President Obama appears to be backing away from his often-stated claim – a cornerstone of his 2012 campaign – that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat.”
In a subtle but important shift three days ago during remarks nominating Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to be Secretary of State, Obama revised the assertion, stipulating that “the al Qaeda core is on the path to defeat.”
The addition of one word to Obama’s usual statement may seem a small matter. But the president chooses his words very carefully, particularly in prepared remarks. And the insertion of the word “core” probably represents a major reassessment by the administration of al Qaeda’s overall strength and durability, a change in outlook that could have a significant impact on U.S. anti-terrorism policy going forward.
Use of the word “core” implies that while the administration is having success against the al Qaeda leadership, al Qaeda’s far-flung affiliates – like the ones that carried out the Benghazi attack – are not on the “path to defeat.” And therefore in a larger sense, the claim made during the campaign that al Qaeda itself is on the path to defeat is no longer considered true by the White House.
Such a shift would not have been made without a major change in thinking within the White House itself. It represents an acknowledgement that, with al Qaeda affiliates still able to inflict damage and casualties against the United States, the war against terrorism will be a longer and more difficult road than previously thought.
When the change in thinking occurred – and whether it is mainly a result of the Benghazi attack – is unclear. What is clear is that the White House waited until after the campaign was over to convey its new position to the public.
Even on the very last day of the campaign – nearly two months after the Benghazi attack – Obama was saying, as he did to an audience in Columbus, Ohio, that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat.”
That phrase, it would appear, is no longer operative.