Our Secretary-General In Chief

Column: President Obama is more concerned with American overreaction than ISIS terrorism

Barack Obama Raul Castro
March 25, 2016

Terror in Brussels leaves at least 30 dead. Visiting Cuba, President Obama responds. For 51 seconds. Then he gets back to burying the Cold War. Which ended in 1991.

Later in Havana, explaining to ESPN why he followed through with plans to attend a baseball game despite the international crisis, the president invoked David Ortiz of the Red Sox, who rallied Boston after the 2013 marathon bombing. What Obama said of Ortiz is revealing.

"That is the kind of resilience and kind of strength that we have to continually show in the face of these terrorists," he said. "They cannot defeat America. They can’t—they don’t produce anything. They don’t have a message that appeals to the vast majority of Muslims or the vast majority of people around the world. But what they can do is scare us and make people afraid and disrupt our daily lives and divide us. As long as we don’t allow that to happen, we’ll be ok."

Whew, what a relief. Islamic holy warriors bomb, kill, maim, mutilate, decapitate, rape, crucify, and shoot civilians of every sex, age, race, and creed—but they won’t win, so long as the president maintains the fortitude to stick to his schedule and watch a baseball game with a Communist dictator. Now watch Raul and me do the wave.

Rarely has Obama’s attitude toward terrorism been brought into such stark relief. Why does he respond so perfunctorily, so coolly, so stoically to the mayhem? Not because he lacks sympathy. Because he believes his job is to restrain America from overreaction, from hubris, from our worst instincts of imperialism and oppression.

Yes, the thinking goes, ISIS and al Qaeda are threats to be fought, contained, defeated. But the greater threat, in Obama’s view, is that Americans may become scared, afraid, disrupted, divided. We might invade Iraq again, or cut off immigration and trade, or discriminate against the Muslim minority. That is the real danger against which this president stands. Terrorism will burn itself out. The problem of American maximalism remains.

This is not the sort of thing you expect to hear from an American president. It’s what you expect from a secretary general of the United Nations, from the president of the European Commission, from the foreign ministry of France circa 2002. It’s the worldview of the international NGO, of the multilateral bureaucrat: Terrorism? We can manage. But the U.S. hyper-power? We’ve got to put a lid on this problem, stat.

Liberal internationalists have agonized over the wanton use of our power for years. The treaties and institutions they support are brakes on American unilateralism. They bind America’s freedom of action. "It was the Gulliver effect," wrote Charles Krauthammer in "Democratic Realism." "Call a committee meeting of countries with hostile or contrary interests—i.e., the U.N. Security Council—and you have guaranteed yourself another 12 years of inaction."

What makes Obama unique is not that he subscribes to the multilateral worldview but that he applies it to the American people themselves. He seeks not only to constrain the American military but also the American citizenry, to tamp down our anger and worry and frustration, replace our false consciousness with consciousness-raising, check the emotional and hawkish impulses of a media-addled people. He’s the Ban Ki-moon of the Potomac.

The president, writes Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, "has never believed that terrorism poses a threat to America commensurate with the fear it generates." When ISIS began its killing spree in the summer of 2014, Obama told an adviser, "They’re not coming here to chop our heads off." Goldberg reports that Obama has taken to wandering the halls of the White House, reminding "his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do."

Figures: If terrorism kills fewer Americans than bathtubs, why miss the baseball game? But Obama’s logic is ridiculous. It rests on the mother of all category errors. Auto crashes and life-threatening falls are the result of bad luck. Terrorism and gun crime are acts of human agency. Individuals are behind them. And in the case of terrorism (and of gangs) these individuals are embedded in networks of radicalization, training, equipment, and support.

There is no global conspiracy of Jacuzzis to murder Americans. But there is, as the last decade and a half has made disturbingly clear, a widespread effort by an ideological movement to kill as many people as possible—most of whom, we ought to remember, are Muslims themselves—in the revanchist pursuit of a twenty-first century Caliphate. You insure against accidents. But you fight crime and terrorism and global jihad by raising defenses, securing territory, and disrupting the bad actors before they disrupt you.

"Several years ago," Goldberg writes, President Obama "expressed to me his admiration for Israelis’ ‘resilience’ in the face of constant terrorism, and it is clear that he would like to see resilience replace panic in American society." What a low view of the American people is expressed in this anecdote—and what a backhanded compliment of Israel. For there is no "panic" gripping America other than the desire for the president to treat the problem of ISIS and Islamic terrorism more seriously than he has. And Israel’s response to Palestinian terrorism goes far beyond "resilience" in the face of suicide bombs and rocket attacks—to include a global campaign against terror networks, the forward deployment of forces in the West Bank, and retaliatory offensives against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza that the president and his multilateral friends are always so quick to criticize and bring to an end.

There is an old joke about how the U.S. ambassador to the United Nation so often acts as the U.N. ambassador to the United States. As the threat of Islamic radicalism has grown and the lands under its dominion have expanded, President Obama has fallen into the role of the hapless diplomat. He is far more interested in constraining American power in a shortsighted effort not to repeat the supposed mistakes of his predecessor than in unleashing the full might of the American power and leading a serious and sustained international effort to deny ISIS legitimacy by depriving it of safe haven. It must give Barack Obama cold comfort to know that his successor is far more likely to act not as secretary-general of the United States, but as its commander-in-chief.