November 12, 2009 | Forbes.copom

Fog Of War

There's been plenty of debate about President Barack Obama's omission of the word “terrorism” when he spoke Tuesday at Fort Hood to honor the 13 Americans shot to death and dozens wounded last week by a Muslim army psychiatrist, Nidal Hasan. More broadly troubling to my mind is a word that Obama did use: “incomprehensible.”

It came high in the speech. Having at least conceded that “This is a time of war” (instead of “overseas contingency operations”), Obama went on to note (italics mine):

“These Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of this great state and the heart of this great American community. This is the fact that makes the tragedy even more painful, even more incomprehensible.”

That might be language appropriate for a private conversation with the bereaved, whose interests may well center on the unfathomable ways of death and loss. But Obama was not holding a private conversation. Onstage at Fort Hood, he was speaking not only to the immediate survivors, but to the nation.

In that context, the death dealt out on a routine day, in deepest America, by the hand of someone yelling “Allahu Akbar,” is not only comprehensible, but a predictable feature of this war against the United States. We may not know exactly where or on which day the next attack will occur, or with what weapons. But this is a war of many dimensions, in which ideas preached in one part of the globe can translate swiftly into murder–more aptly known as terrorism–in another.

The modern world is not neatly partitioned into far-off fields of battle and secure, unreachable America. To some extent it never was, though the enemies of yore were more prone to at least declare themselves by wearing enemy uniforms. Thus did the British burn the White House in 1814, and the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1941. But any remaining doubts about the global reach of modern battle should have been entirely removed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as ash blanketed lower Manhattan and the Pentagon burned.

If that truth seems too obvious to bear repeating, then why, at a freighted emotional moment, in a speech watched by the world, does it elude the president of the United States?

The main lesson centers not on Hasan, but on the ease with which Hasan–born here in America–came into contact with the jihadi milieu. It is now emerging that from the comfort of his home turf, Hasan was in touch by e-mail with a terrorist-recruiting imam in Yemen, Anwar al Awlaki, who in turn has been part of a terrorist web extending from plots to attack Fort Dix, in New Jersey, to the Canadian parliament and prime minister. The same imam turns up in the 9/11 Commission report, his name transliterated there as Anwar Aulaqi, based eight years ago at the Dar al Hijra mosque in Falls Church, Va., where two of the Sept. 11 hijackers dropped by in spring 2001.

This is just a small sample of the reach and mobility of murderous jihadi networks in today's hi-tech world. And the hell of it is, they learn from each other. It's a good bet that while Americans are delving into how the military might have stopped Hasan in time, America's enemies are studying this bloody episode to understand how they can inspire more. Whatever Hasan's actual motivations–whether chemically unbalanced delusions, or cold calculation–the results are clear. It's another good bet that clips and articles on Hasan's kill rate at Fort Hood will play worldwide among the jihadi set as recruiting materials.

President Bush understood this, and during his first term pushed the frontlines of this war back from New York, Washington and skies over Pennsylvania to the home turf of America's enemies. He toppled two of America's most aggressive and brutal foes–Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the al-Qaida-hosting Taliban in Afghanistan. He cowed and harassed their despotic brethren with his push to promote their worst nightmare: freedom for their own people. Conclude what you like about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, or lack of; the record shows that for the duration of Bush's gunslinger presidency, America itself did not suffer the further massive terrorist onslaughts so widely feared in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.

But what now? During his campaign, Obama advertised himself as a citizen of the world, underscoring that claim with a speech before Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, as well as a visit to Afghanistan. But once in office, he has remained fastidiously distant in various ways from the world's real hot spots. In his rhetoric and deeds, he has distanced himself from the mass protests in Iran. As president, he has yet to go to Afghanistan–where Americans under his command are dying for their country. Having turned the site of the Berlin Wall into a campaign backdrop, he decided to skip a return trip to Berlin this Monday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the actual fall of the wall. (See “Twenty Years Without The Wall.”)

Now comes Obama's formulation that the deaths at Fort Hood make no sense because they did not come on “a foreign field of battle.” This sounds oddly quaint in an age when the battles more than ever before are global and involve a war of ideas, which enemies of America have already projected into the heart of a slew of American communities. To be sure, near the end of his speech Obama–as he is wont to do–then said the opposite of his opening remark, mentioning “a world of threats that know no borders.” That does not erase the garble with which he began.

In the media, the question of the hour is how the military could have missed the warning signs of Hasan's impending attack. Such details are important, and it would be a great idea to have better mechanisms (or any mechanisms at all?) within the military to catch the warning signs and act in time. But vigilance of that kind starts at the top. Right now the biggest warning sign of all is a president who looks at a pattern of jihadi communications, recruiting and attacks on America, and tells the public that the bloodshed at Fort Hood is “incomprehensible.” Not for the first time, the system is blinking red.

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