President Obama's foreign policy has been a crushing disappointment. Whereas his first term earned the U.S. precious breathing room in its pivot from the Bush years, wiping out the GOP's storied electoral advantage on international affairs, Obama's second term has been marked by failure after failure: chaos in Syria, Libya, and Yemen; the rise of ISIS; Russia on the march; and on and on.
The president's defenders might counter that, at worst, these failures have been modest and contained. After all, we haven't gone to war with a major or regional power, and we haven't lost a military battle. Technically, ISIS is in retreat, not just in the Fertile Crescent but in Libya, too. What's not to like?
The massacre in Orlando underscores the answer. There is a strange but reasonable way in which we fear mass shootings more than quote-unquote WMDs. It's actually quite difficult to go about your day in mortal fear that a ragtag band of bad guys will set off a nuclear bomb in your city. It's horrifically easy, by sharp contrast, to imagine that a single armed terrorist, disillusioned at home and infected by radical ideas from abroad, is lurking around the corner wherever you live. It happened in San Bernardino. It happened in Orlando. It could happen anywhere. And while generations of Americans have grown accustomed to the abstract risk of "big" terror events and nuclear war, the current terror wave is much newer and more intolerable.
So here is a truth that may make you squirm: The most direct and final means to ending this new wave of terror is to do more — much more — against ISIS than President Obama wants to do.
In heated remarks occasioned by the Orlando attack, Obama spent paragraph upon paragraph detailing the real reversals ISIS (or ISIL, as the president favors) has experienced of late. "Our mission is to destroy ISIL," he affirmed. "Since I last updated the American people on our campaign two months ago, we've seen that this continues to be a difficult fight, but we are making significant progress." But the main impetus for destroying the Islamic State (protecting Americans) called forth a much different Obama — the one who vents his spleen against domestic opponents with the audacity to not share his worldview. Rather than a full-tilt campaign against ISIS, the president said, Americans are best protected by tightening gun controls. And rather than making clear that ISIS is enemy number one because radical Islamists hate us for who we're not, he insisted, the language of "extremism" and "extremist information" is enough to make clear who the enemy is.
In this, President Obama is not just opposed by fanatical Republicans. Finding her footing, Hillary Clinton announced she's perfectly happy to point the finger at "radical Islamism" or "radical jihadism." To be sure, Obama is correct that verbiage alone does not a successful defense of America make. But the president has made a tremendous mistake in refusing to see that we cannot end the terror wave except by striking at its root, no matter how prudent it may be to limit access to firearms. As Europe's experience has bitterly shown, it is just flatly not the case that gun control can significantly degrade terrorists' ability to slaughter American civilians.
A more definitive, aggressive, and immediate strategy against the Islamic State would offer Americans a point of unity, resolve, and agency that's conspicuously lacking elsewhere. While the culture war has us locked into an exhausting battle of words, the war against ISIS offers what Americans have always been best at defeating: a patently intolerable scourge opposed to us all, no matter where we stand on the politics of love, guns, or anything else. If Orlando has made the culture war look more debilitating than ever, it has also made the war against ISIS look more urgent than ever.
President Obama might disagree. But with every passing day, his opinion matters less and less. And come the new year, it will have no impact on policy at all.