By the close of President Obama’s State of the Union address, I was drawn to aspects concerning terrorists and extremist organizations worldwide. As I listened, I realized that I was experiencing deja vu (more on that in a moment). 

Two specific lines from his speech caused this feeling:

“Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.”

“America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”

This feeling was solidified by a couple observations.  First, was the near absence of the foreign policy/national security narrative.  Yes, there were some points made and passing references to these issues, but in the context of the overall tenor of the speech, it was almost an afterthought, with emphasis on claiming political wins over letting the American people know what we are really up against in the rest of the decade.  There was talk of smart leadership, but again, that seemed more concept or belief than strategy or doctrine. 

My second observation was in how certain issues were addressed, one example of which was ISIS.  The President stated:

“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”

There are significant arguments against whether we are actually stopping ISIL’s advance.  But what truly gave me pause was the emphasis on not doing something (getting into another ground war) and that we were fighting a terrorist group, with a secondary thought that their ideology was bankrupt. 

Although I agree with the President on Islamic extremism’ ideology as bankrupt, the thought that we can “degrade and ultimately destroy” this terrorist group as the end of the problem is naive.  If we want to end the current expansion of Islamic extremism, we need to deal directly with the root causes of the expansion and growing popularity of Salafi and Wahhabi tenets.  The fact that we have concentrated for the past 14 years on degrading and destroying “core al-Qaeda,” seems of little consequence as we watch our efforts in Iraq/Syria, the rise of violence by Boko Haram in Africa, and increased tensions and alerts worldwide.

I thought that, perhaps I was being too critical and misread the message.  Then I read a good article by Dana Milbank with the Washington Post, written shortly after the President’s address. In it, Milbank compares America’s feelings today (as reflected in the President’s speech) with Britain misreading signs of the importance of the rise of the Nazis prior to World War II, as written by Winston Churchill. As Milbank notes:

“Not since before the 2001 terrorist attacks has there been such a disconnect between the nation’s focus and the condition of the world . . . With national leaders averting their gaze from terrorism, only 2 percent of the American public says terrorism is the top problem facing the nation, according to a Gallup poll this month. That compares with 46 percent in October 2001, 19 percent in 2004, 8 percent in 2010 and 4 percent last year. Only 1 percent said the Islamic State is the top problem, and 2 percent cited national security generally — vs. 3 in 10 who cited economic issues.”

This brings me to my deja vu moment.  Twenty years ago, when I arrived on Capitol Hill as a professional staff member on the House Intelligence Committee, I distinctly remember the shock of realizing that we not only reduced our Intelligence capabilities from 1991, we decimated them.  At the end of the Cold War in the early 1990’s, we, as a nation, decided that, having defeated our primary adversary, we could close that chapter in history and move on to more peaceful and prosperous times.  As a nation — with full by-in from both Republicans and Democrats, and both the Executive and Legislative Branches of government — we decided that we could dramatically scale back on some key instruments of national security.  This included, mostly notably, defense and intelligence.  After all, we won the Cold War and we deserved a “peace dividend.”

We immediately attempted to sound the alarm with leadership in the Congress who supported our analysis and understanding of the situation.  Likewise, we engaged with the White House, but not with the same success.  In fact, we were basically told to go away.  The President’s agenda was nearly entirely focused on domestic issues, and nothing would dissuade anyone in the White House from deviating on “what the American people wanted and expected.” 

There was even a period when the leadership of the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community was told that they were not to ask for more money than was being requested in the President’s budget (a typical occurrence), but also not to discuss any shortfalls or potential gaps in capabilities, as this could divert funding from domestic issues.  And regardless of the various details about the Intelligence Community in the 9/11 report, to this day I hold to the belief that the root cause of our inability to detect and stop the terrorist attack on 9/11 was our desire to shy away from taking a leading role in world events and wanting desperately to focus on our domestic agenda and events within our borders.

Fast-forward 20 years, to Milbank’s abovementioned observation. It makes me wonder whether we will later harken back to the words of George Santayana who wrote (in The Life of Reason, 1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Dana Milbank had the same thought, stating, “If — God forbid — terrorists do here what they did in Paris and attempted in Brussels, the State of the Union in 2015 will be remembered as complacent.”