President Obama visited the National Defense University last week to take another shot (no pun) at defining the war in which the United States is embroiled. He talked about the world-view of the enemy.
He separated America's enemies from its friends.
He framed an American response.
But having had nearly a dozen years to think about it, four of them as President of the United States, he didn't do as well as President George W. Bush did on 20 September 2001 when the smoke was still rising from the World Trade Center:
Contrary to the President, it was never a "global war on terror." It is, said President Bush, against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them. Terrorist networks do not live in The Cloud. They require arms, money, space to hide and train, passports and diplomatic cover to operate; assets that can be provided only by governments. President Bush did not attack Afghanistan to avenge 9-11, but because the Taliban, its government, refused to be accountable for harboring and supporting al Qaeda. He warned them:
The ouster of the Taliban was its punishment. Why we remain there, fighting amorphous enemies of Hamid Karzai when al Qaeda has morphed and spread across the region is much less clear. Perhaps it is because President Obama couldn't admit that President Bush was on the right course from the beginning. In 2009, speaking at the National Archives, Mr. Obama said:
"In other words," the Bush Administration lied and set aside American principles of government to fit his ideological predispositions, and, evidently, cowed "Democrats, Republicans, politicians, journalists and citizens" who "fell silent" before President Bush's enormous ideological power grab. In 2013, Mr. Obama, having to defend his own four years, reflected a different attitude:
Now the President now sees "the war" as "just" and more important, as "proportional." But with daily reports about drone strikes, Benghazi, the IRS, the FBI wiretapping and seizing the private e-mails of reporters, Mr. Obama was forced to bow to public and congressional concerns about Executive overreach. "Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions," he said, "We may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.
But part of the war is in nation states. While al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, the war against the United States, Israel and the West began with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Argentine Jewish Center and Israeli Embassy bombings in Argentina; the American Embassy bombings in East Africa; the French and American Embassies and the Marine barracks bombings in Lebanon were orchestrated by Iran and its proxies before 9-11.
Today there are both Sunni and Shiite terrorists and state sponsors. Iran on the Shiite side, of course, but Saudi Arabia, Qatar and sometimes Turkey provide money, arms and training to Sunni radicals. Al Qaeda, Hezb'allah, the al-Nusra Front, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Assad's Alawite government are all players; Chechens, too. They despise and fight one another -- the monstrous bloodshed in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has nothing to do with the West -- and despise the West on parallel, rather than congruent, paths. The enemy of my enemy can just as easily be my enemy as not.
Even the "unbounded powers" the President fears won't "end the war" if the war remains without definition. George W's "war against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them" might be a place to start.
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