That’s the theme of columns from both myself and the Daily Mail’s Max Hastings in the face of a surging army of Islamist terrorists proclaiming themselves a state. After the beheadings of two American journalists and a series of genocidal attacks on minorities in northern Iraq and Syria, “the world seems a frightening place,” Hastings writes today. In part, Hastings argues, that’s because the West has reduced its military capabilities as part of a fantasy of declining threats. That has encouraged others to unleash their own ambitions, and not just ISIS:
Cameron and Obama convinced themselves that, once we had escaped the Afghan and Iraqi quagmires, Britain and the U.S. need fight no more conventional wars.
They refused to heed what many wise voices warned them: events and tyrants have ways of setting the agenda for peace or war, whatever the wishes of politicians.
A critical part of the argument for having strong armed forces is to deter aggressors, making it unnecessary to fight them.
Ministers, including David Cameron, lie and lie about our residual military capability.
Britain is reduced to having a little Army, which can just about Troop The Colour; a Navy that is building two enormous carriers for which we cannot afford a credible air component; and an Air Force that can conduct strike operations only with American support.
In the long term, if we want tyrants such as Putin to take seriously not only the Western Powers, but also the whole concept of international order, we must have the military capacity to fight him, even if we do not want to use it.
Twice in this generation, we seem to have succumbed to the same “end of history” thinking that promises “peace dividends” through disarmament. Instead, history keeps moving forward and in many ways repeating itself, and the peace dividend turns out to be neither peaceful nor savings at all. The 9/11 attacks almost thirteen years ago put an end to that thinking the first time, and the two beheadings of American journalists and the threat of another conducted on a British reporter should be a wake-up call.
At least Cameron is committing to the fight rhetorically. In my column today at The Fiscal Times, I argue that US policy has become utterly incoherent, starting at the top. The American response has been so contradictory that we heard three very different messages about US goals in a single day. While Joe Biden talked about following ISIS to “the gates of Hell,” Obama talked about managing them without actually engaging much at all:
Obama has spent the last two weeks talking tough but proposing no action at all, other than the tactical strikes necessary to keep ISIS away from Irbil and the Mosul Dam. The President has repeatedly rejected the option of putting American troops on the ground to fight ISIS, even while Kerry calls for an international coalition to stop their aggression.
The White House has offered contradictory signals on whether it wants to conduct air strikes on ISIS targets in Syria as well as the tactical strikes in Iraq, which makes Biden’s statement yesterday sound even more futile and empty than it otherwise would. We will follow ISIS to the gates of hell, but not to Syria? We will confront the evil of ISIS wherever it spreads, except every place it already resides?
Just a few hours after Obama’s comments in Talinn, CNN’s Jim Sciutto asked the Defense Secretary to explain the contradictory declarations of the Commander in Chief made just a few hours earlier. “Which it is?” Sciutto asked. “Is the mission goal to contain or destroy?” Hagel ended up citing Biden in discarding the “manageable threat” goal, saying that he hadn’t heard the exchanges with the media but had only read Obama’s written remarks. “The mission is very clearly, and we’re providing the President with these options, to degrade and destroy ISIS’ capability,” Hagel emphasized. “It’s not to contain them.”
The failure demonstrated by Obama and his administration over the last several weeks and months as the ISIS threat grew and metastasized is, at its core, a leadership crisis. Forget being the leader of the free world; this President can’t even lead his own team within one coherent message and strategy. As ABC’s State Department reporter Ali Weinberg remarked yesterday, this was the message just from one single day: “We’re going to destroy ISIS. Or manage them. Or shrink their sphere of influence. Or follow them to the gates of hell.”
With that failure to generate a united and coherent approach to ISIS among his own team, how could anyone expect the President to lead the world against this new terrorist army and the threat it poses to the region and the world?
Ron Fournier isn’t impressed with Obama’s leadership, either:
While members of the president’s Cabinet along with Democratic and Republican lawmakers consider the Islamic State a danger to the United States, the man most responsible for protecting U.S. interests has suggested that they are overreacting.
ISIS is a junior varsity squad, Obama shrugged last fall.
Social media exaggerates the horrors, he sniffed last week.
Even today, pressed for clarity of his vow to “roll them back,” Obama said, “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities, to the point where it’s a manageable problem.”
A manageable problem? While containing ISIS may be the best realistic outcome, “Let’s Manage the Situation!” is hardly a national rallying cry.
The wildly contradictory messages coming from this administration, and from Obama himself, demonstrate a bigger problem than rhetorical incoherence. Obama is not demonstrating leadership on any level, not even among his own team. That incoherence and rudderless performance encourages our enemies and opponents, and the power vacuum it leaves will not easily be refilled by the West, and certainly not while Obama continues to abdicate his responsibilities of leadership.