President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address on Sunday wasn’t so awful as we had feared, and probably won’t prove so awful as the last one, in which he proudly announced the full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, but that’s not saying much. Although we couldn’t bring ourselves to watch it, and therefore missed out on the reportedly unsettling and thus far unexplained sight of him standing before his desk rather than seated at the usual president position behind it, our reading of the transcript was not reassuring.
The speech begins by noting the ethnic diversity of the victims of Wednesday’s massacre in San Bernardino, California, as if that somehow makes it worse than a more homogenous slaughter, but at least it was quickly followed with a frank admission that what happened was an act of terrorism. By now the facts of the matter are so well-established and widely-reported that even Obama’s stubborn instincts cannot deny them, but we’ll credit him for at long last acknowledging the well-established and widely-reported fact that the long-ago massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, was also an act of terrorism. All of our ex-alcoholic pals tell us that the first step toward recovery is admitting there is a problem, so we are heartened to see that after seven years in office the president has taken a nudge in that direction. He even acknowledged that the previously unspecific sort of terrorism had something to do with “a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the west.”
We’re assured that for the past seven years the president has “confronted this threat each morning in my intelligence briefing,” but we can’t help recalling the Government Accountability Office’s reports that the president had been skipping 58 percent of those briefings, or the more recent reports that he only listens to information regarding a limited number of groups that he considers a terror threat, so we’re not convinced. The president also noted that “our success won’t depend on tough talk,” so neither were were convinced by the tougher than usual talk that followed.
There was a promise that “our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary,” but given the president’s previous scoffing about military solutions, and his continued insistence that air strikes and special forces will suffice, again we are not confident. There was also a promise to continue to provide training and assistance to “tens of thousands” of supposedly moderate Syrian rebels, but given the junk we’ve been providing our supposedly moderate friends in Ukraine, and the less-than-ten fighters we’ve actually had on the ground recently, that also seems a bad bet.
A third promise made was that America will step up its offensive against the Islamic State, which the president consistently refers to by the unusual acronym ISIL for fear of mentioning that first word, and he notes that our cooperation with Turkey and France has lately increased, and although he doesn’t mention Russia, which has also lately suffered from Islamic State’s now-global terror network, we can believe that there’s now sufficient international political pressure for Obama to keep that promise. Whether he knows how to do it without strengthening the hands of Turkey and Russia and Iran and other players in the region remains to be seen, and past history suggests otherwise, but at least its a somewhat hopeful development.
The fourth promise was that “with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process — and timeline — to pursue ceasefires and a political solution to the Syrian civil war.” This, of course, inspires no confidence at all. There was some hopeful talk about “reviewing” the procedures that waived in one of the San Bernardino killers on a passport from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or some other unestablished Middle Eastern problem country, but no mention of whether the many thousands of refugees from similarly problematic countries will also be subjected to these improved methods.
Of course there was some talk about what do back here in the homeland, and that was the least inspiring portion of the speech. There was the predictable call to deny gun sales to anyone on the “no-fly list,” even though the “no-fly list” is such a ridiculous compilation of random names that now includes numerous employees of the Homeland Security Department and once included Sen. Ted Kennedy and could easily include you if you’re annoyed office mate decides to make an anonymous call and was until recent an outrage to the leftward side of civil libertarian movement, but at least there weren’t any threats of an executive action to repeal the Second Amendment. There was a call to make it harder to purchase the sort of “assault weapons” that were used in the attack, which aren’t really assault weapons and are currently owned by millions of law-abiding Americans who might wind up using them against the next attackers, but it did seem rather perfunctory.
Of course there was the obligatory scolding about how “it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.” It was all rather mild compared to his Attorney General’s previous speech threatening to prosecute any remarks about Islam that “edge toward violence,” and to literally make a federal case out of any playground comments that might be construed as anti-Islamic bullying, but it still suggested a certain tolerance of even the most perverted interpretations of Islam. The obligatory call for religious tolerance omitted any condemnation of anti-Jewish bigotry, even though Jews are the most frequent victims of religious hate crimes in America, and there was no condemnation of the New York Daily News’ sneering dismissal of the thoughts and prayers of Republicans or its editorial claiming that one of the San Bernardino victims was no better than his killer because of his proud statements on behalf of Jewish heritage and Christian beliefs, and we would have preferred an acknowledgment of how very tolerant America has been over the past two decades of Islamist terrorism rather than another unnecessary scolding.
The speech ended with the president saying “may God bless the United States of America,” and although his more secular admirers were probably irked by it at least we took some comfort in that.
— Bud Norman