Let me say up front, I don't think President Obama is to blame for the Fort Hood shootings, and I don't think it's fair to say otherwise.
But (you knew there had to be a "but") that doesn't mean Obama won't pay a political price for Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's rampage.
At first blush, it seems distasteful to take a political yardstick to the pain suffered at Fort Hood. But if we are to consider this incident part of the bloody tapestry of the larger war on terror, there's no way to separate it from politics. After all, the war on terror has been driving politics in America for the better part of a decade now.
And that might offer insight into why so many are eager to make the massacre a story about the psychological breakdown of a man who just happened to be a Muslim.
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If this is just another incident where a deranged man went "postal" at his office, then there's no reason to second-guess the Obama administration's fairly relentless effort to dismantle the war on terror.
That effort stems from what Obama believes to be a sweeping mandate to be Not George Bush. In pursuit of that mandate, the White House has already purged the phrase "war on terror" from its lexicon, preferring "overseas contingency operations." Obama is hell-bent on closing Guantanamo Bay, is making progress on the White House project to treat terrorists as mere criminals, and has kowtowed to the United Nations as no president has. Meanwhile, his secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, says that Islamic terrorism like we saw on Sept. 11 should now be referred to as "man-caused disasters." But she adds that American right-wingers must be scrutinized as potential terrorists.
All of these moves seemed politically palatable for a war-weary country that felt, rightly or wrongly, as if we'd made it through the worst of it. It was time for a makeover of our political house. The problem is that, rather than merely throw on a fresh coat of paint and lay down some new carpeting, Obama is going after load-bearing walls and structural beams. And if the war on terror refuses to go away as easily as the phrase we use for it did, the whole edifice of the Obama administration could come crashing down.
For instance, it seems likely that Obama has already suffered a rhetorical defeat. Whatever his faults, President Bush got to say one thing that the American people always appreciated: After Sept. 11, he kept us safe from a terrorist attack on the homeland. If Hasan acted as a jihadist terrorist and not a disgruntled psychiatrist, Obama can't even make the same claim about his first year in office.
More substantively, Obama has had the luxury of exploiting his predecessor's success. His actions on Guantanamo, his mea culpas for America to the Muslim world, etc., have only been possible in a political environment absent domestic terrorist attacks. As it stands, Hasan may have been a one-off, an isolated incident. Let's hope that's the case, but let's not delude ourselves that this is likely.
Yet if we see more of this sort of thing, the underpinnings of Obama's national-security posture may well disintegrate. His reputation for flexibility notwithstanding, the record shows that he is, in fact, implacably ideological when it comes to his core beliefs. If terrorism drives the country rightward, he may well choose to stand his ground. That's what he's done with the domestic crisis. While the country has been screaming for Washington to concentrate on fixing the economy and the unemployment rate, Obama and his party have rigidly focused on their health care schemes and cap-and-trade — which, even if they work, will do nothing to fix joblessness in the near future.
Conversely, if the "Hasanity defense" prevails, and the left convinces the country — or even itself — that the shootings were a tragic byproduct of two unnecessary wars, the president will still be in a bind. Particularly among Obama's core supporters, the notion that violence only begets more violence is as popular as it is untrue.
Early reports suggested that Hasan was driven to his murder spree out of frustration with Obama's refusal to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan fast enough. If Obama's base believes that line of argument — which is essentially a "blame Bush" argument — it will only intensify the opposition to escalation in Afghanistan. If Obama goes ahead with escalation anyway, the prospect of "LBJ redux" increases.
If the majority of Americans had thought in 2008 that the war on terror was a top priority, they wouldn't have voted for Obama. It only makes sense that if the war on terror once again becomes a top priority, they'll most likely regret their vote.