The media are sure to laud President Obama for forthrightly addressing, earlier today, the intelligence failures that caused the Christmas Day terrorist attack on Flight 253 in Detroit. Shortly after the president’s speech, in fact, the New York Times published a laudatory article praising Obama for ordering
a series of steps to improve the government’s ability to collect, share, analyze and act on intelligence of terrorist threats. [This to address] significant shortcomings in national security…
‘We are at war,’ Mr. Obama said in remarks from the White House State Dining Room…
The president said the missteps were not the fault of one individual or one agency. He took responsibility for the failures, saying: ‘The buck stops with me.’
This is all well and good — and also largely irrelevant. President Obama, after all, has mastered the rhetorical arts. He seems always to say the right words — or at least the words that our elites want to hear and are sure to swoon over. (I myself am far less enamored of the president’s rhetoric, as I’ve explained here at FrumForum and elsewhere.)
But the president’s problem is not one of rhetoric per se; it is one of leadership. Simply put, the War on Terror requires constant vigilance and attention. This is not a war you can commute to or conduct only half-heartedly, as General David Petraeus has explained.
Yet, rarely has Obama used the bully pulpit to talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Jihadists. His interests and his passions clearly lie elsewhere — with healthcare, and with a fundamental strengthening of the state’s role vis-à-vis the individual. That’s why he’s spent most of his time and effort — with Congress, the public, and the media — focused on healthcare.
If the president’s priority is “comprehensive healthcare reform,” then this makes total sense. But if we truly are at war — and Obama acknowledges that we are — then the president’s priorities are simply wrong and misplaced. He ought to use his rhetorical gifts and the power of the bully pulpit to win the war, not micromanage and bureaucratize the American healthcare system.
In short, the president now says some right words, but his actions betray him.
This is a real problem because bureaucracy responds to political leadership. Bureaucracy takes it cues from political leadership. Bureaucracy senses what the commander-in-chief thinks is important and acts accordingly — and if it doesn’t hear the president talk much about the War on Terror, then it draws the obvious conclusion: The War on Terror isn’t that important to this commander-in-chief and his administration.
Consequently, bureaucratic laxness sets in and foot-dragging occurs. Human frailty and human error rise to the fore. The fundamental changes that are integral to true and necessary reform never occur — or if they do, they occur belatedly, sporadically, and intermittently. The system, at its core, never really changes, only its outward most manifestations.
Something very much like this has happened with U.S. intelligence agencies — which is why the U.S. National Security Adviser, General James L. Jones, said people will feel “a certain shock” after reading the White House’s initial account of the Christmas Day terrorist attack.
It is not enough to blame the system and human error. There will always be human failures and system failures… The reality is that the system itself isn’t broken. It is that folks inside the Executive Branch did not use the system appropriately.
Seen in this context, the intelligence agencies should not be apologizing to President Obama; President Obama should be apologizing to the intelligence agencies — for giving the War on Terror short shrift vis-à-vis healthcare and other domestic issues.
Yet, the Deputy National Security Adviser, John Brennan, told reporters today that he apologized to the president. “I told the president today: I let him down. I told him I will do better; we will do better as a team.”
Bully for Brennan for accepting responsibility for the shocking Christmas Day failure — and near disaster — in the War on Terror; however, Obama is right: The buck stops with him as commander-in-chief.
That’s why, if he’s serious about winning the war, Obama will suspend his push for a secret healthcare deal and demand that Congress start over with truly bipartisan healthcare legislation. The attempt to ram through Congress, along a strict party-line vote, an extreme and contentious bill has proven extraordinarily divisive and politically polarizing. It has divided America and Americans at a time when we need much greater unity of purpose and resolve.
Worse yet, healthcare bureaucratization is a serious distraction from the most important task at hand, which is to reverse America’s downward trajectory and to win the War on Terror.
Yet, Obama typically suggests the opposite: He suggests that the War on Terror is the distraction from healthcare and other domestic priorities. Thus his speech at West Point, where he said that “broader consideration[s],” including economic factors and “competition within the global economy,” limit America’s ability to protect the national interest abroad.
“We simply can’t afford to ignore the price of these wars,” Obama lamented. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for little more than one percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product. Yet, in Obama’s mind, that’s somehow too exorbitant a cost to bear to “assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
This must stop. It’s high past time for the president to acknowledge that winning the War on Terror is his most important, overriding responsibility. Everything else — including so-called comprehensive healthcare reform — is secondary.
Obama also must use his great rhetorical gifts to rally the American people — and the world — to confront the fundamental crisis of our time, which is international terrorism and the Jihadist threat.
This means immediately giving a series of speeches about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, radical Islam, and the overall War on Terror. It means pounding the bully pulpit more consistently — and not just when it’s politically convenient and politically necessary — to tame, reform and refocus the bureaucracy. It means recognizing and seizing the historical moment to do what must be done. It means, Mr. President, embracing your role as a wartime commander-in-chief.