One of the key responsibilities of leadership is to tell the people the truth, not necessarily what they want to hear.
It wasn’t so long ago that Sen. Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats were condemning President George W. Bush for prematurely declaring victory in Iraq.
We all remember the scene. Bush spoke to the nation from an aircraft carrier in 2003, underneath a banner bearing the slogan "Mission Accomplished." He seemed to be suggesting that combat activity in the Middle East was complete and we could all breathe a sigh of relief.
We also remember what followed — several years of bloody combat and surprise attacks that cost America thousands of lives and billions of dollars. President Bush declared victory far too soon, and Obama and the Democrats never let him forget it.
But now we're watching President Obama make the same error by prematurely declaring victory. The president would like us to believe that the war against terror ended when American troops tracked and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. He reinforced that rosy message by pulling our troops out of Iraq and setting a deadline for the removal of American forces from Afghanistan.
Mission accomplished, al- on the run, right?
But as the nightly news has been reminding us, the president is painting an unrealistic picture. That couldn’t have been more obvious last week when the State Department announced that American embassies across Northern Africa and the Middle East would be closed and embassy personnel in Yemen would be evacuated. Why? Credible threats of pending terrorist activity, courtesy of al-Qaida, the enemy we supposedly defeated several years ago.
Bottom line, the threat from terrorists is far from over. We had 14 American soldiers murdered by admitted jihadist Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood in 2009. A few months later we barely managed to stop a terrorist from detonating a body bomb on an airliner approaching Detroit. We had four Americans murdered by terrorists in Benghazi, Libya, last September. We had the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year.
The Fort Hood murders were not an act of "workplace violence," as the president put it. The Benghazi attack was not a spontaneous response to a controversial video.
Last week, after America was forced to close many embassies, the president shrugged and told Jay Leno that Americans need not worry too much, because their chances of dying in a terrorist attack are far less than perishing in an auto accident.
The president needs to lead and lead now. He must define reality. An organization that can attack America and kill an American ambassador, and can force the closure of more than 20 embassies, is not yet defeated. It remains a real threat.
Radical jihadists remain a constant danger in our homeland, and al-Qaida has never been decimated as an international presence. Both threats are real, and the sooner America’s leaders wake up to the ongoing challenge, the sooner we can develop the long term strategies necessary to confront, contain, and ultimately defeat this enemy. This will be a long war.
It seems like America is doomed to relive an awful chapter of its history. The threat from al-Qaida today is not all that different from what America faced in 2001. Our baffling inability to understand the threat is frighteningly similar.
Early in 2001, even after the attacks on our embassies in Africa, an attack on an American compound in Saudi Arabia, and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, America's leaders underestimated the threat from al-Qaida.
Just like in 2001, when we didn't connect the dots leading up to 9/11, today we are failing to connect the dots of Fort Hood, Benghazi, Egypt, Syria, the targeting of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, and the Boston Marathon bombing.
The threat today is at least as broad and dangerous as it was 12 years ago. It's time everyone — starting with the president — accepted that reality, so we can begin to build a strategy to protect ourselves and eventually eliminate the threat. We won't make much progress in this war until we acknowledge that we're still at war.
This problem screams out for a bipartisan approach. We had it for three to five years following the 9/11 attacks. Congress and President Bush developed strategies to keep America safe following that historic attack.
We took military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, developed the NSA meta data collection system, enhanced interrogations, utilized Guantanamo Bay as a prisoner of war camp, instituted drone attacks, and pursued other risky strategies.
Some strategies were more successful than others. Some might even have been abject failures. But the bottom line was they initially had bipartisan support. Congress even passed intelligence reform through an effort led by a conservative Republican congressman from Michigan, a liberal Democratic congresswoman from California, an Independent senator from Connecticut, and a moderate Republican senator from Maine. Everyone was on board when it came to protecting America at home and abroad.
We need that same type of bipartisanship today if we’re ever going to address this threat, once and for all. The death of one leader did not cripple al-Qaida. Our decision to leave Iraq and Afghanistan does not mean the enemy has packed up and gone home. Americans are certainly war weary. But we need to hear the truth: al-Qaida has taken some hits but unfortunately managed to adjust and survive.
If we continue to keep our collective head in the sand, we're simply inviting another massive attack like we suffered in 2001. We can only pray that it doesn't take a similar incident to awaken us from our foolish partisanship and again unite to confront the enemy.
Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra was chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is currently on the Advisory Board of LIGNET.
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