Why it’s time to return to the war against terrorism 

Following the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Delta airliner, former Vice President Dick Cheney said that President Barack Obama does not consider the fight against terrorism to be war. Contesting this charge, the president cited his inaugural address. On that day, Obama insisted, “I made it very clear that our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred, and that we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.”

Having done virtually nothing to merit his ascent to the presidency other than give speeches and write books, Obama can be forgiven for confusing his rhetoric with reality. But Cheney can be forgiven for demanding better proof of Obama’s seriousness about combating terrorism than a speech he once gave.

It is telling, moreover, that even after canvassing his orations, Obama apparently failed to come up with one in which he had used the words “war” and “terrorism” in conjunction. The best he could find was an acknowledgement that we are at war with “a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”

The absence of “war on terror” references is not accidental. The Obama administration has viewed that phrase as symptomatic of what its counter-terrorism chief John Brennan calls “the inflammatory rhetoric, hyperbole and intellectual narrowness” that supposedly characterized the Bush administration.

Did Cheney’s criticism go too far? In some respects, the administration has acted as if it’s at war with terrorism. As Victor Davis Hanson observes, Obama has quietly adopted many of his predecessor’s responses to terrorism. For example, he continues to authorize intercepts, wiretaps and Predator attacks.

Unfortunately, however, in crucial respects the Obama administration’s actions are inconsistent with the idea that the U.S. truly is at war with terrorism and the militant Islamists who engage in it. Foremost among them is its treatment of captured terrorists.

Consider the treatment of the would-be Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Despite the fact that there was good reason to believe, based in part on his own claims, that Abdulmutallab might well be the first in a wave of terrorist attackers dispatched by al-Qaida, the Obama administration placed him in the criminal justice system, rather than treating him as an enemy combatant and detaining him at a military facility for intensive interrogation.

Obama’s policy with respect to releasing detainees has also been inconsistent with the view that we are at war with terrorism. Prior to Abdulmutallab’s bombing attempt, the administration had released several terrorists to Yemen and was poised to release dozens more there.

Yemen, though, had emerged as a center of al-Qaida activity and, indeed, was the source of the attack Abdulmutallab attempted. Moreover, several former detainees are now key al-Qaida leaders in Yemen.

Obama’s eagerness to negotiate with regimes that are key participants in the “network of violence and hatred” also undercuts his claim that he is at war with those forces. Iran, in particular, sponsors such a network throughout the Middle East.

Being at war with terrorism does not necessarily require a shooting war with sponsors of terrorism. But Obama’s effort to sweet talk Iran into negotiations with no preconditions, coupled with his tepid support for those who would overthrow the regime that sponsors so much terrorism, demonstrates an undue and even craven desire to accommodate that regime. This is inconsistent with being at war against the “network of violence and hatred.”

Finally, even in Afghanistan, where Obama has stepped up the shooting war, his seriousness is questionable. At the same time he announced the long-awaited troop surge, he informed the American public, as well as the enemy, that we will begin withdrawing troops by July 2011. 

Setting an arbitrary date by which we will begin pulling out of what Obama stipulates is the central battlefield against terrorism is not consistent with treating the fight against terrorism as war — at least not for very long.

It is no accident that, until the Christmas near-catastrophe, the Obama administration was reluctant to speak of being at war, either with terrorism or with the militant Islamists who engage in it. Throughout 2009, Obama acted without the urgency and seriousness that characterizes a president at war.

We can only hope that, having narrowly avoided disaster, Obama will step it up in 2010.

Paul Mirengoff is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a principal author of Powerlineblog.com.

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