The President Plays Defense

Review & Outlook

The Wall Street Journal

December 7, 2015

President Obama showed Sunday night that he realizes the growing threat from Islamist terror is a grave risk to his political standing in his last year in office. What he didn’t show is that he is willing to consider any changes to his failing strategy to defeat the threat from Islamic State.

The President’s 13-minute Oval Office speech, only the third of his tenure, at last acknowledged that last week’s attack in San Bernardino by a radicalized Islamist couple was an “act of terrorism.” It would have been hard for him to say otherwise after his own FBI director, James Comey, had admitted this reality on Friday. Mr. Obama was looking increasingly detached from reality, and the speech was an attempt to recover from his claims that the growing jihadist threat is “contained.”

Yet the President devoted most of his speech to defending the strategy he has pursued for 16 months against Islamic State without much success. He cited his bombing campaign, but he didn’t mention that the vast majority of sorties drop no bombs because of the limits he has placed on the military. He mentioned the recent allied bombing of Islamic State’s oil infrastructure, but then why has the U.S. waited so long to take this initiative?

Mr. Obama was, as usual, especially forceful in explaining why he is refusing to deploy more U.S. ground forces to take the battle to the Islamic State homeland in Iraq and Syria. But also, as usual, he offered up the false dilemma between his own policy and sending tens of thousands of troops to “occupy foreign lands.”

No one is proposing that U.S. ground troops should occupy either country. Even the most ambitious advocates of taking the war to Islamic State would deploy only some 10,000 or so troops, such as special forces or Apache helicopter teams, to assist local Sunni Arabs who would do the bulk of the fighting on the ground. An expanded U.S. ground force would provide tactical expertise and above all signal to our allies in the region that the U.S. is committed to defeating Islamic State as rapidly as possible. No one in the region believes that now.

Surely nearly all Americans also agree with Mr. Obama that the U.S. is not at war with all Muslims, and we should not lash out at Muslim-Americans. President Bush offered similar counsel after 9/11 and there has been no evidence that Americans are discriminating against Muslims. But the best way to deter such a backlash is for Mr. Obama to assure Americans that he is doing all he can to defeat Islamic State and stop its attempt to radicalize Americans.

On that score, we wish we had heard him address the recent reduction in the U.S. ability to collect telephone records. The Associated Press reported on the weekend that the law Mr. Obama signed this summer governing the collection of metadata means the FBI can’t collect the phone records of the San Bernardino killers beyond the last two years. Republicans should press to have this U.S. data collection ability restored as part of the current budget negotiations, and Mr. Obama should have to publicly defend his opposition.

Perhaps the oddest note in the President’s speech was toward the end when he claimed that the U.S. will defeat the jihadist threat because we are “on the right side of history.” History is made, not delivered as a birthright, and victory against killers has to be won. Islamic State has been gaining so much ground precisely because it has appeared to be winning. Mr. Obama has yet to show that he knows what it takes for the U.S. to win.