National Security

Getting the War on Terror Back on Track

What will it take to recover from Obama's disaster?

Harold Hutchison · Sep. 16, 2016

Fifteen years after the unprovoked and dastardly 9/11 attacks on the United States left 2,997 dead, the War on Terror continues. When he spoke to a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks, President George W. Bush said, “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

There has been some progress made, largely in taking down the bulk of the al-Qaida organization that carried out those initial attacks. That said, there is still a lot of work to do. There are some remnants of al-Qaida out there, the Islamic State has emerged, and groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Boko Haram also pose significant threats.

While the strategic and operational decisions made on Bush’s watch can be debated, there was a lot of forward progress made — Bush had the right approach. The United States needed to take the fight to terrorist groups and to topple regimes that supported them. Granted, the Bush administration did not really appreciate the difficulty of replacing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. That doesn’t detract from the fact that on Bush’s watch, Iraq and Afghanistan went from being state sponsors of terrorism to being somewhat stable and nominally allied with the United States. It was harder and longer than expected, but by the time Bush left office, the Iraq war had been all but won. All that was needed was to consolidate what had been gained. Unfortunately, his successor didn’t believe in that approach, to put it mildly.

At the end of 2011, as part of a politically calculated timetable, Barack Obama carried out a complete withdrawal. He even cravenly used Bush’s success as the rationale. “Everything Americans have done in Iraq, all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding, the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has led to this moment of success,” Obama said in 2011. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”

That decision, however, threw away the hard-fought gains that American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines had sacrificed so much for, leading to the rise of the Islamic State. In fact, back in 2015, the State Department all but admitted Bush had been right about the consequences of a premature withdrawal, even as Obama half-heartedly wages the fight against that terrorist organization. If we are to be serious about taking out the Islamic State, we will need to send a substantial force of ground troops. When the fighting is over, it will also take a significant residual force to remain.

Bush also said, “Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.” Sadly, some of those covert operations which needed to remain secret — even as they succeeded in protecting America — did not stay secret. The CIA’s interrogation program is a case in point. Leaks led to press coverage. Then, when Obama took office, he shut the program down, and worse, the Justice Department investigated those American heroes involved, including José Rodriguez. Then, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) released an incredibly flawed report on the program that was more political polemic than actual assessment, and little more than a stab in the back of heroes like Rodriguez. Worse, Feinstein and John McCain rammed through an amendment that tied not only the CIA’s hands, but every intelligence agency’s hands.

The crippling of our interrogation program is bad enough, but that’s not the only problem we face in dealing with captured terrorists. Even if Guantanamo Bay stays open (with Obama’s tendency to act unilaterally, we’re not surprised that he is systematically emptying the prison, regardless of the risks that entails), it’s a fair bet that we will see the so-called “Gitmo bar” make a comeback. If you think Hanoi Jane Fonda committed treason (and she did), then consider this: All she did for the North Vietnamese was make a few radio broadcasts and pose for those infamous photos on that anti-aircraft gun. The “Gitmo bar” gave avowed enemies of this country access to our legal system and used it to hamstring the detention policies initially set up by George W. Bush. Which was the bigger assist to America’s enemies?

The Iran deal has also been a huge setback. Obama chose to legitimize a regime that has routinely vowed to wipe an American ally off the map; one that stormed our embassy, and which sponsored multiple terrorist attacks. He gave this rogue regime pretty much everything it wanted. Now, we’re caught in a cycle where Iran takes hostages and we pay a ransom. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Defeating the Islamic State is arguably the easiest of the above tasks, accomplished by the deployment of ground troops to Iraq. Experienced troops with air support that isn’t hampered by overly restrictive rules of engagement versus ISIL’s thugs? Not a real contest. Iran will be tougher, both because they can hamper maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, and because the U.S. may very well also have to address a potential conflict in the South China Sea. Still, it should be doable, especially if the military is able to benefit from a buildup.

The hardest part will be reversing the damage that Obama and the Gitmo bar have done to our ability to deal with captured terrorists. To win, we need to be able to break high-ranking terrorists so they spill their guts, and to keep them on ice indefinitely. Restoring those defenses will be a long-term task, and it may not be possible to fully repair them before another 9/11.

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