The young Barack Obama's early enthusiasm for anti-war progressivism is well chronicled in his autobiography. Friendships with the likes of anti-war activists/bombers Bill Ayers and wife Bernardine Dohrn, poet Frank Marshall Davis, and the notorious Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and brief stints as a public interest lawyer, law professor, and community activist deepened his appreciation for leftist thought — and action. Indeed, the young senator from Illinois rode intense criticism of Bush-era foreign policy adventures and domestic surveillance practices all the way to the White House.
This pedigree has played out in predictable form on the domestic front. The Obama era is all about growing the size and scope of federal jurisdiction. Accordingly, the national debt has doubled under the profligate spending practices of the Obama regime. The true damage inflicted by Obamacare and a failed $1.2 trillion stimulus will keep the Washington bean counters busy for years. And don't forget the distressing array of hard-left judicial appointees and regulators.
But it has been the mixed messages and policies on the military front that have tried the patience of both right and left.
First, the early trips to foreign capitals (disparagingly referred to as the "world apology tour" by some), wherein the American president set out to improve his approval ratings with the Muslim world. The message was clear: America had learned its lesson — no longer would cowboy-like arrogance dictate American adventurism around the world. A compliant press announced "mission accomplished" in the short term, but a less-than-enthusiastic response domestically was the result of the president's failure to highlight considerable American blood and money (Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq) spent in the name of saving Muslim lives.
Another early sop to the anti-war crowd was the administration's insistence on rather goofy reinventions of familiar terms, all in order to create a more offense-less dialogue with hostile regimes. Hence, terrorism became "man-caused disasters," an act of religiously driven terror at Fort Hood became "workplace violence," and foreign military campaigns became "overseas contingency operations."
Then, a McCain-like "surge" in Afghanistan was announced, but contemporaneous with a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops. The message to the bad guys was quite clear: "We're gonna try real hard for a while, then go home" — not exactly Kennedy-esque. Al-Qaida surely smirked while taking notice of both news bulletins.
Next came Campaign 2012, wherein challenger Mitt Romney repeatedly pointed out how closely Obama tactics paralleled Bush tactics in the campaign against terrorism (rendition, detention, drones, Gitmo). Although generally accurate, the indictment had no legs; even progressives disappointed with Mr. Obama's situational hawkishness supported the incumbent in record numbers. Indeed, recent polling reflects how some previously anti-war, self-identified liberals now support the very same policies they once bitterly opposed.
What has legs is the administration's dysfunctional response to the Benghazi terror killings. Now that the phoniness of the administration's various fibs and negligence is slowly but surely coming to light, what conclusion is the public to draw? Answer: either a huge cover-up to "get over" until Election Day, or gross negligence by an administration in campaign mode and a complicit State Department. Neither explanation leaves you with warm fuzzies toward the president or his foreign policy team.
A related item: the Obama pledge to assist the Syrian rebels once proof of chemical warfare came to light. But that famous "red line" has been crossed, with no American response in sight. The bad guys (again) most assuredly took notice of this consequence-less, empty threat.
And now, the latest chapter wherein the administration's aggressive drone campaign (far beyond Bush administration efforts) is found to have killed four Americans and an unknown number of "collateral" casualties. But the significant announcement was almost immediately followed with a War on Terror "reset" speech signaling further American disengagement now that al-Qaida is "on the path to defeat" — a dubious proposition, more campaign slogan than fact.
This attempt to have it both ways in the messy business of nontraditional warfare speaks to the president's fundamental discomfort with the projection and use of American military might. His base constituency is viscerally anti-military, and he knows it. Yet, he is the commander in chief of the greatest force for good on the face of the Earth — the American military. (What, you think other countries possess the intelligence, means and might to conduct the midnight raid on ol' Osama?) And he has (at times) shown a willingness to choose national security over campaign promises.
Today, the president's predisposition toward speechifying and "clean" drone strikes is predictable and in accord with America's neo-isolationist mood.
But wishing for terrorism's demise is a lot different from making it so. The people deserve more clarity (and determination) in the long-running war against al-Qaida and its progeny.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.