Like many of us, Stephen Hayes is struggling to understand how it could be that the president could have seemed so misinformed (claiming that the bombing was the work of an “isolated extremist”) and so disengaged in the days following the Christmas Day bombing attack. He writes:
How is it possible that the president of the United States could get a central fact about an attempted terrorist attack—arguably, the central fact—dead wrong in his first public statement, three days after the attack?
President Obama and White House staffers have spent the subsequent two weeks pointing fingers at the intelligence community, detailing the many failures of the bureaucracy, and promising accountability. Given what we know about those failures, that’s appropriate. But in his January 7 statement announcing the results of the review he had ordered, the president boldly declared that the buck stops with him. Strong rhetoric. So what does it mean in practice? The Obama administration’s lack of seriousness on counterterrorism before the attack seems to have been rivaled only by its incompetence afterwards.
As Hayes points out, part of the explanation is that this was a concerted effort, mimicked by Janet Napolitano and Robert Gibbs, to downplay the incident. Nothing much here. No one died. Our decisions to reject the Bush anti-terror policies are working fine. No need for alarm. Can we get back to health care?
After all, the administration had gotten away with this same blasé routine following the Fort Hood incident. The liberal pundits howled over anyone inferring a religious motivation (they preferred some psychological diagnosis rather than the ample evidence that Major Hassan did this in furtherance of his jihadist ideology.) The army chief of staff insisted that the biggest danger was the ensuing discrimination against Muslims. Given this, the Obami naturally expected that they could get away with another see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-don’t identify-any-evil routine. They must have been shocked that the public and media pounced on them.
But Hayes also suggests that there is genuine cluelessness at work. It’s not that the Obami knew better and lied to us. It is that they have engaged in willful ignorance for so long that they were actually surprised by the incident. Suddenly reality harshly interrupted their slumber. He notes anti-terrorism adviser’s John Brennan’s apparent shock “that an al-Qaeda affiliate that had promised to attack the United States had almost succeeded in doing so.” And this administration, as Hayes’s colleague Thomas Joscelyn points out, saw no problem in releasing Guantanamo detainees back to Yemen:
On December 19, 2009, the Obama administration transferred six detainees to Yemen. Only one Yemeni had been repatriated during the previous 11 months—and the Bush administration, which made many of its own mistakes with respect to detainee transfers, had only repatriated a handful of Yemenis over several years. (At least one of them has since returned to terrorism.) But the Obama administration was confident. The New York Times on December 19 cited a “senior administration official” who said the White House was “gaining confidence in Yemen’s willingness to handle returning detainees.” And at the beginning of last year, in January 2009, Obama’s ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, had said the administration intended to repatriate “the majority” of the Yemenis at Guantánamo.
In short, Obama’s out-to-lunchness was both strategic (downplay the war against Islamic fundamentalists) and the result of abject ignorance, perpetuated throughout his administration, as to just how serious was the threat of a Yemen-hatched plot to attack the American homeland. The ho-hum rhetorical ploy has blown up in the Obami’s faces and is likely to be adjusted, although not to the extent that the president would use the words “Islamic fundamentalist” or some variation thereof to describe our enemy. But what about those who apparently didn’t grasp the nature of the threat we faced?
It is appalling, really, that those who wrapped themselves in a cloak of ignorance and carried out foolhardy policies (e.g., refueling the terrorist pipeline in Yemen) should remain in their jobs. Yes, the president is responsible, but he can’t be fired for another three years. In the meantime, what’s the excuse for keeping everyone else around?