CROWLEY: The president meets reality

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What has been the biggest debacle on Obama's watch?

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Reality bites. President Obama is just discovering this, after campaigning astride a unicorn of hope and change and after a year of trying to govern high atop Fantasyland.

The real world - replete with violence, competing interests and a cast of evil characters - has intruded on Mr. Obama’s starry-eyed plan to recast America as a perpetually apologetic, unexceptional nation that will no longer do anything that could be perceived as antagonistic.

Mr. Obama did not anticipate, however, that our adversaries would perceive these moves not as olive branches but as opportunities to run circles around the United States. Russia walked all over him by getting him to abandon a long-agreed-to missile-defense plan for Eastern Europe. Iran snickered at his flaccid attempt to halt its nuclear weapons program and his weak “condemnation” of its internal crackdown. China and India laughed him out the door at Copenhagen when they told him he could forget his climate-change regulations. Even the International Olympic Committee told him to take his Chicago bid for a hike.

But the “make nice” policies that caused the biggest splash were those directly related to al Qaeda. Through his announced policies to close the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to end the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, to investigate and possibly prosecute the CIA interrogators and to announce the civilian trials in New York of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and three other top al Qaeda terrorists, Mr. Obama set out to show the world that President Bush and his destructive policies finally were gone. (Except, of course, in every speech Mr. Obama gives.) The new president would be the polar opposite of the warmongering old one, and our enemies would respond with a far-less-hostile position toward us.

It didn’t take long for jihadis at home and abroad to smell weakness and slap away the outstretched hand Mr. Obama offered to the Muslim world last year. In 2009, Islamic terrorists struck in ever-greater force, from Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s Fort Hood shooting rampage to the shooting death of a military recruiter in Little Rock, Ark., to the Christmas Day bomber aboard a Northwest flight to Detroit to escalating attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Terrorists strike for many reasons, but particularly when they sense weakness and chaos in their enemy. The United States cannot effectively prosecute this war while the commander in chief channels Hamlet.

Mr. Obama is reconsidering trying KSM in civilian court in New York City. Why the sudden change of heart? Because New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand finally opposed a circuslike terror trial because it would be a logistical and expensive nightmare. Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein then cast her opposition based on the high threat of terrorism against New York.

These are all good, valid reasons, but they miss the most significant one.

The biggest reason Mr. Obama should be backing off from holding a civilian trial in New York or anywhere else - indeed, the reason he never should have ordered this stupidity in the first place - is that KSM is an enemy combatant who is not entitled to full constitutional rights, which includes civilian trial. The use of military commissions, which George Washington first used during the Revolutionary War, has been endorsed by Congress and sanctioned by the Supreme Court in the current context. Indeed, Mr. Obama is using them to try other terrorists, including Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the mastermind of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

KSM must go back before a military tribunal. He told a military judge he was ready to confess and go to the execution phase. Instead of obliging him, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. suspended the proceedings and announced he was bringing KSM to New York. To quote Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker,” who used his 3 1/2-year civilian circus trial as a jihadi platform: “This is typical American B.S.”

This is also no way to prosecute a war. Bad decisions, followed by public hand-wringing and indecision, followed by humiliating retreats aren’t the stuff of leadership or victory.

Mr. Obama has had a cold baptism into the real world. Pie-in-the-sky idealism about peace sounded great during the campaign, particularly to enough war-weary Americans desperately craving a sense of calm and safe harbor.

Mr. Obama has gotten a rude enough awakening that he has been forced into making some adjustments, not just on the KSM trial, but on maintaining a significant troop presence in Iraq and escalating the number of troops in Afghanistan. Perhaps he’s learning that the world is full of wicked players who view his “Mr. Nice Guy” persona as worthy of contempt - and an invitation to strike. Or perhaps he simply wants to avoid another deadly terrorist attack on the homeland.

In either case, his next step should be to impose order and coherence on his administration’s approach to this war. No more mixed signals of increases in troops and drone strikes on the one hand and civilian trials for terrorists on the other. No more reluctantly calling it a war but still treating much of it as a law enforcement issue.

This is life or death. He has to end the chaos. And maybe, just maybe, we might hear him grudgingly admit that in his prosecution of the war on terror, Mr. Bush was right.

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