Until the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most Americans assumed the Cold War would be a permanent fixture of the geopolitical landscape. From Harry Truman onward, every president explained that the confrontation with Soviet communism was generational in scope. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy pledged to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out.” When Ronald Reagan said his Cold War strategy was “we win, they lose,” he upset four decades of bipartisan resignation to Soviet hegemony.
Over a quarter-century after the Soviet Union’s collapse, we consider that momentous event as having been inevitable. It was not. Many factors contributed: a massive military buildup, the resolve of multilateral alliances, support for Third World anti-communist insurgencies, unrelenting dedication to the intellectual cause of liberty, and the internal weaknesses of communism itself.
All these components pertain to the war against the enemy that attacked the United States on Sept. 11 and continues to wreak havoc across the globe: Islamist radicalism. Armed support for allies, diplomatic cooperation, gathering human intelligence and vigorous contestation in the battle of ideas are as much a part of our “long, twilight struggle” against Islamic supremacism as they were tools in the fight against revolutionary Marxist-Leninism. What’s missing today, however, is acknowledgment from the leader of the free world that this war is ongoing, never mind likely to continue for generations.
Elected to office as an antiwar president, Barack Obama seemed to believe that he could wrap up the war on terror within two terms. His 2013 speech to the National Defense University was an echo of his predecessor’s ill-timed appearance under a “Mission Accomplished” banner. At NDU, the president declared that “Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants,” adding that “there have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure.”
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Less than a year later, however, Islamic State came into being, and no serious analyst can say that America or its allies are safer than they were in 2008. Islamic State is a far more sophisticated foe than the Afghan Taliban, which provided Al Qaeda with the logistical means to carry out its deadly 9/11 assault. A series of Islamic State-planned or -inspired terrorist attacks on Western targets, of which the massacre in Orlando is the latest, indicates the Islamic State’s ongoing threat to America and its allies.
For the president and his supporters, things weren’t supposed to work out this way. Reducing the American footprint in the Middle East, combined with the very presence in office of a man who grew up in Muslim Indonesia, was supposed to set aright all the damage wrought by George W. Bush.
Obama’s complacency regarding radical Islam – his failure to see its utter defeat as a necessary and decade-spanning task – explains his many failed foreign policy initiatives.
Because he believed this menace would wither on the vine, Obama shrank the defense budget, hastily pulled our troops out of Iraq and sat on the sidelines as Syria descended into hell.
Obama’s conviction that we are fighting just a few bad apples and not a world-encompassing, theologically motivated enemy claiming millions of adherents, also illuminates the controversy du jour: his terminological reticence in uttering “radical Islam.” For to do that would implicitly acknowledge the gravity of the threat, inherently connected to the religion of Islam.
“This war, like all wars, must end,” Obama declared in 2013. He fails to understand that saying something doesn’t make it so.
Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.