woody_zimmerman_118_2007It has been fascinating to watch the Obama White House flipping and flopping over the question of whether we are at war or not. Over the last two weeks I have been traveling through southern and central California on a much needed vacation, so I feel almost like an observer from a foreign country. Dr. Doom (as some out here have started calling him) seems a mite confused about whether the bad guys are “crooks” or “enemies” – and whether we need to call the cops or the marines to deal with them. (Where is Superman when you really need the guy?)

During his boffo presidential campaign – starting in 2007 – Mr. Obama thumped (the hated) George W. Bush repeatedly with denunciations of the president’s “warmongering.” All that war-talk and all those nasty guns and bombs had alienated most of the nations of the world, declared Mr. Obama. We are not enemies, but friends. We need each other. He extended the hand of peace and brotherhood, and offered to embrace any national leader who would extend his hand. America would negotiate with all; there would be “no preconditions.” Only good will was needed for an entirely “new approach.” World peace was within our grasp, and he alone possessed the high-minded will and the ability to embrace it.

Critics naturally decried this simplistic approach to international diplomacy. Former Vice-president Richard Cheney, among others, noted that negotiation was not a brave new discipline that has been found difficult and not tried – as Mr. Obama maintained – but a flawed tactic that has repeatedly been tried and found wanting. Mr. Obama’s sophomoric dream of bringing free democratic peoples and wicked, violent satrapies to the table of peace and harmony would produce only a palpable weakening of America’s position. These people want to destroy us, argued the Cheny-cohort. Their wickedness has no bounds. They will see our willingness to talk without preconditions as a sign of weakness.

This tension has existed since the start of the Obama presidency. But he has gone even farther. Beyond Mr. Obama’s famous “apology offensive – wherein he confessed America’s “sins” to an enthralled and receptive world – the new president also stopped referring to the “war on terror.” This implied that there wasn’t really a war. The military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan had never been “wars” in the proper sense: there was no formal declaration; we couldn’t tell whom we were trying to fight; and we couldn’t catch those we should be fighting. How could we be effective in such an environment?

To cap things off, Attorney General, Eric Holder announced that those enemy combatants captured during the Bush presidency and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay prison would be sent elsewhere. Some would be released and others would be tried in American civilian courts. The indefinite confinement of prisoners would cease. Our young idealist-in-chief would move us from a war footing to a peacetime footing. America’s War on Terrorism – if it had ever really existed at all – would be no more.

This was great stuff, and Mr. Obama’s left-wing supporters ate it up. Before long, the Obama Doctrine was producing definite results, although perhaps not the kind its principal proponent had expected. Soon even old enemies like Moammar Qaddafi of Libya – formerly cowed into silence and inactivity by the fiercely resolute George W. Bush – began stirring again. Dictators Mahmoud Achmadinejad (Iran) and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) openly insulted President Obama and scorned his offers to negotiate. Iran declared its intention to continue developing a nuclear weapon, daring us (or anyone) to stop them.

Having judged President Obama as weak and irresolute, Al Qaeda girded its loins and began its new campaign. Seeing that the president’s politically correct poses for his left-leaning base were inimical to sound protective policy for the USA, Al Qaeda made its first move against Mr. Obama on a military base inside the continental USA. On November 5, 2009, US Army Major Nidal Hasan – an outspoken officer whose radical Islamist tendencies were already known to authorities too timid to speak out about them – opened fire on civilians and military personnel within the confines of Fort Hood, Texas. He killed 13 and wounded 42 before a local non-military policewoman shot him (not fatally) and stopped his rampage.

Obama Administration officials tried mightily to convince the public and the Mainstream Media that Major Hasan was a “lone nut case” unconnected to terrorist arms outside the country, but it was quickly shown that he had made repeated attempts to contact Al Qaeda operatives. Warning flags were up, but no military official had wanted to risk his own career by labeling Major Hasan a “terrorist threat.” Timidity born of political correctness thus caused the deaths of 13 people. In response, Gen. George Casey, Chief of Staff of the Army, stated: “…as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse." (I consider this one of the most amazing statements ever made by a public official.)

A second Al Qaeda attack – fortunately unsuccessful – came just six weeks later on an airliner completing its flight from Amsterdam (Holland) to Detroit, Michigan. The attempt was made on Christmas Day, 2009. Passengers seated near Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab were stirred to action when they realized that he was attempting to ignite something at his seat. Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch passenger from Amsterdam, overpowered Abdulmutallab before he could ignite and detonate what officials later found to be a fuze to a bomb sewed into his underclothes. The plane landed safely – 300 passengers and crew having narrowly escaped a catastrophe that might have produced massive loss of life.

In the wake of the incident, it was disclosed that Abdulmutallab’s radical connections had placed him on the “watch lists” of several security agencies. Moreover, it was found that his own father had reported him as a likely security risk. Public and media uproar ensued, with questions being hurled from all directions about how such an individual could obtain a visa to visit the USA, buy a one-way ticket with cash, and board an airliner with a bomb in his underwear without some action being taken to stop him. The public wanted to know what our expenditures of billions of dollars were buying if we could not stop guys like Abdulmutallab?

In an effort to calm things down, Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano went on TV to assure the public that the security system had “worked perfectly” – once the perpetrator had actually been captured by the Dutch passenger and others. This declaration got the horselaugh – even from the Obama-sympathetic Mainstream Media – as it’s unlikely that a stout Dutch passenger will be on the scene, when needed, in future situations. Whether all bureaucratic  i’s were dotted and all t’s crossed after the fact seemed of relatively small moment to nervous airline passengers who now visualized dying in flaming wreckage, accompanied by hysterical shouts of “Allahu Akhbar.”

A day later, Miss Napolitano attempted to clarify her remarks, averring that, well yes, a few procedural problems had allowed Abdulmutallab to get on the Amsterdam-Detroit flight. These were being ironed out, and all was well. But the former governor of Arizona lacked credibility on this – if she ever had it. More than one commentator called for her resignation, saying she was in “far over her head.”

Finally, President Obama was compelled to make a public statement to the effect that “systemic flaws” existed in our national security regimen. He took full responsibility for fixing the problems. I have read his entire statement of January 7, 2010. It is a strong statement, with full admission of failings across the spectrum of the intelligence community. One hardly needs to mention how fortunate we are to be hearing this analysis after a failed terrorist attempt instead of after a successful attack in which hundreds of innocent people died. Mr. Obama showed, by his words, that he knew he had dodged a bullet this time. I pray that he is as serious about correcting intelligence flaws as he says he is.

Usually Mr. Obama makes sporting references to the “mess” he inherited from President Bush – or something of the kind. But not this time. That was a wise omission. No terrorist attempt succeeded after 9/11/2001, while George W. Bush was president. Mr. Bush knew we were at war from that morning onward, and he acted accordingly. Every security arm went on high alert and stayed there through most of his terms. Mr. Obama has the ball now, and he had better decide if he is going to throw deep downfield on national security, or make dainty laterals to his girls (e.g., Miz Napolitano).

For the first time in many months President Obama spoke of an America at war. “We are at war,” he said. “We are at war against al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again.  And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.”

The words are late, but nonetheless welcome. Perhaps Mr. Obama will now begin to speak of “winning” that war before we start withdrawing troops on an arbitrary timetable. If so, he and his inner circle will soon realize – if they haven’t already – that they won’t win it with FBI agents reading prisoners of war their Miranda rights before interrogating them. Nor will they prevail under rules of engagement devised by armchair generals who never heard a shot fired in anger and who wouldn’t know an IED from an IUD.

His stirring words notwithstanding, Mr. Obama has yet to show that he knows how to be a wartime commander-in-chief. If his words are just a kind of Kabuki theater, designed to mollify Middle Americans who dislike wasting soldiers’ lives and taxpayers’ money on a no-win military effort, then he won’t have to be a real commander. He’ll only have to seem to be one. Mr. Obama is a great talker and spinner of yarns, so he might carry this off for some time.

Eventually, though, the Kabuki mask will fall away or otherwise be dislodged. When it does, the uproar will be memorable. Wars not fought to bloody final victory undid Presidents Truman, LBJ, Nixon, and Bush-41. Mr. Obama got mileage out of claiming that we should be fighting in Afghanistan, not in Iraq. Voters appeared to take him at his word and gave him the chance to prove his theorem.

What voters did not do was give Mr. Obama the option to make pusillanimous military efforts that ended badly for the country. They did not give him carte blanche to make the country less safe. And they did not elect him to go around pretending that we just have a “law enforcement” problem on our hands. History shows that on war, Americans want all in or all out, with no halfway. If Mr. Obama doesn’t understand this facet of the American character, he’s about to learn it. The lesson could be painful.

Mr. Obama’s “we are at war” speech suggests that he is beginning to see that being commander-in-chief is serious business. Hopefully he will stay the course and finish the job. America deserves no less.