Specifically: Mr. Obama believed that killing Osama bin Laden was a strategic victory. In fact, it was mainly a symbolic one (further undercut by his use of it as a political prop). He thought that ending the war in Iraq would help refocus U.S. efforts on Afghanistan. In fact, it showcased America’s lack of staying power and gave the Taliban additional motivation to hold out during the president’s halfhearted Afghan surge. He thought that substituting the Bush administration’s approach to detainees with an approach heavy on drones would earn America renewed goodwill on the Arab street. In fact, there was no goodwill to renew in the first place, and the U.S. is more unpopular in Pakistan and Egypt today than it was six years ago.
He believed that staying out—completely out—of the war in Syria would contain the war to Syria and spare American lives and efforts. In fact, the war has generated a brand new branch of al Qaeda in the Nusra Front, helped regenerate the once-moribund Iraqi branch, and attracted jihadist recruits from Europe who may one day return to put their acquired skills into practice.
Finally, Mr. Obama believed that defeating “core al Qaeda”—the group around Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Afghanistan—effectively meant defeating al Qaeda, even if a few of its lesser offshoots in Africa or the Arabian Peninsula survived. In fact, al Qaeda was designed not as an organization with subordinate branches, but as a model with multiple franchises—as Burger King not General Motors.
In his speech, Mr. Obama insisted that “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.” Yet if al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, or the Arabian Peninsula, or the Maghreb, or some as-yet unknown al Qaeda affiliate succeeds in bombing a U.S. embassy, taking down an airliner, or engineering a second 9/11, will it matter that the plot was hatched in Yemen or Somalia instead of Pakistan or Afghanistan?
Which brings us to the shortest distance in Washington: the one that runs between an Obama speech and the media’s memory of it. The speech at the National Defense University was billed as a major presidential address. A lengthy article in the New York Times, written days later, reported it was a “window into the presidential mind,” the result of “an exercise lasting months,” a matter not just of Mr. Obama’s policy, but of his very legacy.