Jules Witcover

The news of another foiled suicide attack on an American airliner in flight has triggered a new political headache for President Obama, on top of his already overloaded plate of challenges.

Some Republican members of Congress have seized on the frightening incident to accuse the Obama administration of security laxness if not downright neglect. The charge was augmented by the hasty assurance of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, later withdrawn, that "the system worked."

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan criticized her agency as seeing the threat as merely a problem of "law enforcement." And Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina accused the Obama administration of practicing "politics as usual," though it is he who has blocked the nomination of a new chief for the Transportation Security Administration.

DeMint says the Obama nominee, Erroll Southers, a security expert for the Los Angeles International Airport's Police Department, would permit unionizing of the TSA, alleging it would put security in the hands of organized labor leaders, presumably a very bad thing.

In the face of such allegations, President Obama from his holiday vacation in Hawaii has invoked his calming talents in ordering a review of security procedures and safeguards while assuring Americans of continued governmental vigilance.

But the untimely attempt at airborne mayhem on a plane approaching arrival at the main Detroit airport caused airline stocks to slide, and it has added additional tension to traveling Americans in the heavy holiday season. All this as Obama's own stock in the polls has been heading south.

Yet if there is any mitigating circumstance to the president's latest woes, it may be in validating his major decision to refocus the war in Afghanistan away from the nation-building emphasis of the Bush administration, to a more determined priority to target the al-Qaida and associated terrorist perils.

So far, most of the attention in Obama's Afghanistan policy review has gone to his agreement to send 30,000 more American forces into the country, a near-acquiescence to the request of the U.S. commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But more significant has been the augmented strategy coming out of that review.

Obama's approved surge for Afghanistan, unlike Bush's surge in Iraq, is not being advertised so much as a counterinsurgency strategy for all-out "victory" as a way to get back to the unfinished business of eradicating the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and subsequent outrages.

As a corollary to that shift in objective and strategy, greater emphasis is being placed on Pakistan, where it is believed the bulk of al-Qaida operatives are now located rather than in Afghanistan, as well as in other havens in the Persian Gulf region.

The reports that the foiled terrorist on Northwest Flight 253, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, operated from Yemen underscored that the threat to the United States and the West cannot be pinpointed to any one country, validating the Obama shift from nation-building in Afghanistan.

No assurance is possible that intensifying the search for Osama bin Laden and targeting al-Qaida camps and cells in Pakistan and elsewhere beyond Afghanistan will obliterate the terrorist campaign, any more than did the efforts during the Bush administration in Iraq.

It may well be that by July 2011, when the Obama review has projected a start to the withdrawal of the 30,000 new forces in Afghanistan, the United States will still be enmeshed in frustration and terrorist peril from the Gulf region.

But for now, the president's decision to refocus on the original justification and rationale for America going to war in 2001 can be more defensible in coping with growing criticism in his own Democratic Party, particularly among liberals. They have long argued that the diversion into Iraq was a colossal blunder, no matter how it ends up.

Meanwhile, it's clear new thinking and improved detection technologies are required in the whole matter of airport security, into which untold billions of dollars have been poured. Obama's calming words will not be enough to cope with renewed jitters among a constantly traveling American public.








Northwest Flight 253: Targeting the Prime Enemy | Jules Witcover