the national interest

Karl Rove: Obama Should React to Terrorism Like Bush Did

USA - Aspen Ideas Festival 2013
Karl Rove wants to see more panic. Photo: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

The typical leitmotif of a Karl Rove column weaves together some combination of delusional optimism about Republican prospects in the next election with hilariously amnesiac attacks on President Obama for allegedly doing things that were in fact done by the president under which Rove served. Today’s column features plenty of the latter, calling Obama “anti-empirical,” accusing him of ignoring the long-term debt and having the insensitivity to take a vacation when the world is not a safe place. But it also refreshingly departs from the formula to lambaste Obama for doing something that George W. Bush never did: maintain calm in the face of terrorism.

The subject of Rove’s ire is a recent interview the president gave with NPR’s Steve Inskeep in which, while touting his strategy to defeat ISIS, called for some perspective. Inskeep brought up the threat posed by the Soviet Union, which Obama used as a point of comparison:

But it is also important for us to keep things in perspective, and this is not an organization that can destroy the United States. This is not a huge industrial power that can pose great risks to us institutionally or in a systematic way. But they can hurt us, and they can hurt our people and our families. And so I understand why people are worried.

And so I understand why people are concerned about it, and this is a serious situation, but what is important is for people to recognize that the power, the strength of the United States and its allies are not threatened by an organization like this; in the same way that al-Qaida was able to carry out one spectacular attack, we ended up making some significant changes to harden homeland defenses. It then took a while for us to ultimately snuff out core al-Qaida in the FATA, and there are still lingering remnants, but at no point was there ever a sense that in fact it could do catastrophic damage to us.

Rove snaps back, “Mr. Obama should try telling the families of the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11, and the Americans who saw two great buildings topple, that al Qaeda’s attacks that day were not ‘catastrophic.’”

Rove’s invocation of 9/11 raises an interesting historical contrast. Obviously, even a single death is catastrophic for the families of its victim. Obama draws a distinction between a “spectacular” attack like 9/11 and a “catastrophic” one, by which he presumably has in mind a nuclear attack like the Soviet Union was capable of making. When Rove disagrees, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. The Bush administration responded to the 9/11 attacks with completely genuine wild-eyed panic, lashing out with a series of hyperaggressive moves that ultimately made the problem far worse.

Tellingly, nothing in Rove’s column takes any specific issue with any element of the Obama administration’s strategy. What vexes him is Obama’s state of mind, the notion that he sees his role as calming panic rather than stoking it with displays of hypernationalism and inscrutable color-coded Homeland Security warnings. Surely Rove’s position grows out of his belief that the Bush administration was a success in Keeping Us Safe, rather than a comprehensive failure.

Rove: Obama Should React to Terrorism Like Bush