The President of the United States, even in the midst of an election campaign, and even when the country is reeling from a series of attacks and policy setbacks is more than a political leader. He is more than a prime minister; he is the Chief of State and the closest thing this republic has to a king.Yesterday at the United Nations President Obama stood in the full dignity of his office and spoke up for some of the nation’s most fundamental values. There were, no doubt, political calculations behind the speech. There always are; this is a democratic country and our leaders must always keep an eye on public opinion. One can quibble with this or that assertion in the speech or wish something like it had been delivered a little earlier in the crisis.But when President Obama stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and spoke of the importance of freedom of speech, denounced those who fight for tyranny or spread messages of hate, he spoke for the United States and the American people.It is too early to tell whether this was a just a good speech or whether it marks a considered and determined White House response to the events of the last two weeks. We hope very much that it is the latter and not a case of big hat, no cattle. The Earl of Rochester wrote about King Charles II, an earlier head of state who often hit the right symbolic notes but flunked on follow through:
God bless our good and gracious king
Whose word no man relies on
Who never said a foolish thing
Or ever did a wise one.
The message of the President’s speech is that the United States will double down in the Middle East, pushing for change in Syria and piling more pressure on Iran. While rejecting religious bigotry and irrational hatred of Islam, the US will join with freedom loving Muslims in a common front against the radicals and terrorists seething with hate and hungry to kill and destroy. Iran cannot be allowed to gain nuclear weapons and Assad cannot be allowed to turn his country into a charnel house and an incubator of terror to cling to the shadows of power for a few more dismal months. As the President put it,
In Syria, the future must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people. If there is a cause that cries out for protest in the world today, it is a regime that tortures children and shoots rockets at apartment buildings. And we must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence.
The threat to Iran could not be more explicit; President Obama has committed himself before the United Nations to military action against Iran if no satisfactory diplomatic solution is reached.
In Iran, we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads. The Iranian people have a remarkable and ancient history, and many Iranians wish to enjoy peace and prosperity alongside their neighbors. But just as it restricts the rights of its own people, the Iranian government props up a dictator in Damascus and supports terrorist groups abroad. Time and again, it has failed to take the opportunity to demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful, and to meet its obligations to the United Nations.Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited. We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
These are the right words and the right policies; the hard part will be carrying them out. Managing America’s diplomatic and security portfolio in a Middle East convulsed by revolution and sectarian strife was never going to be easy and any administration would make mistakes and missteps. George Washington made many mistakes during the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln picked a lot of bad generals and made some dumb policy moves during the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt made some really big mistakes during World War Two, and every Cold War president from Truman to Reagan got some important things wrong. To put President Obama in this company is not to offer him insults or to indulge in partisan president bashing; to govern at all is to often govern wrong.We think some of the administration’s misjudgments have been serious. Perhaps the most fundamental and most consequential was the decision to downplay the degree to which what the administration refuses to call the global war on terror still dominates American policy and American strategic thought. Like the characters in a Harry Potter story who don’t want to speak Lord Voldemort’s name because they are afraid that using his name makes him stronger, the Obama administration hoped that it could help end the war on terror by calling it something else, calming both American public opinion and opinion in the Middle East and reducing what it correctly identifies as a major threat—that radical groups in the Middle East could trigger a civilizational and religious war between Islam and the rest of the world that would plunge the world into a generation of turmoil while enabling these groups to seize and hold power in their homelands. From Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to others beyond, radicals seek to polarize domestic and global politics through violence, and it is very much in the interest of the United States and others to make this strategy fail.The Obama administration hoped that a cool and cerebral approach to the problem would calm both the Middle East and Middle America, and that the rise of moderate Islamist movements abroad would block the rise of more radical actors, just as the rise of social democratic parties in Europe after World War Two helped block the spread of communism. There is something to this calculation, and limiting the ability of terror groups and radicals to set the global political agenda is an important strategic goal of the US and our allies all over the world, including our allies in the Islamic world. The administration feared and still fears that focusing on the threat represented by armed religious radicals in the Islamic world empowers those groups by making them the visible focus of American policy, polarizes Islamic societies in a way that increases the strength of radical currents of thought and creates a climate of fear and Islamophobia in the West that contributes to overreaction and polarization here in ways that again reinforce the power of our enemies.The administration hoped to fight the war on terror more effectively than its predecessor partly by denying that such a war existed. Part of that strategy involved separating the attempt to destroy the specific network around Osama bin Laden from the broader task of order building in the Islamic world. One of the reasons why the White House “spiked the football” so often and so repeatedly after the successful mission that killed bin Laden was that it wanted to use this accomplishment to mark an end to post 9/11 period in US foreign policy. Mission accomplished, Osama is dead, and it is time to move on.There are all kinds of good reasons to take this approach; its only flaw is that it doesn’t cover the facts. The Conflict Formerly Known as the Global War on Terror didn’t end when bin Ladin died and it won’t go away because the Obama administration doesn’t like to talk about it. The administration is fighting exactly that war all over the planet. This is not a police action against a few remnant bands; it is a struggle on many levels in many theaters against a resourceful and entrenched ideological movement that has evolved new capabilities and tactics in response to our efforts.The administration sought to demobilize the American people and encouraged the nation to stand down from the war footing we assumed after the first 9/11. Instead of providing leadership and guidance to a public baffled, weary and confused by the struggles of the last decade, this administration sought to turn the national conversation away from the radical threat. It tried to change the subject when it should have helped the country develop a serious and sophisticated view of a complicated, dangerous and continuing international threat.9/11/12 has blown the obfuscation away. The global war on terror (or whatever we call it, and the old Bush-era name is flawed) hasn’t ended; it has evolved. The United States and its allies—allies who include many Muslims all over the world—face a transnational swarm of movements and groups committed in various ways to waging war against our way of life and our core values. The struggle is military in some places, a problem of counterterrorism in others, a political contest in some countries and a contest of ideas and faith as well. It involves the possibility of home grown terror in western countries and it involves the possibility of links between terror groups and at least one nuclear state. It is as complex and almost as global as the Cold War itself, and it is profoundly unrealistic to think it can be fought while we pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on.The policies that President Obama proclaimed at the United Nations are wartime policies. He plans the overthrow of one Middle Eastern regime, threatens a military strike against another, wants a reluctant Congress to authorize billions of foreign aid for Islamist regimes whose leaders will say many things that offend American sensibilities, and faces a deeper engagement in Libya that neither he nor his administration expected. There will be more.This policy mix is as active as anything the US ever pursued in the Cold War. In essence, President Obama is calling for global containment of radical Islam in both its Sunni and Shiite forms—a policy that is almost guaranteed to involve US forces in hostilities from West Africa to Central Asia and perhaps beyond. These policies make a mockery of the cuts in the defense and intelligence budgets the administration projects—especially when the costs of the new Asia policy are factored in.President Obama is shirking an important part of his historical mission. Thanks in part to the bungling adventurousness and overheated rhetoric of the Bush administration (and thanks also to some of the illusions and delusions of the American left), the left wing of the Democratic Party became not only anti-Bush, but entrenched in denial of the existence of a real and dangerous global conflict. President Obama hasn’t used the bully pulpit of the presidency to bring his electoral base along to understand the world situation and the reasons for the policies at the heart of his national strategy. At least until this UN speech, he was fighting (and had escalated) a war in Afghanistan, killing people all over the world in drone strikes, and threatening war with Iran without ever really telling the American people what he was doing and why. One reason the Iranian and Israeli leaderships are united in skepticism about the seriousness of his threats is his steadfast refusal to explain to the American people just how close he has already steered us to a war with Iran and why our instinctively anti-war president believes such a war to be both necessary and just.One thinks of the words of Jeremiah: “They have treated the wounds of my people lightly, saying ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” (Jer 6:14) There are historical comparisons—all Democrats. In 1916, 1940 and 1964 Democratic presidents ran on peace platforms even as they consciously moved closer to war. In two of the three cases history has accepted the need for deception; one wonders how 2012 will look down the road.President Obama does not want to be a wartime leader, but that is what the logic of his views and the needs of his country compel him to be. The American people do not want to be on a wartime footing, but that is not a call that we can unilaterally make. We didn’t choose this conflict; it chose us, and we cannot make it stop simply because we are tired of it and would rather think about other things.We’ve said more than once in the last few years that the President needs to talk about the war. If yesterday’s speech at the UN marks the beginning of a serious effort to tell the country where we stand and to prepare us for what lies ahead, it was an important step forward.Otherwise, it was just hot air.