In 2008, after splitting the Super Tuesday primaries with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton revived her flagging presidential campaign with a hard-hitting television ad in which she questioned whether Barack Obama was ready to be president.
The ad’s dramatic hook was a hypothetical 3 a.m. phone call to the White House during a national security emergency. The ad dramatized doubts about Obama’s preparedness. At the time, Obama was only four years removed from the Illinois Senate seat representing the south side of Chicago and had been in the U.S. Senate for a little over three years.
The “3 a.m. phone call ad” helped Clinton win the Texas and Ohio primaries, but it was too little, too late.
Now Obama’s real-life 3 a.m. phone call has come, and he has flunked the test.
One of the most significant terrorist attacks against the homeland occurred on Christmas Day, when a would-be terrorist boarded a flight to Detroit and tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines aircraft carrying 278 passengers and 11 crew members.
After first claiming the foiled terrorist plot was the work of an “isolated extremist,” falsely implying that the Nigerian was not part of al-Qaida or another terrorist network, Obama took days (while he played golf in Hawaii) to step before the cameras and acknowledge the obvious: a massive, systemic, and nearly disastrous failure of intelligence.
Obama's reticence to lean into this terrorist attack with the full force of his role as commander in chief is part of a larger whole.
First, his administration banned the use of the phrase “war on terror,” as though pretending it did not exist would make it go away. His Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, bragged to a German publication that the new term was not “terrorist attack” but “man-made disaster.”
Imagine the possibilities! I suppose that would make an earthquake a “divinely engineered hiccup of the tectonic plates.” People might still die, but the term sounds so less militaristic and. . . Cheney-esque.
Napolitano actually went on CNN to claim that “the system worked
.” The statement resembled a self-parody so thoroughly that it could have aired on “Saturday Night Live” unedited with a dubbed laugh track.
Obama, in full recovery mode, is hosting all-hands-on-deck meetings in the Situation Room of the White House, ordered up a full review of what led to the intelligence failure, and is vowing to take corrective action. But in a sense, his attempts at catch-up are insufficient.
As Charles Krauthammer points out, Obama still stands by his administration’s decision to treat Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a “suspect” rather than an “enemy combatant,” giving him full Miranda rights, and allowing him to lawyer up so we can get no information about his al-Qaida handlers.
Krauthammer writes in the Washington Post: “The logic is perverse. If we find Abdulmutallab in an al-Qaida training camp in Yemen, where he is merely preparing for a terror attack, we snuff him out with a Predator — no judge, no jury, no qualms. But if we catch him in the United States in the very act of mass murder, he instantly acquires protection not just from execution by drone but even from interrogation.”
My sense is that American politics will resemble Israeli politics in the future. Which is to say that security will be the paramount political issue, with leaders judged harshly for their ability to defeat the terrorists and protect the homeland.
This certainly was the case with the government of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, buffeted by the failures and miscalculations of the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2007, which led to the defeat of the Kadima party in the next election.
I recall my first visit to Israel in 1994. The Oslo accords had been signed recently, and a strained and uneasy peace with the PLO prevailed. I met with Benjamin Netanyahu, then a back-bencher in the Knesset.
I asked him what he thought would happen under the new accords. He replied matter-of-factly, “Someone will perforate the security cordon, innocent civilians will die, and we will discover too late that we were insufficiently diligent in protecting ourselves against a sworn enemy.”
Of course, that is exactly what happened, and it helped to elect Netanyahu prime minister the first time. Now he finds himself back in office, carried along by a wave of popular sentiment that too much negotiation with terrorists by predecessor governments led to less security, not more.
Obama is beginning to suffer a similar judgment from the American people for his failure to understand the nature of the current conflict. His Cairo speech, while eloquent and inspiring, seems strangely incongruous against the backdrop of the suicide bombing killing seven CIA agents in Afghanistan, the Fort Hood shooting, the murder of Americans at a military recruiting station in Little Rock, and the attempted downing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day by a terrorist.
Hillary was right: Obama was not ready. We can only hope and pray that he will get ready quickly. Whether he wants to use the term “war on terror” or not, the war is joined, we have implacable enemies who want to destroy us and kill our citizens, and our government must acknowledge the existence of the war and aggressively prosecute it on all fronts.
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