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Obama's ISIS Confession and Winston Churchill's Nazi Crisis

Kudos for presidential candor; raspberries for presidential indiscretion.

Wallace Henley Portrait
Wallace Henley is an exclusive CP columnist. |

President Obama, in a recent CBS "60 Minutes" interview, confessed that the U.S. government underestimated ISIS' strength and overestimated the will and ability of the Iraqi military to resist.

Mr. Obama is to be congratulated for his frank assessment of the situation, but his indiscretion regarding the time, place, and reason for his confession is disturbing. When that reality began to sink in on the West Wing, there was much scurrying, shuffling, and buck-passing. Actually, the White House alleged, the wrong estimates came from the intelligence community on which the President depends, and especially its head, James Clapper.

Eli Lake, writing in The Daily Beast, points out that accusation won't stand in light of the facts. "Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama's senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move," notes Lake. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, in testimony prepared in January-February for congressional intelligence committees, said, as reported by Lake, that ISIS "would likely make a grab for land before the end of the year."

The President's honest assessment of reasons for his administration's slow response –especially in light of the facts known all along – is to be applauded. However, a global television medium is not the place to reveal weaknesses in a nation's intelligence-gathering and defense capacities. The proper place for such soul-baring, blame-fixing, hand-wringing, and solution-searching is the National Security Council and the top tiers of the intelligence community.

That said, we must also congratulate the President on finally embracing some aspect of American exceptionalism. The military actions against ISIS-ISIL do not constitute a war against the terrorist organization, he said. "This is not a war (in Iraq) against ISIL," but is "America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership."

Then came the tip-of-the-hat to America's special role in global affairs. America's taking the lead in crises like the current one is "always the case," said the President. "We are the indispensable nation" because of our military strength. (Emphasis added) Thus, "when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don't call Beijing," said the President. "They don't call Moscow. They call us."

Odd words for a President who has labored – rightly or wrongly – to reduce American hegemony, denied – rightly or wrongly – American exceptionalism, and dramatically cut the nation's military strength.

The current ruckus over who underestimated and overestimated what, and what America's international role should be, is not the largest issue. It is but a symptom of the deeper ailment that afflicts the Obama administration and infects foreign policy.

To understand this demands a broader perspective. Winston Churchill once exhorted people to study history, for therein lie "the secrets of statecraft." Churchill, an accomplished historian, believed that history repeats itself thematically, while events themselves are different in various ages.

As the truth about Nazi power that many British observers had "underestimated," and the willingness of would-be allies (like France) to resist had been "overestimated," Churchill laid the bare truth before Parliament: "When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story." (Emphasis added)

Churchill could have been speaking of the contemporary situation when he said: "Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history."

In 1935, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin made a confession much like that just offered by President Obama. Parliament and the nation were shocked as the British leader revealed that the Germans had achieved air parity with Great Britain – something Baldwin had promised six months earlier he would never allow to happen.

"I confess that words fail me," said Churchill, on May 2, 1935, when he rose to speak in the House of Commons. Then he gave Parliament a history lesson:

"In the year 1708 Mr. Secretary St. John, by a calculated Ministerial indiscretion, revealed to the House the fact that the battle of Almanza had been lost in the previous summer because only 8,000 English troops were actually in Spain out of 29,000 that had been voted by the House of Commons for that service. When a month later this revelation was confirmed by the Government, it is recorded that the House sat in silence for half an hour, no Member caring or wishing to make a comment upon so staggering an announcement. And yet how incomparably small that event was to what we now have to face."

If we can believe it, the current crisis is even greater than that looming before Britain and the world in 1935. Washington, the nation, and America's coalition partners need to pause and contemplate the grave implications of "so staggering an announcement" that has come from President Obama.

And do a lot of praying.

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