On Friday, President Obama conducted a rare press conference at the White House. The leading topic of the day was his effort to defend the government’s efforts to defend the country from terrorism. With the closing of numerous embassies and consulates last week, due to terrorist threats as well as the controversy driven by the leaking of National Security Agency procedures by Edward Snowden, the president had an opportunity to make a full-throated appeal to Americans to reject the efforts of isolationists to dismantle our intelligence efforts and to put away the paranoid suspicions that they have helped fuel.
But while it was good to see the president making any case for the NSA’s necessary monitoring programs, however belated, it was unfortunate that the tone of his remarks was so ambivalent and lacking in the passion he showed when he bragged (once again) about his personal role in killing Osama bin Laden in response to a question about Benghazi, attacked Republicans for their opposition to ObamaCare, or skewered Russian President Vladimir Putin as having the posture of a “bored kid sitting in the back of a classroom.”
Though he agreed, after prompting from NBC’s Chuck Todd, that Snowden was no patriot, his decision to try to appease critics of the NSA via the creation of new review boards, a transparency website, or to amend the Patriot Act betrayed a lack of confidence in the rectitude of his administration’s actions. Indeed, the president’s attempt to dance around the core issues at stake here and to play both ends against the middle—as if he were both the commander in chief and the left-wing community activist opposing the government—undermined his purpose. Suffice it to say that when he said he, too, would be upset about the NSA’s actions, “if I wasn’t inside the government,”—which is to say that the only thing that validates the measures is the magic of his own personality—that wasn’t the strongest argument to be made for a vital national security program.
While any government program deserves scrutiny from Congress and the courts, the president could have done the country some service by not sounding so defensive about NSA activities that have already been subjected to that treatment. Given that he spoke during a week when the terrorist threat had been heightened and NSA intercepts were vital elements in the effort to prevent al-Qaeda affiliates from committing new atrocities, the time was ripe for the commander in chief to remind the country that those who would turn the page back to a September 10th mentality are playing right into the hands of America’s enemies.
The problem is that the president bears a great deal of the responsibility for the fact that polls show that large numbers of Americans are more afraid of government snooping than they are of the al-Qaeda. Obama spent most of 2012 claiming that al-Qaeda was as dead as bin Laden, so why shouldn’t the public that reelected him believe that the war against Islamist terrorism was over too? Of course, the president knows that his reelection campaign’s claims on this issue were largely fraudulent, so he must now tap dance between upholding the government’s ability to defend the public while also maintaining his stance as a critic of the war on terror. If Americans aren’t buying it, it’s not because the threat isn’t real or the NSA programs aren’t necessary, but because they’ve been sold a bill of goods by the man in the White House.
True leadership on national security issues requires more than electioneering slogans, especially when it turns out that, contrary to his assertions last year, Detroit is dead and al-Qaeda is very much alive. I’ve no problem with the president beating his chest a bit about killing terrorists, though it would be in better taste if he didn’t continually refer to the killing of bin Laden in the first person—“I didn’t get him in 11 months”—rather than give credit to the Navy SEALs. But what we need during this phase of the war against Islamism is for Obama to stop sounding ambivalent about doing his duty when it comes to the everyday work of monitoring our enemies. So long as he keeps trying to have it both ways, support for these measures won’t follow.