The role of commander in chief ranks at the top of presidential responsibilities. During the final presidential debate, President Obama challenged Mitt Romney’s earlier claim that Russia presented the greatest geopolitical threat to U.S. national security. This revealed Mr. Obama’s misunderstanding of the distinctions between immediate, potential and long-term, strategic geopolitical threats.
While al Qaeda presents an immediate threat, for several weeks after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Mr. Obama coupled the death of Osama bin Laden to his claim that al Qaeda was “on its heels.” Indeed, bin Laden sleeps with the fishes, and several would-be successors have been killed in drone strikes. Nevertheless, during the Obama administration, al Qaeda has spread like a metastasized cancer.
As demonstrated by the well-coordinated and concerted attack in Benghazi, al Qaeda presents an immediate threat to U.S. interests and American lives. While the long-term strategic goal of Islamist fundamentalists, including al Qaeda, is to establish a global Islamist caliphate, the immediate threat is to isolate the United States from the Middle East and Southwest Asia while continuing to strike at the American homeland. Today, al Qaeda is entrenched in Pakistan, reviving in Iraq, surging in Afghanistan, threatening in Yemen, dominant in parts of Mali and boldly active in Syria, Libya and Egypt. Additionally, in the past four years, al Qaeda has struck indirectly in the United States, including the Fort Hood massacre, the murder of an Army recruiter in Arkansas and the detonation of an underwear bomb on board a plane landing in Detroit, which burned the bomber but, fortunately, did not bring down the airliner. Numerous other attacks have been thwarted. Far from being “on its heels,” al Qaeda is charging ahead.
Iran presents a near-term regional strategic threat. Its avowed goal of destroying Israel, a state for which both U.S. presidential candidates express support, presumably means any nuclear attack on Israel — or any NATO ally — would constitute an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response. A credible deterrent requires nothing less.
The most disturbing revelation from Monday’s debate involved Mr. Obama’s lack of understanding of the geopolitical threat posed by Russia. Major powers like Russia, China and the United States have the military power to destroy other nations, ending their sovereignty. Russian rearmament and military modernization means an end to the euphoric optimism that accompanied the end of the Cold War. The notorious “open microphone” incident at last March’s national security summit, when Mr. Obama assured Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, “After my election I have more flexibility” in nuclear disarmament, betrays an unprecedented naivete in geopolitical thinking.
The challenges facing the United States demand a robust, dynamic and global reach by air and naval forces. Now is the time to envision and begin developing air, sea, land and space platforms appropriate to threats facing the United States a quarter-century from now — and beyond 2050.
During the debates, perhaps the most snarky remark by Mr. Obama came after Mr. Romney stated today’s U.S. Air Force is smaller than it was at any time since its birth in 1947 and that the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than it did in 1917. Comparing numerical military orders of battle between Industrial Age and Information Age forces is, indeed, an exercise in apples and oranges. Instead of pointing out that a flight of four B-2 bombers can deliver more destructive power than all the bombers used by every nation over the past century, the president chose to launch into a condescending lecture on “things called aircraft carriers” and submarines that “go under the water.”
Given that Mr. Obama seemingly knows about the capabilities of “things called aircraft carriers,” it’s appropriate to ask, what role might F-16s based in the Mediterranean area have played in thwarting the Benghazi attack? Certainly a presidential order could have launched such a response on that fateful night. A potential game-changer would have been to ask, “Mr. President, why on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, didn’t you dispatch U.S. military forces to intervene in Benghazi?” An F-16, based only a 15-minute flight away in Italy, using its 20 mm Gatling gun to strafe the street outside the Benghazi consulate might have sent the rats back into their holes in anticipation of a pending American response.
Mr. Obama has spent four years blaming his predecessor for everything from U.S. involvement in Iraq to the collapse in the housing market. Does he not recall that U.S. fighter planes were scrambled in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers? Later on that awful morning, President George W. Bush ordered the Air Force to shoot down Flight 93. Had its brave passengers not intervened, that order would have been carried out. The commander in chief must have the courage to issue such difficult orders. Unlike the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, no such courage was in evidence.
Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East and terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.