- - Friday, September 12, 2014


“Good evening, my fellow Americans. My name is Barack Obama. I’m not really a wartime president but I play one on TV.”

He didn’t say that, of course, but if he had, he might have at least some scored points for candor. Even in his best Republican attire — red tie, white shirt and blue suit — President Obama seemed as viscerally uncomfortable as though he had been wearing a Diane von Furstenberg dress with Louis Vuitton bag and Prada heels. Even while trying to sound suitably warlike, the president could not bring himself to say the word “Islamic” in describing the Islamic State, a group that describes itself as the scourge of the infidels. So who are these guys — malevolent Methodists or belligerent Baptists? Even if the president hasn’t read his CIA daily briefing for the past year, why not just describe them for who they really are: the enemy.

Garbled optics aside, did this most unlikely of wartime leaders really mean it? Not according to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who may eventually surpass even the vaunted Joe Biden for malapropisms and tangled syntax. Mr. Kerry thinks that war is the wrong terminology, clearly having forgotten his own memories of Vietnam. Instead, Mr. Kerry told Time magazine that we are “engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation, and it’s going to go on for some period of time.” How long? He didn’t say, but the CIA, whose motto should be, “Often surprised but never, ever wrong,” thinks the Islamic State may have as many as 31,500 fighters, apparently based on their turnstile counts. They don’t really know, but firmly stand by their estimate of “a helluva lot.”

Even if half that number is correct, then why on earth didn’t Mr. Obama begin his vaunted speech with the only kind of declaration that really mattered? That, as he spoke, fleets of American strategic bombers — B-1s, B-2s and aging B-52s — were unloading their full weapons loads on every known and suspected Islamic State target. And that they would be back at it tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and every day thereafter until a thoroughly degraded enemy was in the arms of their 70-odd heavenly virgins. Let the terrorists know that when an American president replies to their outrages, his words are reinforced by shock and awe.

If you are really ready to engage in it, war is many things, but I prefer the definition an Israeli general once gave me. “Sometimes,” he sighed, “it becomes necessary to create new facts.” Despite being repeatedly deceived by politicians of both parties, Gen. Colin L. Powell had the same idea when he insisted that war was a straight binary choice: You either don’t do it at all or else go all-out for as long as it takes to win. (Some of us define “win” as having a beer in the other guy’s officer’s club, although that might be a problem with the bloodthirsty teetotalers of the Islamic State.)

Listening to the president last Wednesday evening, it was reasonable to face a similarly binary choice: Was Mr. Obama really serious about going to war, or does he have his own conceptions about winning, or even about war itself? His nearly six-year stewardship of the armed forces is most remarkable for having been planned around the central assumption of peace rather than war. In sharp contrast, the Romans distilled a millennium of statecraft into an epigram shaped by hard experience: “If you would have peace, then prepare for war.” But to Mr. Obama — trained by radicals such as Saul Alinsky and Bill Ayers — war is dangerous for children and other living things. Far better, then, to disarm America’s armed forces and turn our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to more peaceful pursuits. Socialism, it was wisely noted, works until you run out of other people’s money — just as declaring peace works until the Islamic State calls your bluff. By name. Twice.

The details are unimportant, but I once participated in war-games when the objective was northern Syria, now the Islamic State’s center of gravity. Anyone foolish enough to suggest today’s pinprick, no-boots-on-the-ground, semi-strategy then would have been laughed out of the room, right along with anyone submitting rules of engagement approved by the American Civil Liberties Union. Because vital national interests were at stake, we assumed the full range of American combat power. The winning solution: An amphibious landing on the Syrian coast followed by an armor and airborne assault in a combined-arms blitzkrieg campaign heading due east.

Now mostly nostalgia, back then it was classic warfare from air, land and sea, with American military intervention always resting on the confident assumption that no enemy would dare attack our homeland.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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