What Was Obama Thinking? A Plausible Answer

We wrote here about President Obama’s seemingly bizarre decision to stay away from the anti-terrorism rally in Paris, which was attended by more than a million people and led by more than 40 heads of state [or other high-ranking dignitaries]. This morning White House spokesman Josh Earnest fell on his sword, admitting to reporters that the administration erred by not attending the Paris unity march: “I think it’s fair to say we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there.” But the question remains, why did the White House commit such an apparent blunder?

Byron York offers the best explanation I have seen. It wasn’t a public relations gaffe or a matter of appearances, Byron argues. Rather, skipping the Paris rally was consistent with Obama’s consistent objective of minimizing the importance of terrorism as an issue:

The administration no-shows were not a failure of optics, or a diplomatic misstep, but were instead the logical result of the president’s years-long effort to downgrade the threat of terrorism and move on to other things.

“The analogy we use around [the White House] sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama told the New Yorker magazine in a January 2014 interview. The president was referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria but was also suggesting in a broader sense that a number of post-9/11 offshoot terrorist organizations aren’t worth the sort of war-footing mobilization that took place in the George W. Bush years.

Seven months earlier, Obama made an extended case for downgrading the terrorist threat in a May 23, 2013, speech at the National Defense University. He mentioned al Qaeda 24 times in the speech and argued that America’s victory over the organization behind 9/11 was nearly complete. …

The implication of Obama’s speech was that Americans must live with a certain level of threat, as long as it does not approach 9/11 levels, and otherwise just move on.

Meanwhile, the White House from nearly the beginning of the president’s term made clear it did not want to refer to Islamic jihad as either Islamic or jihad. …

Obama’s supporters, weary of Bush’s focus on terrorism and eager to tackle a variety of domestic issues, cheered the president on. After the Defense University speech, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote, “President Obama wisely avoided the phrase ‘mission accomplished’ in his major speech last week about the ‘war on terror,’ but columnists aren’t obliged to be so circumspect: It is time to declare victory and get on with our lives.”

I think that is correct. Marching with a million Parisians and the leaders of most European nations, not to mention the Prime Minister of Israel, would have elevated terrorism as an issue–something Obama is determined not to do. That attitude may seem odd, but it is common on the left. Left-wing commentators of the sort Obama probably reads often tabulate the deaths due to terrorist attacks, and point out that statistically speaking, one’s risk of being killed by a terrorist is very low. Indeed, Obama’s attitude toward terrorism is more or less identical to that expressed by John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign: “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.”

Proclaiming victory over al Qaeda and relegating terrorism to the status of a nuisance perpetrated by second-raters is no doubt a popular approach–until, as Byron York puts it, the bullets start flying. If Obama had marched arm in arm with the President of France and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, it would have been hard to explain why he was paying so much attention to a bunch of second-raters engaged in nuisance attacks.

The problem got worse today when ISIS apparently hacked into Central Command’s social media sites and posted threats against the American military. It seems that our computer capability is no greater than the North Koreans’ or the Muslim terrorists’, a fact that most Americans will find disconcerting. We are reminded that last October, just before the presidential election, a foreign power hacked into the Executive Office of the President’s computer system, which covers the White House, the National Security Staff and much more, with the result that it was down for weeks. We reported on the attack, which one administration source linked to the Russians, here and elsewhere. By the administration’s admission, it did not discover that a hostile power had infiltrated the White House’s own computers. Rather, it was tipped off by an ally. We still have no idea how long the breach continued before the government shut down its own computers to look for a fix. The most stunning breach of security in our nation’s history went virtually unreported, except on Power Line.

Benghazi fits this pattern too, of course. Why did Obama mischaracterize a skillfully planned and executed terrorist attack that killed an American ambassador? Because Islamic terrorism is in decline, soon to be a mere nuisance, so this must have been a case of movie criticism gone bad.

Obama’s strategy of minimizing the terrorist threat hasn’t cost him much so far, but if there should be another significant terrorist attack in the U.S., a lot of chickens will come home to roost.

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