Barack Obama is vulnerable on terror – and he knows it
Barack Obama is playing politics over the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack and Republicans sense he is weak on the issue, writes Toby Harnden in Washington
Published: 4:45PM GMT 02 Jan 2010
Barack Obama said both human and systematic failures allowed the foiled Christmas Day attack on Northwest flight 253 to take place Photo: GETTY
In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Barack Obama patted himself on the back for having "refocused the fight - bringing to a responsible end the war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks".
He then told people to remember that "our adversaries are those who would attack our country, not our fellow Americans", before decrying "fear and cynicism" and "partisanship and division" - the code phrases for horrid Republicans used during his 2008 election campaign.
Complacency, faux moralising and partisan shots at Republicans. It was a neat summary of where Obama is going wrong after the Christmas Day debacle when the Nigerian knicker bomber managed to waltz onto a Detroit-bound flight.
For a man who campaigned denouncing the politicisation of national security under President George W Bush, it is worth noting how intensely political Obama's treatment of what might henceforth be known as Underpantsgate has been.
His White House recognised its political vulnerability more readily than it comprehended the level of danger faced by Americans.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father had courageously contacted the American Embassy in Abuja in November and met the CIA station chief to tell him that his son was involved with fundamentalist elements in Yemen. American intelligence had also intercepted discussions in Yemen about a possible attack by "the Nigerian".
The Obama administration knew most, if not all, of this by last Sunday, 48 hours after the attack was thwarted. But the priority in Obamaland was to play things down and take pot shots at the Bush administration.
Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security chief – who prefers the term "man-caused disasters" to "terrorism" - blithely stated that there was "no indication that it is part of anything larger". She then insisted that the "system is working".
Although Napolitano has taken a lot of flak for these comic utterances, she was not "misspeaking" but trotting out the agreed talking points of the day.
Robert Gibbs, Obama's chief mouthpiece, also stated that "in many ways this system has worked" and would say nothing about a possible wider plot.
In Hawaii, where Obama was holidaying, Gibbs's deputy Bill Burton told the press that "we are winding down a war in Iraq that took our eye off of the terrorists that attacked us" and that Obama was reviewing "procedures that have been in place the last several years" (i.e. Bush instituted them). He added, without apparent irony, that "the President refuses to play politics with these issues".
Meanwhile, the White House was working overtime to build a case against Bush. A source in the White House counsel's office told The American Spectator of memos frantically seeking information that would "show that the Bush Administration had had far worse missteps than we ever could".
Republicans smell blood. There is a pattern in the Obama administration of dismissing Islamist terrorist attacks as regrettable random acts. In his radio address after Major Nidal Hassan's slaughtered 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, Obama made no mention of terrorism or militant Islam, instead blandly promising that the "ongoing investigation into this terrible tragedy" would "look at the motives of the alleged gunman".
Hassan was a committed Islamist who had corresponded with the fanatical Yemeni imam Anwar al-Awlaki. In June, Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Muslim convert being watched by the FBI and who had previously travelled to Yemen, murdered a US Army recruit in Arkansas. That rated only a tepid statement by Obama about a "senseless act of violence".
But the violence wasn't senseless, it had a calculated objective - just as Abdulmutallab was not, as Obama described him, an "isolated extremist". No wonder many Americans want to grab Obama by the lapels and scream: "It's the Jihad, stupid." Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, clearly struck a nerve when he charged last week that Obama was "trying to pretend we are not at war".
The White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer eagerly descended into the political fray, responding to Cheney with the obligatory jibe about Iraq and also a litany of examples of Obama's "public statements that explicitly state we are at war".
It's a sure sign that you're losing the argument when you have to research quotes from your boss's speeches to prove that he gets it that America is at war. The problem for Obama is that people are now judging him by his actions as well as his words.
The incompetence of the US intelligence bureaucracy is not the only thing that makes Underpantsgate so damaging for Obama. More serious is his failure to understand or acknowledge the nature of the enemy - and to view war as mere politics.
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