But most importantly, our leaders don’t seem to have learned the fundamental lesson from our multiple foreign engagements since 2001. Americans look to their leaders, especially their presidents, to explain the challenges the United States faces on the world stage. Instead of providing this leadership, presidents of both parties have played to the worst impulses of the electorate, telling them that they were correct to believe that America needed to refocus on problems at home and dismissing the terrorist threat as minimal. When we did intervene militarily, Americans were told it would be quick, painless, and easy or they weren’t told at all because of the deniability of the military and intelligence tools used in an attempt to avoid public discussion of the fact that we were still at war.
Westerners value their security and that of their families just as much, if not more, than economic security. The first duty of government is to provide security for its citizens. Our leaders are failing in that fundamental duty. Protecting the West against adaptive terrorist groups who have now infiltrated our societies is difficult, but is not impossible. Leaders should not overstate the risk, but they also should not refuse to admit that the current situation is concerning and untenable. As British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Sunday, “it is time to say enough is enough.”
If our leaders continue to fail to have honest conversations with their citizens and expect them to accept suicide bombings and car and knife attacks as the new normal of twenty-first century life, it will become even more difficult to sell the liberal international order to increasingly disillusioned Western publics.