President Canute and Orlando

By Bret Stephens

Wall Street Journal

June 13, 2016


In the spring of 2013 Barack Obama delivered the defining speech of his presidency on the subject of terrorism. Its premise was wrong, as was its thesis, as were its predictions and recommendations. We are now paying the price for this cascade of folly.

“Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants,” the president boasted at the National Defense University, in Washington, D.C. “There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure.” The “future of terrorism,” he explained, consisted of “less capable” al Qaeda affiliates, “localized threats” against Westerners in faraway places such as Algeria, and homegrown killers like the Boston Marathon bombers.

All of this suggested that it was time to call it quits on what Mr. Obama derided as “a boundless ‘global war on terror.’ ” That meant sharply curtailing drone strikes, completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and closing Guantanamo prison. It meant renewing efforts “to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians” and seeking “transitions to democracy” in Libya and Egypt. And it meant working with Congress to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al Qaeda.

“This war, like all wars, must end,” he said. “That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

 King Canute of legend stood on an English shoreline and ordered the tide to recede. President Canute stood before a Beltway audience and ordered the war to end. Neither tide nor war obeyed.

In 2010, al Qaeda in Iraq—Islamic State’s predecessor—was “dead on its feet,” as terrorism expert Michael Knights told Congress. World-wide, the U.S. government estimated al Qaeda’s total strength at no more than 4,000 fighters. That was the result of George W. Bush ’s surge in Iraq, of Mr. Obama’s own surge in Afghanistan, and of the aggressive campaign of drone killings in Pakistan and Yemen.

But then the Obama Doctrine kicked in. Between 2010 and 2013 the number of jihadists world-wide doubled, to 100,000, while the number of jihadist groups rose by 58%, according to a Rand Corp. study. That was before ISIS declared its caliphate.

Today, the U.S. government estimates that ISIS can count on as many as 25,000 fighters. This is after a two-year campaign of airstrikes to destroy the group. In Libya alone, U.S. intelligence recently doubled its estimate of ISIS fighters, to as many as 6,000. Even “core” al Qaeda is surging again in its Afghan and Pakistani heartland, thanks in part to the military gains the Taliban have made in the face of America’s withdrawal.

Apologists for Mr. Obama will rejoin that it’s unfair to blame him for trends in terrorism, an argument that would have more credibility if he hadn’t been so eager to take credit for those trends only three years ago. The same apologists also claim that the U.S. cannot possibly cure what ails the Middle East, and that no law-enforcement agency can stop a lone-wolf terrorist such as Omar Mateen.

But these arguments fail. The rise of ISIS was a predictable result of Mr. Obama’s abdication in Iraq and especially Syria—a result Mr. Obama himself foresaw in his 2013 speech. “We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements,” he said, “because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism.” Was the opposition strengthened? Were the extremists isolated?

As for lone wolves, one study from last year cited 38 cases of “lone wolf” terrorism between 1940 and 2001, another 12 during the eight years of the Bush administration—and more than 50 since then.

The phenomenon is catching in part because ISIS is canny at using the internet and social media to attract and activate recruits. But what ISIS mainly does is give aimless and insignificant young men what most young men secretly crave—a cause worth dying for. When Mr. Obama attempts to reassure Americans by suggesting, as he did Monday, that Mateen was not part of “a larger plot,” he demonstrates once again that he doesn’t understand the enemy. ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups are not criminal conspiracies. They are a religious movement. No coordination is required for the true believer to put his faith into action.

It would require more humility than Mr. Obama is capable of mustering to admit that what happened in Orlando is also a consequence of his decisions—of allowing Iraq and Syria to descend to chaos; of pretending that we could call off the war on terror because fighting it didn’t fit a political narrative; of failing to defeat ISIS swiftly and utterly; of refusing to recognize the religious roots of terror; of treating the massacre in San Bernardino as an opportunity to lecture Americans about Islamophobia, and Orlando as another argument for gun control.

This is the president’s record. His successor will have to do better to avoid future Orlandos. Will she?