In many ways, the reaction to the horrific attacks in Paris has been familiar. There were the expressions of solidarity: flowers at French embassies; social media avatars changed from silly selfies to photos of the French flag snapping defiantly in the wind; buildings across the Western world lit up in red, white, and blue; spontaneous and deeply moving renditions of the national anthem, sung by spectators being evacuated from a soccer match at the Stade de France, site of one of the attacks, and three days later by French legislators after President François Hollande addressed them at Versailles.
There were glimpses of the attacks themselves: gut-wrenching descriptions of sudden horror from eye-witnesses; cell-phone videos capturing slices of the chaos and carnage; photos of rescue workers walking gingerly through broken glass and torn clothing and human flesh; and, later, the emotional remembrances of those lost, by friends and relatives whose ordinary Friday had just become the worst day of their lives.
And, of course, there were the condemnations and declarations of resolve from Western leaders: The world must not tolerate such barbaric acts; together we will fight those who have carried out such unfathomable deeds; we will work with the international community against terrorism; and on it goes.
President Obama’s words on the night of the attacks were familiar, too. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to work with the French people and with nations around the world to bring these terrorists to justice, and to go after any terrorist networks that go after our people.”
They were meant to be reassuring, but rang hollow. Nobody expected that the United States under Barack Obama would actually “do whatever it takes” to win a war the president has long neglected. Even his mouthing of the promise seemed perfunctory—a man saying what the president is supposed to say in such a moment, rather than a leader announcing a new American resolve in the long war against jihadism.
Obama validated this skepticism in short order. Three days after the Paris massacre, as President Hollande was calling the slaughter an “act of war” and preparing a full-scale international response, Obama gave a bizarre press conference in which he made clear that for him nothing had changed.
Speaking to reporters at the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Obama said that, while the Paris attacks might have been a “setback” for his ISIS strategy, they would not change it. When reporters expressed surprise at his continued embrace of an approach that was failing, he lashed out at them for daring to question him. At a time when an American president might have been expected to show some righteous anger at the attackers and those who enabled them, Obama instead directed his fury towards critics at home who worry about jihadist violence against the homeland. It was a shameful spectacle, and a revealing one.
Barack Obama remains committed to a failed strategy against an enemy he has long underestimated in a war he has no plans to win. Nothing has changed. And this time, what’s past truly is prologue.
In an interview with ABC News the day before Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists killed more than 130 people in multiple, coordinated attacks in Paris, Obama told George Stephanopoulos that the terror group had been “contained.” Stephanopoulos had asked Obama a straightforward question: “ISIS is gaining strength, aren’t they?”
“Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” Obama responded. “What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria they’ll come in, they’ll leave. But you don’t see this systematic march by [ISIS] across the terrain. What we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their command and control structures. We’ve made some progress in trying to reduce the flow of foreign fighters.”