relentless war against the monstrous tyranny, unequalled in history. You ask what is our aim, our aim is victory."

GIGOT: And he didn't go to parliament and say, please, let's put a time limit on this.



STEPHENS: This is the way this policy -- this president operates. Remember in late 2009, he went to West Point. He gave a speech announcing a surge in Afghanistan, a war he said we must -- we must win. Except that the surge was going to have fewer troops than the generals were asking for. And there was going to be a sunset clause. There was going to be a time provision. So that is precisely the way he has acted. And what we are doing is we are telling our enemies, wait us out and eventually we will go.

GIGOT: The three year time limit is also -- if I were one of the presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton or a Republican, the last thing I would want would be a war resolution that runs out in my first year and, basically, you have to go back to Congress to reauthorize it and maybe try to renegotiate the terms that have already been set implicitly on the war. That really makes it tougher to them.

HENNINGER: Yeah, it ties the president's hands and they have to go back and re-argue this situation again. And, you know, when you have a resolution that has words like "enduring" in it, which is very hard to define, or "limited," it allows, you know, the lawyers to come in -- that's -- actually, that's a very big point. An idea like this sends confusion I think to the Pentagon. What limits are being imposed on them? The president cites this comprehensive coalition he's got over there. On the ground, that coalition is the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

GIGOT: "Enduring offensive ground combat operations," that means they can have ground operations that are defensive, but how do you define "offensive"? Does that mean you can't take ground? What does it mean?

STEPHENS: Look, also, look, Dan is absolutely right, but the other issue here is if we were conducting right now a shock-and-awe campaign against ISIS, then there would be more justification for saying, look, we'll do this for -- we're going to say we'll do this for two years and then Congress may reauthorize. But the fact is that we are conducting perhaps the least offensive air campaign in American history. This is -- we are conducting a fraction of the sorties we did over Kosovo. So you're talking about a president whose military strategy is not exactly this hard- hitting attempt to quickly defeat ISIS, scatter them to the four corners. Two years would hardly be enough to retake two more towns in Syria.


RABINOWITZ: It's Rand Paul's military strategy.

GIGOT: OK. But that's what the president would say he's attempting here. He's going to run up the middle. You have Republicans who want him to have an unrestricted war authorization and Democrats who want even more restrictions: Don't fight outside of Iraq and maybe -- or Syria. Do you want to have an even tougher limitation on ground troops? He's saying, look, I'm dealing with the political reality as it is.

RABINOWITZ: Well, here's the thing. They have an old saying in the '60s we should look back on, which is, "The whole world is watching." The whole world is watching this essentially ludicrous and obviously ludicrous attempt to wage a non-war and sound as though we were leaders of the world.

GIGOT: Well, wait a minute. The administration said they're making progress against ISIS, that Kobani is liberated in Syria from Islamic State, and they've had a lot of fighters killed.

HENNINGER: Well, they have reached a bit of a standoff with ISIS, though ISIS is far from defeated, and it's not going away. I mean, there were just reports that 20,000 foreign fighters are coming to reinforce the ISIS army that is already there. We described earlier that Yemen has essentially collapsed in the past week. In Libya, the Libyans do not control their own capital.

GIGOT: Right.

HENNINGER: So the idea that we have brought them to a standstill is really quite an overstated claim by the part of the administration.

GIGOT: So if you were a Republican leader on Capitol Hill, would you endorse the president's authorization as written?

HENNINGER: No, I would not. What I would authorize is greater spending for the Defense Department and tell them that we want to give them the resources to be able to fight ISIS, rather than simply sign --


STEPHENS: Look, the president has the authorities he needs already under the 2001 and 2002 terror and Iraq resolutions, so he has that. He has what he needs.

GIGOT: A clean resolution without restrictions would be fine by me. Otherwise, don't make the war harder to win.

When we come back, critics are calling him "Scott Walker on steroids"? And only a month into the job, Governor Bruce Rauner is wasting no time taking on public-sector unions in Illinois. So does his economic turn- around plan stand a chance in that deep blue state?


GIGOT: Well, he's the first Republican governor in Illinois in 12 years, and with a record-high pension deficit and the lowest credit rating in the country, Bruce Rauner certainly has his work cut out for him. And only a month on the job, he's tackling that state's fiscal and economic woes head on by targeting the powerful public-sector unions.

"Wall Street Journal" senior editorial page writer, Collin Levy, joins us from Chicago with more.

So, Collin, why the strategy right off the bat of taking on public unions? Why does he think that's so important?

COLLIN LEVY, SENIOR EDITORIAL PAGE WRITER: Well, taking on the unions, Paul, here is the key to reforming the state's economic problem. And what he did this week is he signed an executive order that really took it straight to them. He said that the unions may no longer collect fees from people who don't want to be members. This is key to their political power. He then went to federal district court and filed a lawsuit that said collection of those fees violates the First Amendment because it forces them essentially to associate with the union against their will. So this is a very aggressive stance and it's key here to his strategy.

GIGOT: And it's key because if you can coerce those union dues from tens of thousands of members, then you have the money to buy basically the legislature. And you have --


LEVY: Yeah. That's --

GIGOT: It's basically a corrupt -- I call it a corrupt political bargain. The unions --

LEVY: Yeah, it's --


GIGOT: -- dominate the legislature.

LEVY: That's right. It's a corrupt feedback loop, because you have the unions sitting across the table from the same legislators that they're supporting financially. So it's impossible to reform a lot of the major problems in Illinois. We have $111 billion in unfunded pension liability.


GIGOT: There's all?

LEVY: You cannot --


GIGOT: $111 billion?

LEVY: I mean, this -- it's mindboggling. And the reason that it hasn't been reformed is because the unions are funding all of Springfield.

GIGOT: Now, Democrats have a super majority in both houses of the legislature. So, in a way, this is also, instead of taking -- going directly to legislature and sort of saying, all right, please give me something on reform, I did win, you know, how about a few crumbs of policy, he's basically going around them and saying, look, I'm going to take this to the public and to the courts and I'm going to try to undercut the -- basically, the roots of your power. That's a little risky though politically, isn't it, because don't you -- if you lose in court, you could be weaker.

LEVY: Well, I mean, look, the only way he'll do this is by finding ways to work around the obstructionism. The obstructionism is going to be their, the Democrats' main plan for him with their super majority. You know, he's now looking at proposals that's going to try to bring Right-to Work to communities --

GIGOT: Right.

LEVY: -- by using, you know, ways -- for communities to empower themselves. He's going to have to find ways to do that because, otherwise, he's going to be cornered or they're going to try to corner him into using the same kind of tax increases that have consistently failed this state. You have had a situation where they raised taxes back in 2003 --

GIGOT: 2011.

LEVY: Sorry, 2011.

GIGOT: 2011, yeah.

LEVY: They raised it from -- income taxes from 3 percent to 5 percent. They said at the time it was going to be pay down some of these problems but, guess what, the problems have stayed and taxes went up and businesses hated it. It's just got worse.

GIGOT: And, Dan, the real root of the problem here is that Illinois has been lagging economically it's a Great Lakes neighbors in job growth and economic growth and income gains. They've really got a big, big problem. And the root of it is these high taxes and this -- and the -- that's required to finance pensions, and it's sucking up the revenue from - - that the state gets every year.

HENNINGER: Yeah, it's just eroding the state. I mean, companies will leave Illinois if they have opportunities in the surrounding states, especially Indiana, which has been attracting companies, creating jobs. Illinois will simply empty out over time.

GIGOT: What are the prospects for his success, briefly, Collin? Do you like him?

LEVY: I like the prospects for success because success is really the only way for the state to survive.


GIGOT: Yeah. They've got -- if it fails, then it's in a deeper mess.

All right, thanks, Collin.

Thanks, Dan.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits & Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits & Misses" of the week.

Dan, start us off.

HENNINGER: Well, I'm going to give a hit, Paul, to the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. It was 50 years ago, a young Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later U.S. Senator from New York, issued a report whose central insight was that dependency on welfare was breaking up black families, causing the creation of single mother families who were on welfare and destruction of the children. Moynihan wanted to create incentives for the women to work. 50 years later, that incentive to work as an alternative to welfare is now conventional wisdom. It was an extraordinary insight back then.

GIGOT: He was vilified at the time.

HENNINGER: Very much.

GIGOT: Dorothy?

RABINOWITZ: Yes, this is about a film you may have heard of, "American Sniper," which I went to see in a Greenwich Village movie theater. Liberal progressive Greenwich Village, packed to the gills. It was an amazing moment to listen to no sound, no popcorn crackling, no nothing. And when it was all over and people were crushed leaving, overcome with emotion, and there was still no sound, it occurred to me to think of Howard Dean, who said famously that the only people interested in this film were a sort of people who were not quite right in the head and also who were Tea Partiers. So, Mr. Dean, if you can find a Tea Party any in Greenwich Village, we have a movie ticket for you.

GIGOT: All right.


STEPHENS: A hit to the late James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, the authors of the "Broken Windows" theory of policing. Just this week, we've learned that the first 10 days of February, New York City has not had a single murder. Murder in New York, since 1993, is down 80 percent, robbery down 82 percent. All because of a policing theory that these two brilliant academics came up with, implemented by Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton.

GIGOT: All right, thank you all.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.

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