If the president’s objective at his year-end press conference was to soothe the public’s nerves as the threat of terrorism has again surged to the forefront of American minds, he failed. That, of course, wasn’t his objective. President Barack Obama had but one goal when he took the lectern in the White House briefing room: to defend his record and to keep Democratic partisans happy inside the tent ahead of 2016.
The White House is in crisis communications mode. The president’s petulant response to the Paris attacks (calling the slaughter of 132 civilians a “setback” about which his critics could only “pop off”) and the San Bernardino attack (which he characterized as an act of criminality rather than terrorism even before the bodies were cold) has resulted in a fitting crisis of confidence in this administration’s handling of security matters. Obama insisted on Friday that his plan is to “squeeze” the terrorist safe haven the size of the United Kingdom stretching across Syria and Iraq, but the specifics of this strategy were left vague.
Indicating that Obama was more interested in signaling to Democrats that their prejudices amount to a counterterrorism strategy, the president was more resolute about what he couldn’t do. In a statement that is almost certain to haunt the administration in the same way his assessment that ISIS was “contained” just hours before the Paris attacks has, the president assured the public that his anti-ISIS strategy has hit a wall. “There’s only so much bombing you can do,” Obama said in a plea for sympathy.
That’s true; there is only so much bombing that can be done, and ISIS is never going to be defeated from the air alone – although this admission cuts against the president’s interest in avoiding the deployment of American combat ground troops in the Iraqi and Syrian theaters. But this doesn’t mean the coalition is applying maximum pressure on ISIS from the air at the moment.
In the first five months of 2015, U.S. fighters conducted 7,319 sorties over Iraq and Syria, but only 1,859 of those missions resulted in at least one “weapons release.” That’s right: just 25 percent of American bombing missions actually yielded any bombing. This caution is a result of the fact that American forces are spotting targets from the air, and are calling off missions with even modest ambiguity about the potential for collateral damage. The situation had not improved by November when ISIS terrorists with operational links to Islamic State command and control networks in Syria targeted Paris. According to Representative Ed Royce, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Obama’s rules of engagement had not changed one bit, and neither had the number of sorties that resulted in weapons release. In the wake of the Paris strikes, French air forces immediately began conducting bombing raids over Syria and shocked some Western observers by hitting priority targets in the Islamic State’s provision capital of Raqqa, terrorist training camps, and oil and gas facilities. After 18 months of a hyper-restricted air war, the president’s suggestion that the United States is running out of targets to bomb doesn’t ring true.
Obama went on to relate to the American people that Washington needed to respect Russian and Iranian “equities” in Syria – interests that those hostile nations were only able to secure as a result of American dithering. Why that would comfort Democrats who are ostensibly concerned about the human costs of war is a mystery. Because the United States abdicated its role in the region, Russian forces are using cluster mentions and unguided bombs to strike targets like bakeries and hospitals. The silence of the international anti-war movement is positively deafening.
Obama further noted that the United States will be highly unlikely to ever prevent “lone wolf” style terrorist attacks in the United States in the same way that the nation is generally unable to predict and prevent mass shootings. “It’s not that different from us trying to detect the next mass shooter,” Obama said. “You don’t always see it, they’re not always communicating publicly, and if you’re not catching what they say publicly, then it becomes a challenge.” It is no surprise that a political party that is afraid to identify by name the ideology inspiring these all-too-frequent acts of terrorism would throw its hands up in frustration over lone wolf attacks like those that occurred in Sydney, Ottawa, New York City, Garland, Copenhagen, and elsewhere. That doesn’t render it excusable.
Obama claims that America can do nothing more than it is already doing to tie up the Islamic State overseas and draw its fighters into combat with trained military professionals. At the same time, he contends that nothing can be done to prevent ISIS-inspired mass casualty attacks in the West. Far from comforting, this is all incredibly disheartening.
But Obama did have one plan of action he was eager to share with the American people: His desire to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. Despite the lack of evidence, Democrats are convinced that the prison’s very existence serves as a recruiting tool for Islamist militants. While there is little proof that filling up Guantanamo Bay with Islamist detainees helps ISIS and al-Qaeda’s recruiting efforts, there is plenty of evidence emptying it does fill the ranks of Islamist radical terror networks. In January, General John Campbell revealed that two former detainees, Mullah Raouf Khadim and Mullah Abdullah Zakir, were leading the fight against Western forces in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Ibrahim al Qosi, a former prisoner released to the custody of Sudan, was exposed as having assumed a leading role in Yemen-based terrorist organization al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The president did little to comfort the nation before bidding farewell to the press corps for the year. When, not if, the next attack occurs, Americans will look back on this press conference with disappointment and anger.