“For those who still think 9/11 changed everything, a presidency spreading ambiguity about national purpose is unsettling.”
– Daniel Henninger, “Obama’s Dangerous Confusion,” Wall Street Journal, May 30
– Charles Krauthammer, “Obama’s Dorothy Doctrine,” Washington Post, May 31
President Barack Obama made clear in his recent speech at the National Defense University that he imagines a world in which the war on terror is not only over, but in which we live as if it never happened in the first place. Much of his presidency has been preoccupied with that attempt to undo history–particularly in Iraq, where Obama promised in 2008 to retain a residual force but abandoned the effort once in office.
Obama wanted to win the argument, not the war. That is why he cannot admit George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq worked, or that enhanced interrogation helped find bin Laden. He does not know or care about the lessons of history that preceded his political career, which is why he is leaving a vacuum in Afghanistan. He wants to repeal, not reform, the post-9/11 Authorization of Military Force. He wants to wind the clock back.
The reason lies in something Megan McArdle observed earlier this week at the Daily Beast in an essay on the issue of immigration. She identified what she called the “neoliberal policy consensus,” which is the idea that lay behind much of the “Third Way” politics of “New Democrat” President Bill Clinton and “New Labor” Prime Minister Tony Blair “use market mechanisms for everything, and then redistribute the proceeds.”
Leftists like Obama opposed the “Third Way,” “neoliberalism” and the “Washington Consensus” because they did not like the first, market-oriented part of that axiom. But they grudgingly went along with it, under protest, since it seemed the only way to achieve the second, redistributionist part. And prior to 9/11–and the dot-com bust–the model seemed to be working well enough to fund some lofty redistributionist goals.
After 9/11, it became clear to most–and unarguable by the rest–that government had a far more pressing priority than redistribution–namely, national security, protecting civilians from terror in particular. Almost everyone, from liberal to libertarian, can find some part of the government’s response to complain about (my personal gripe is the unwieldy Department of Homeland Security). But security was clearly first.
That is what rankles Obama and the left about 9/11 most–not the sporadic invasions of privacy, not outrage over the human rights of terror detainees, and not even frustration at the Iraq War. It is the fact that the redistributionist state was relegated (temporarily) to second place. They had patiently endured eight years of Clinton’s triangulation, and were denied not only by the 2000 election, but by a changed post-9/11 nation.
The left wants the U.S. to be threatened enough by foreign powers that it does not presume the American way of life to be superior, but not so directly threatened as to place guns ahead of butter in government spending. So Obama wants Americans to feel a little more secure again, which is why he tried to make the Benghazi terror attack go away, and why he pretends threats are receding because we refuse to meet them.
But he is failing, because the reality is that 9/11 did change everything for most Americans. The Boston Marathon bombing was a chilling reminder that the world is not the same as it once was–and a warning that our security agencies may have been forced into their former complacency by an administration that tried to redefine terror as a way of appeasing it, that killed bin Laden but insisted on a (sham) Islamic burial at sea.
President Obama seems to have underestimated the very American people who elected him. Enough people have experienced the war on terror, directly or indirectly, to shrug off his pre-9/11 nostalgia. And while he may wish to reduce the military to a ceremonial role, carrying umbrellas and enduring lectures about sexual misconduct, in an era of big government scandals, it remains the only agency Americans really trust.
This post has been updated.