Rarely has an American president displayed the capacity to carve memorable phrases out of the oak wood of the English language. Abraham Lincoln was one exception, reared on Shakespeare and the King James Bible, stump-trained through his peregrinating debates with Stephen A. Douglas, and brought to the heights of moral discourse by the challenge of the American Civil War and the bloodbath of Gettysburg.
Barack Obama’s own rise in public life has also turned on his command of the King’s English — as editor of the law review at Harvard, as an autobiographer, and as an electoral candidate with the chops to choose his own words for the campaign trail. Ted Sorensen and Richard Goodwin wrote the lines that burnished President John Kennedy’s reputation. But the current resident of the White House has the cadence to write his own stuff. Even for listeners who find the timbre of his voice a bit thin, the prose can be evocative.
Yet from the beginning, there was a whisper that Mr. Obama was not quite ready for the presidency — a view expressed by some supporters as well as opponents — based on the fact that he had not knocked about the world quite enough, nor dealt with the misshapen and aberrant men and groups who often start foreign conflicts. It is a regrettable fact that martial opponents do not always respond to a well-turned phrase or an outstretched hand. At times, a more kinetic language of action and deterrence is required. This realization may come most reluctantly to people who believe in the power of reason.
Both aspects of this presidency were in evidence in the May 23, 2013, address on war and terrorism delivered at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. — a military institution located on a promontory point of the Potomac River, well-situated in the nineteenth century to repel any foreign navy that might be tempted to bombard the nation’s capital.
As the president’s military audience bluntly knew, the continuing fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been costly and difficult to sustain. We saw no choice when Mullah Omar continued to provide a safe haven in Afghanistan for the al Qaeda terrorist group and its leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001, attacks against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers — attacks that were intended to kill many thousands of people and decapitate the American government. The ghastly innovation of using fully-fueled civilian jetliners as aerial bombs amounted to a grotesque act of war. The attacks made plain that the radicalization of thought among insurgent groups, inspired by the nihilistic preaching of the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, was a dreadful and deadly force when combined with the failure of many North African, Middle Eastern and Asian economies to provide employment for young men. Until then, we had not apprehended the full threat of this explosive combination, seeing terrorist incidents instead as singular and local, rather than as a global movement. The organizational ingenuity of Osama bin Laden was not acknowledged when we boggled a chance to target him in the late 1990s.