Here’s the message President Barack Obama was promoting on foreign policy in his last State of the Union speech Tuesday: “Don’t worry, things are better than you think.”
The rhetoric about our enemies getting stronger and America weaker is “political hot air.” The United States “is (still) the most powerful nation on Earth.” His administration is rooting out and destroying the Islamic State.
The president is correct in trying to tamp down the growing public hysteria over the domestic terrorist threat, which is being stoked by certain presidential candidates. He is correct that the prime aim of terrorists is to, well, terrorize the country, and we shouldn’t let them do so.
But the aims of this feel-good speech were undercut by the glaring gaps between the president’s rhetoric and the realities on the ground in the Mideast.
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In fact, the terrorist threat to Americans — for now — is indeed minimal. According to the New America Foundation, 24 Americans have died from jihadi attacks on U.S. soil over the last decade. Compare that with 301,797 deaths from firearms (a tally compiled by PolitiFact) over the same period.
But those numbers fail to resonate with the public. And even the president’s allies in the congressional audience, on the Democratic side of the aisle, seemed unconvinced when he declared that Islamic State jihadis “do not threaten our national existence.” That statement is certainly true for the foreseeable future, yet the applause for that line was puny.
So what is at the root of Americans’ outsize fears of the terrorist threat?
In part, the fear is obviously sparked by the randomness of lone-wolf attackers. But I’d argue that the fear is mainly fed by uncertainty over the U.S. strategy to combat Islamist jihadis in the short and the long term.
Obama’s speech did little to clear that uncertainty up.
For one thing, many Americans haven’t forgotten how the Bush administration failed to foresee the threat of a major al Qaida attack on the homeland. Nor have they forgotten that Obama underestimated the Islamic State early on, when he referred to it as the “JV team” to al Qaida.
Obama’s constant stress on “a patient and disciplined strategy” seems to understate the future danger. More to the point, that “strategy” keeps shifting as one tactic after another has failed.
In his speech, Obama talked of “partnering with local forces” in Syria and leading international efforts to broker a Syrian peace. But anyone who reads the newspapers knows that those local forces are mostly Kurds, who can’t and won’t retake the Sunni heartland where the Islamic State caliphate is located.
They know that the president’s praise for “nearly 10,000 airstrikes” against the Islamic State ignores the fact that most of the sorties were useless because they lacked accurate targets.
They also know that Syrian peace talks are going nowhere because all the cards are held by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and by Iran. Yet Obama belittled Putin in his speech — without noting how the Russian leader has outmaneuvered him in both Ukraine and Syria.
And the president touted the nuclear deal with Iran, without mentioning that Tehran recently tested missiles in defiance of a U.N. resolution.
His slick speech lines don’t instill confidence that Obama has a strategic direction. When the president also notes, rightly, that terrorism will haunt the world for decades, he seems to be washing his hands of the whole mess.
Let me be clear here: A glib Trumpian emphasis on “bombing the s—- out of them” offers no path to defeating the Islamic State, either. Nor does the answer lie in sending thousands of ground troops to the Mideast (a specter Obama often raises as a straw man).
But, judging by his speech, Obama has no real game plan to curb the Islamic State before leaving the White House. He talks tough — “our reach has no limit.” But Americans have seen him waffle: backing off red lines he set in Syria. The public is uncertain of Obama’s intentions, unconvinced of his mettle. No wonder so many Americans are afraid.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
©2016 Trudy Rubin