After the June 12th massacre in Orlando, the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States since 9/11, many Americans hoped that President Obama would say something healing and unifying to the nation. Given how polarized our nation has become, this would naturally prove challenging. But surely the President should at least try.
And in his first remarks following the massacre, he did try—asking for prayers for the victims and their families, conveying “the condolences of the entire American people” to the city’s mayor, and affirming, “We will stand united, as Americans, to protect our people, and defend our nation, and to take action against those who threaten us.”
His subsequent remarks on Tuesday were far more jarring. Facing criticism for not acknowledging the reality of “radical Islam”—something that even Hillary Clinton has now done—the President launched into a tirade against his critics, laying bare his partisan inability to rise to the occasion. Angry, bitter, self-serving, Obama succeeded in doing something many thought him incapable of: acting like Donald Trump.
He began on a generous note, expressing support for the victims and their families. From there his speech went downhill.
Obama was at pains to stress how committed his administration is to fighting terrorism: “We are doing everything in our power to stop these kind of attacks.” But if that is true, how is it possible that the FBI had monitored the Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, for years, only to abandon its surveillance of him, clearing the way for his attack? And why, in a country and under an administration that sanctions the slogan, “If you see something, say something,” were the warnings of a co-worker about Mateen’s fanatical views ignored?
Obama continued: “Our mission is to destroy ISIL. . . . We are making significant progress. . . . ISIL is under more pressure than ever before. ISIL continues to lose key leaders. . . . ISIL’s ranks are shrinking. . . . Their morale is sinking.” But just two days after the President made these remarks, his own head of the CIA, John Brennan, testifying before Congress, provided a far grimmer assessment: “[O]ur efforts have not reduced [ISIL]’s terrorism capability and global reach. . . .We judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.” Not only that, said Brennan, but ISIL has a “large cadre of Western fighters” ready to launch new attacks like the one in Orlando, and continues to attract new and enthusiastic recruits.
Obama continued: “For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase ‘radical Islam.’” But many of the President’s most trenchant critics are veterans and military men, who’ve risked their lives for this country. James Jay Carafano, who spent twenty-five years in the army, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and is now a recognized expert on national security, had a response to the President’s lecture:
Obama saved his greatest invectives for attacking anyone who criticized him for not naming the enemy—and anyone using the term “radical Islam.” In the most superficial way, he is right. Mouthing those words doesn’t shift the calculus of war any more than calling the German war machine Nazis got GIs up the cliffs of Normandy. But. . . . the debate over words reflects a deeper concern. [Americans worry] that Obama is not prosecuting a winning war. . . . Worse, Obama implied that disagreeing was “un-American” and anti-Muslim. He ignored the fact that many who use the term “radical Islam” add the qualifier “radical” to differentiate the Islamist threat from the global Muslim community. By labeling his detractors racists and know-nothings, he simply reinforces what many Americans already believe: Obama is a divider, not a uniter.
That much was clear in the rest of Obama’s speech, which assailed his opponents for not enacting more gun control (even as liberal sources admit that such legislation could hardly prevent more domestic terrorism).
But what is most disappointing about President Obama’s attitude toward radical Islamic terrorism, and his critics, is his consistent refusal to admit his mistakes and accept responsibility for his administration’s actions. As the historian Niall Ferguson recently commented, a much-discussed profile of Obama in the Atlantic “reveals a President in denial about the consequences of his own sins of omission and commission. Everyone is to blame—everyone but him.”
For a President who once referred to the Islamic state as “the JV team,” and whose policies toward Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Russia have been severely criticized by a broad spectrum of Americans and allies abroad, Obama is not in a strong position to be lecturing the country. Nor should he—or any American leader—be exploiting the massacre in Orlando for political purposes.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.