How strategy defines leadership
Effective defense at home marks the difference between life and death
President Obama emerged Tuesday from a meeting with his National Security Council, flanked by the grim visages of his Treasury secretary, attorney general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and, for good measure, his director of national intelligence. Clearly angered by the tragic events in Orlando, Mr. Obama fixed the crowd of adoring press munchkins with his most icy stare, signaling that a defining presidential moment was now at hand. And then, unaccountably, the chief executive began rambling on about Donald Trump, deploring how he and “my friends across the aisle” (i.e. Republicans) were unfairly criticizing Mr. Obama for his long-standing failure to use the term “radical Islam” in defining an enemy that has a nasty way of slaughtering innocents at home and abroad.
Really, Mr. President? Was it better to exploit the politics of the moment or to project the image of a popular president reaching out to comfort and unite a grieving nation? Your tone in berating the loyal opposition could hardly have been more overbearing had the terrorists from our last three tragedies been standing right there. The impromptu sermonette and your sneering tones went on for almost three minutes as you pondered, “What exactly would this label accomplish? What exactly would it change?” Somehow, you managed to stop yourself just short of demanding petulantly, “What difference at this point does it make,” because infamy never repeats itself.
The Greek chorus on center-stage sported poker faces that never betrayed a scintilla of embarrassment. Even so, it’s a good thing that the national press corps, Democrats to the core, never disrupted Mr. Obama’s moment in the sun with snarky shouts of “Mr. President, do you still think that ISIS is the junior varsity?” Because obedience and political conformity are the chief characteristics of the modern journalist, no disruptive counter-points marred the presidential rant.
Without the slightest hint of irony, Chris Cillizza explained in The Washington Post, “Obama hates the idea of doing and saying things purely for the sake of politics without any sort of deeper strategy behind them.” But Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, disagreed sharply, calling the president wrong and explaining to Fox News, “Telling the truth about violent Islam is a prerequisite to a strategy …It is the commander-in-chief’s duty to actually identify our enemies and to help the American people understand the challenge of violent Islam.”
A former college president, Sen. Sasse knows that strategy defines what real leaders do. But the absence of strategy — shaping, executing, explaining and defending it — has been one of Mr. Obama’s most consistent failings. His ham-fisted handling of ISIS is only the latest example. With neither training nor experience in the basics of national security, Mr. Obama’s incumbency has most often resembled the sorcerer’s apprentice. Remember his 2009 Cairo Speech and its breathless outreach to the Arab world? Its provable downstream effects now include the trashing of Hosni Mubarak, the Islamist dictatorship of Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian revolution of 2013 — and reversing a generation of American Middle East statecraft. Yet this imposing list omits debacles from Libya to Syria, from Iraq to Afghanistan, an uninterrupted chain of blunders that eventually spawned ISIS.
If it seems that the world is now teetering on some kind of precipice, it might be because strategy and grand strategy are also specialties of those discreet chess-masters in Beijing, Moscow and Teheran. What distinguishes the grand-master from the novice is an exquisite recognition that a new season of opportunities may be approaching. While a compliant press always makes it easy to hoodwink voters, America is quickly becoming what the Chinese call “a declining hegemon.” Our Army and Navy are shrinking to pre-World War II levels while we now have the smallest and oldest Air Force in our history.
As global threats worsen, the national security community debates: Which one gets us first? Will it be the new generation of dirty bombs, cyber, and electro-magnetic pulse — or more familiar ones like lone-wolf terrorists or out-of-control public debt? Even worse: Will some disputed reef in the South China Sea or botched airborne intercept over the Baltic republics provoke a sudden, uncontrollable chain of events — giving the 21st century its own Sarajevo?
Thus far, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have neither addressed those worrisome possibilities nor suggested sensible strategies aimed at coping with them. But the hideous tragedy in Orlando demonstrates the undiminished power of certain timeless realities: That effective defense at home or abroad often marks the difference between life and death; and that the first task of 21st century survival is re-building the political consensus forming the bedrock of American national security. Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.