For starters, insert your favorite quote about history repeating itself. We'll go with the Sage of Yankee Stadium and his famous observation about it being "deja vu all over again."
Watching the news in recent weeks, it's very easy to come away with a sense of foreboding and belief that we've been down this path before. All the signs seem strangely familiar and point in the same, ominous direction; something terrible--perhaps cataclysmic--is about to happen, yet western leaders (particularly those in Washington, D.C.) seem unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
The timing is eerie, to say the least. August saw the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, a conflict that the great powers literally stumbled into. Long-standing alliances and opportunism took precedence over reason and caution, setting the stage for a catastrophe that killed 20 million people.
And this week marked 75 years since Germany's invasion of Poland, igniting World War II, an even greater conflagration that claimed three times as many lives. The virulent strains of fascism and communism that helped precipitate the conflict sprang directly from the ashes of the first war, along with western timidity that merely encouraged the aggressors.
Eleven decades later, it appears that little has changed. Fresh off last week's admission by the Commander-in-Chief that we still lack a strategy for dealing with ISIS, came this disturbing revelation from Fox News:
President Obama was given detailed and specific intelligence about the rise of the Islamic State as part of his daily briefing for at least a year before the group seized large swaths of territory over the summer, a former Pentagon official told Fox News.
The official -- who asked not to be identified because the President's Daily Brief is considered the most authoritative, classified intelligence community product analyzing sensitive international events for the president -- said the data was strong and "granular" in detail.
The source said a policymaker "could not come away with any other impression: This is getting bad."
Obama, unlike his predecessors who traditionally had the document briefed to them, is known to personally read the daily brief. The former Pentagon official, who has knowledge of the process, said Obama generally was not known to come back to the intelligence community with further requests for information based on the daily report.
Obviously, it's more difficult to formulate a strategy if you're not paying attention to the threat. The FNC report also raises obvious questions as to whether the President is actually reading his daily brief; while intelligence analysts were painting an increasingly grim picture of ISIS and its capabilities, Mr. Obama was dismissing them as the terrorist "jayvee team."
But the fatal combination of inattention and inactivity goes much deeper than that. The information leaked to Fox was essentially a preemptive "cover your backside" move by the intelligence community. Amid very real concerns that ISIS will soon strike in western Europe and the United States, the spooks are letting it be known that they sounded the alarm--and President Obama ignored their warnings.
In recent days, there have been warnings that ISIS cells are now operating along the U.S. border with Mexico, while some intelligence analysts believe the group's operatives have already reached American soil. Former CIA officer Bob Baer recently told CNN that members of ISIS are inside our borders and capable of launching attacks:
"The people who collect tactical intelligence on the ground, day-to-day – and this isn't Washington – but people collecting this stuff say they're here, ISIS is here, they're capable of striking," said CNN national security analyst and former CIA operative Bob Baer.
"They don't know what their plans and intentions are. But it's a definite concern," said Baer.
U.S. intelligence agents are keeping an eye on suspected ISIS militants who they believe have come across the Mexican border, or are American citizens that have come back from Syria, says Baer.
"They can't prove it. They're waiting to get enough intelligence to actually run them in. And then there's the unknown, of how many people have come back they're not even aware of," said Baer.
"The people who do this for a living are very alarmed," he says.
Assuming Mr. Baer's sources are accurate--and at this point, there is no reason to believe they aren't--is it any wonder the intelligence community is already playing the "blame game" with the White House?
Yet, there are even more reasons to believe that trouble is looming. Other intel officials tell Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon that 11 Libyan jetliners went missing after Islamic militias took over the Tripoli Airport in July. Those aircraft pose an immediate threat to urban areas, oil fields and military facilities throughout the Middle East and Europe, raising the specter of airliners being used as guided missiles once again, just days before the 13th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.
Records indicate that Libya's two state-owned airlines had a total of 27 aircraft before the Tripoli Airport was closed, including three Airbus A330s and one A340, which have the range to reach targets in the United States. American intelligence agencies are attempting to account for all of the aircraft. While at least seven airliners were damaged during the airport takeover, the fact that so many went missing indicates that some terrorist organizations have personnel who are fully-qualified pilots, capable of carrying out jetliner-based plots over long distances.
Here at home, security officials have confirmed that a U.S. resident who died while fighting for ISIS in Syria previously worked at the Minneapolis airport. Abdirahmaan Muhumed, a member of the local Somali community, had a job cleaning planes at the airport before joining ISIS. Two former co-workers told KMSP-TV that Muhummed passed a background check before being hired by a subsidiary of Delta airlines, which gave him "unfettered" access to aircraft and the tarmac. It's unclear how long the man worked at the Minneapolis airport, or when he departed for Syria. Law enforcement sources estimate that at least 15 Somalis have left Minnesota to enlist with ISIS.
In fairness, it obviously isn't the President's job to track individual, home-grown jihadists, or determine the whereabouts of those missing aircraft. But it is his duty to set policies that deal with emerging threats in an effective manner, and that is where Mr. Obama has been sadly lacking. Even today, he couldn't articulate an objective for handling ISIS. At one point during his Baltic visit, President Obama said our goal is to eradicate the terrorist group; moments later, he suggested that containment and "management of the problem" represented our objective. The terms are not interchangeable and don't believe the President's fumbling response didn't register with our enemies--in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It's also a presidential responsibility to acknowledge policy mistakes (at least privately) and make the necessary adjustments. One reason we have terrorists diving into our embassy pool in Tripoli is that Mr. Obama (along with other western leaders) saw an opportunity to knock off Mommar Qadhafi a few years ago, with little regard for what might replace him. Similar events have unfolded in Syria; the President drew his famous line in the sand and promptly erased it; promises to hold Bashir Assad accountable came to naught, as did pledges to fully arm "moderate" elements in the Syrian resistance. As those groups faded, ISIS filled the void--and that threat was subsequently ignored by the White House.
And we haven't broached the subject of Ukraine, where Russian troops (under the direction of Vladimir Putin) are now openly fighting alongside the separatists he supports. Mr. Obama is supposed to discuss that subject tomorrow, at a NATO summit in Wales. So far, the western alliance has imposed tighter sanctions on the Russian economy, and announced plans for creation of a 4,000-member "rapid reaction force" that can (supposedly) respond to situations like the one in Ukraine.
That sounds like a rational approach, but is NATO in danger of writing operational checks it can't cash. The proposed force is, essentially, a combat brigade. Who is going to supply the troops (if you guessed that most will be Americans, move to the head of the class); when are they going to have an opportunity to train? How will they be transported to Ukraine, the Baltics or any other hotspot? It's worth remembering that only four of NATO's member states meet the alliance's minimum standards for defense expenditures. So, even if alliance members are willing, their contributions may be marginal, at best.
Employment represents an even greater challenge. Is NATO prepared to send it to Ukraine, where it might serve as a "speed bump" if Vladimir Putin decides to march on Kiev? Or how about the Baltics?
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are full members of the alliance, and protected by the mutual defense clause. Let's suppose that Putin generates a similar "rebellion" among Russian-speakers in one of those countries, which have virtually no defensive depth. What happens when Putin sends forces across a border in the Baltic state to protect ethnic Russians. Once again, the NATO rapid reaction force might be able to slow Putin's forces for a bit, while alliance leaders mull over the prospect of a much wider war.
To be sure, much of the Russian military remains poorly trained and equipped, but Putin wouldn't send those units on a drive towards Kiev, Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius. And with his geographical advantages, the Russian leader could mount such an attack with limited strategic warning, while NATO scrambles to deploy forces with long supply lines, dangerously close to hostile territory. Assuming, of course, that NATO elects to intervene.
The former KGB Colonel who reigns in the Kremlin knows better. That's one reason he unleashed his surrogates in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine; Mr. Putin has called the west's bluff, knowing that NATO takes its lead from Washington, and current American leadership can't even articulate an operational objective for dealing with ISIS, let alone broad strategy for crushing the terrorists and checking Putin's efforts to gradually rebuild the Soviet Union.
Such is the state of American national security policy in the late summer of 2014: rudderless, feckless and completely incoherent. Sort of like the sweltering days of 1914, when Europeans marched off to war, not really sure how they arrived at that moment. Or that September day 25 years later, when years of dawdling and appeasement exploded into panzer columns advancing across the Polish frontier.
Seventy-five years later, a similar moment has arrived. Our enemies have selected their strategies and are proceeding with their plans while west hopes some grand coalition and over-arching strategy will magically appear.
Winston Churchill said it best, looking back on what he referred to as the "locust years" (1934-35) when European and American leaders squandered opportunities to acknowledge and prepare for the gathering storm. As he observed [they] "...decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for
drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent."
We know what happened then, just as we ominously await that which is about to come.
In today's column for the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer argues that Mr. Obama has a de facto strategy for Ukraine--he's already written it off:
Vladimir Putin’s invasion may be nothing new to Obama. For Ukraine,
it changed everything. Russia was on the verge of defeat. Now Ukraine
is. That’s why Ukraine is welcoming a cease-fire that amounts to
A month ago, Putin’s separatist proxies were
besieged and desperate. His invasion to the southeast saved them. It
diverted the Ukrainian military from Luhansk and Donetsk, allowing the
rebels to recover, while Russian armor rolled over Ukrainian forces,
jeopardizing their control of the entire southeast. Putin even boasted
that he could take Kiev in two weeks.
Why bother? He’s already fracturing and subjugating Ukraine, re-creating Novorossiya (“New Russia”), statehood for which is one of the issues that will be up for, yes, diplomacy.
makes incomprehensible Obama’s denial to Ukraine of even defensive
weapons — small arms, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Indeed, his
stunning passivity in the face of a dictionary-definition invasion has
not just confounded the Ukrainians. It has unnerved the East Europeans.
Hence Obama’s reassurances on his trip to the NATO summit in Wales.
up, Estonia. It seems to be Obama’s new red line. I’m sure they sleep
well tonight in Tallinn now that Obama has promised to stand with them.
(Remember the State Department hashtag #UnitedforUkraine?)
Yogi Berra was right: it is deja vu all over again.