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Obama and the Global War on Whatever

January 14, 2015

The non-appearance of President Barack Obama at last weekend’s Paris demo honoring the victims of the Charlie Hebdo assassination has been the subject of much piqued discussion, by no means exclusively on the Right. While I am always skeptical of marches-as-substitute-for-policy, image matters, especially when you’re the hegemon and the whole world is watching, and the no-show of any top-rank U.S. official in Paris or at the Washington, DC, demo either is puzzling, to say the least. I won’t even discuss that Attorney General Eric Holder was actually in Paris at the time yet somehow did not appear at the rally of world leaders.

As soon as it became obvious that this was a serious mistake, since one need not be a French official immersed with contempt for les Anglo-Saxons to find this a snub of a high order, the White House weirdly backtracked, but the damage was done. To be clear, the President is a very busy man and his no-show is understandable; that some other top official somehow could not be found to make the short jump to Paris is incomprehensible. Shows like this are what the Vice President is for, and I for one would have eagerly awaited what The Onion could have done with the Biden-in-Paris meme. And if Joe Biden wasn’t available, Bill Clinton always is, he lives for these kinds of photo ops, plus I’m sure Liz Warren’s exploratory committee would have been happy to foot the bill for Clinton Does Paris.

Instead: nobody. Why is a relevant question. The explanation widely proffered, that the White House “just goofed,” does not hold water, implying as it does that planning for the world’s biggest story last week was in the hands of a junior staffer, a twenty-three year-old without portfolio whose dad arranged a kick-ass potluck fundraiser in Ottumwa back in 2008. Not even this White House is that badly run. Besides, as this administration has been in place for six years, at this juncture it does not have “staff errors,” it has staffing errors.

There has been speculation that the Paris blow-off is of a piece with much of how Obama and his White House have approached the whole issue of terrorism. It’s no secret that Obama has long been impatient to move on from terrorism, especially Salafi jihadism, as a top national security problem. The killing of Osama bin Laden in mid-2011 was supposed to be the end of the war, per Obama’s wishes, but it has been nothing of the sort. Neither have ill-timed comments about the rising Islamic State being “the JV team” of Salafism exactly helped. As Byron York expressed it concisely:

So when the president chose not to attend the Paris march, nor to send the Vice President or Secretary of State, the problem wasn’t a tin-ear sense of public relations. It was Obama’s actual attitude toward the terror threat facing not only Europe but the United States. We’ve dealt with the big stuff, Obama has declared, now let’s move on.

It sounded good — until the bullets started flying.

Weird comments from the White House in recent days have only reinforced this narrative. Coordinating messages has been a particular challenge for this White House — again, six years in this is inexplicable — and at times Josh Earnest, the press secretary, seems to be working for a different administration. His comment this week that the term “radical Islam” is not used by this White House to describe Salafi jihadists has led to many questions, as it should.

To get my bias out there, I’ve been immersed with this issue since before 9/11. As someone who worked operational counterterrorism in the intelligence world, as well as later served as a consultant on the same to several agencies of the U.S. and Allied governments, I’ve been part of this debate virtually since its creation. The hours I have spent hashing out “strategic communication” strategies against Al-Qa’ida and its friends is nearly countless. My position is clear: Call terrorists what they call themselves. The U.S. Government has no reason to get involved in disputes about anybody’s religion — the very last thing we ever want to do is tell Muslims what their faith is or is not — but when bad guys say they’re Salafi jihadists, that means they probably are, and we must not be afraid to say so.

Lots of things motivate terrorists. Anarchists are motivated by anarchism, Irish nationalists are motivated by Irish nationalism, white supremacists are motivated by white supremacy, and Salafi jihadists are motivated by Salafi jihadism. This is only complicated if we choose to make it so. The loser-criminals who killed seventeen innocent people in Paris last weekend may be very bad Muslims, but they were Muslims all the same.

Moreover, the “they’re not really Muslims” dodge is not only dishonest, it’s an insult to the huge numbers of Muslim cops, soldiers, and spooks who have given their lives in the struggle against the Salafi jihad, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice in U.S.-led campaigns all over the globe. The bottom line is the Islamic world is having a robust debate, sometimes settled with guns and bombs, about what it should be in the twenty-first century, and that’s a debate for Muslims — not us, we’re spectators — to have. We have plenty to do with tracking and hunting down terrorists, preferably before they kill.

I also staked out a hazardous position, years ago, by having a centrist take on political Islam: we need to talk about it, we will never understand the Salafi jihadist enemy if we don’t, but we must not obsess about it. A lot of our recent homegrown terrorists resemble spree killers who seek out Salafi jihadism — not the other way around — as an excuse to act out their sick violent fantasies. Understanding the nuances of Islamic theology is not what they are about.

That said, on the other side, we have those who seek to embroil the West in an endless war against Islam, not just radical Islam. Their worldview is nearly as absolutist as the Salafis’ and about as helpful. The motivations of such people are a mix of their own religious faith and bias, and their understanding of Islam is generally as shaky as that possessed by teenaged drug addicts seeking to redeem themselves in a martyrdom operation. When this dangerous nonsense creeps into U.S. Government anything, I have protested, sometimes publicly. Fortunately these types are usually stopped in their tracks with one simple question: “If Islam is the problem — What’s the solution?”

Yet Islamism, as distinct from Islam, is a genuine problem in many places. The terrorist element is the obvious challenge, but there’s also the problem of subversion, to bring back a Cold War term that needs rebirth, and anybody who’s looked at this issue honestly knows that Islamism pushes a worldview that is deeply incompatible with Western democracy, much less post-modern ideas on faith, society, gender, and sexuality. It’s clear now that most Egyptians don’t want to live under the Muslim Brotherhood, even though it was born there, so I can’t imagine many Westerners are eager to either.

The touchy issue of subversion must be handled discreetly by governments, but counterterrorism is a much more public matter. Here the Obama administration’s inability to call the enemy what it is has been troubling for years. I have no problem with ditching the Bush-era rhetoric of the “Global War on Terrorism” but denying that we are embroiled in a long-term campaign against Salafi jihadism that looks a lot like a war of sorts, cannot be done without dishonesty.

That Obama has been perfectly willing to employ assassination, usually with drones, against terrorists, accepting the deaths of many civilians along the way, while not being able to admit that the enemy is what he says he is, will no doubt puzzle future historians. I can attest that the White House’s ardent desire to not call Islamism Islamism has infected the whole U.S. Government from practically the first day of this administration.

The Bush administration did its own awkward dance with Salafi jihadism, making clear that the United States was in no way at war with Islam after 9/11, then going ahead and engaging in something that looked a lot like war against Islam by invading and occupying big Muslim countries halfway around the world. However, internally, Bush and his misguided officials allowed considerable debate about how to think about the Salafi jihadist enemy. I ultimately found them unduly cautious about certain aspects of the secret war against Al-Qa’ida and its friends — which I found deeply strange given the overt aggression of so many aspects of Bush-era security policies — but at least they allowed a debate to happen behind closed doors.

That debate ended abruptly in mid-January 2009. The Obama administration made clear “through channels” that terms like “Islamic” were not to be attached to terrorism, even in classified reports and in closed-door meetings. To say this had a chilling effect on a necessary discussion is an understatement, and I witnessed good programs and even successful careers in counterterrorism ended on grounds of what any fair-minded person would term political correctness. Strange comments from Josh Earnest are merely the small, public tip of a very big iceberg that has torn a deep hole under the waterline of American counterterrorism since early 2009.

Why the Obama administration is so eager to stifle any discussions, even internally, about political Islam and its connections to terrorism is something that will ultimately be left to historians. Seeking sooner explanations, some on the Right ardently believe it’s because Obama is “really” a Muslim or he’s “really” from Kenya, despite there being no more evidence for that than Obama is “really” Bigfoot.

I’m afraid the answer is nothing that interesting or mysterious. I have no direct insight into what the President’s “real” views are but Obama is the product of an elite liberal education — Punahou, Columbia, Harvard Law — and he possesses exactly the views one would expect to find in someone so educated. In case you haven’t been near an Ivy League campus in the last fifty or so years, their take on security matters, inasmuch as those get any attention, is one that tends to find blame in the West, America especially, while excusing away crimes and outrages by “the oppressed” as “really” the fault of colonialism, neo- or old school. I don’t think Obama or anybody in his National Security Council has an ounce of sympathy for Salafi jihadism; deep down, however, many of them will look for “root causes” for why terrorists are terrorists, rather than listening to what those terrorists say constantly is actually motivating them. You have to be highly educated to miss these kinds of basics.

Last weekend’s diplomatic debacle in Paris is causing even liberal stalwarts to ask, nervously, what the hell is going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Today, Leslie Gelb, who is nobody’s idea of a right-winger, called for Obama to fire his entire national security team and get serious, to avoid a genuinely catastrophic foreign policy mess in the next two years. I share Gelb’s frustration, and worries, and for more than a year he’s been the voice of sane liberal mavens who realize the damage Obama is doing to the West with his disastrous missteps in foreign policy, and are firing op-ed flares.

For naught, I fear. Don’t get me wrong: the day that Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, and above all Valerie Jarrett are shown the door in the West Wing will be a great day for the Republic, but I suspect that will be two years and six days from now, and not before. Obama’s top staffing decisions on foreign and defense policy frequently have been awful, displaying little if any learning curve even after six years, and given Obama’s inability to fire anyone for anything, we’re probably stuck with the unskilled and sycophantic cadre that’s in the White House now.

This may end badly indeed. The chances of this White House escaping a major foreign policy crisis in its last two years are low, given that Putin’s assessment of Obama and his national security team makes mine look charitable. Whether or not Moscow doubles-down, as they well might, I can guarantee that Salafi jihadism isn’t going anywhere for decades, not years. This is a fight we will win, because the jihadists are enormously self-defeating at any strategic level, but how soon we triumph, and how many innocents die at the hands of terrorists, is something we can influence — and must. Avoiding institutionalized escapism by refusing to call the enemy what he calls himself is a necessary first step to victory.

40 Comments
  1. In analyzing this “tin-ear” snub, I would suggest that the Obama Administration was more afraid of being called out to change the sanction policies of the United States toward Russia and Putin, so that Hollande could “go through with the shipment of the advanced technology Mistral Helicopter-Ships for Putin to place in Crimea (perhaps for an ongoing move against Oddessa.” Even if Obama weren’t so strategic … it is almost certain the French media would have question any U.S. dignitary on the Ukraine (and Syrian strategies). By remaining absent “and busy” such questioning could remain private instead of potentially public. France wants to make big bucks selling these ships, to the point where France may be the “weak link” in the EU sanctions, IMHO.

    Obama is also closing French military bases. The bases employ hundreds of French citizens with U.S. tax dollars. That is an additional sticky potential discussion at this juncture.

    Frank Sowa Strategy Consultant

    >

    • 4MK permalink

      Fully agree with that #Frank Sowa

    • deuxglass1 permalink

      You said that Obama is also closing French military bases. The US doesn’t have any military bases in France. As for the Mistral France is not so strapped for cash that it needs to sell them to Russia and there are alternatives.

  2. Another keenly balanced essay by XX Committee on the strategic and political realities of the day. It reads like it is a Hollywood camera shot that starts out as a close up and then pans back to reveal the landscape as the movie’s true central character…

  3. want2no permalink

    “many of them will look for “root causes” for why terrorists are terrorists, rather than listening to what those terrorists say constantly is actually motivating them.”

    So true. For example, I often see it written, by some of those Ivy League scholars, that Israel’s “actions” were a reason or motivation for the actions of Bin Laden and his followers. Yet, when one reads what is available of Bin Laden’s actual speeches or writings, it is clear that his hatred of Israel was not based on any particular Israeli action or policy, but on the fact that it existed at all.

  4. Andraz permalink

    Excellent article, spot on! Thanks.

    Andraz

  5. Re: ” the President is a very busy man . . .”

    Ha, hah, hah! Gag!

  6. Robert Marchenoir permalink

    One simple question : “If Islam is the problem — What’s the solution?”

    One simple answer : containment.

    Keep Islam away from Western countries. Let them sort their own mess on their own turf. Discriminate. Don’t be “inclusive”. Be as politically incorrect as possible. End mass immigration, especially from Muslim countries. Actively discourage the practice of Islam in Europe and America. Ban the veil. Allow employers to fire veiled women. Ban hallal slaughter (like Switzerland has done for more than a century, with no one rioting). Serve pork in prisons, with no alternative menus. Ban mosques. Barring that, humiliate Muslims by banning minarets (like Switzerland has done, again with nothing more than huffing and puffing). At the very least, do not finance hundreds of new mosques, like the French government has done, while letting ancient churches literally crumble to the ground. Even better : encourage reverse migration, like this distinguished Muslim “scholar” has just done :

    After all, that’s what the Christian West has done, mutatis mutandis, for centuries, to rather satisfactory results. For centuries, Westerners knew that Islam was hostile — nay, deadly to them, and did not try to hide that vital fact behind liberal platitudes.

    • The ship has long ago sailed on that one, see European demographics today.

      • Robert Marchenoir permalink

        Then we could as well submit and convert. (Not my option.)

    • Mr Reality permalink

      Unfortunately that is the only long term solution.
      Equally unfortunate is the chance of it happening.
      0%
      Political correctness will always win out until (the inevitable) war actually breaks out.
      How many more will die in the name of Islam due to the PC brigade not being intelligent enough to see the outcome of their beliefs.

  7. justme permalink

    If it’s true that most of the shooters involved in Islamic terrorism are psychopaths, then the problem lies with the logistical support organizations that seek them out and supply them with the necessary training and equipment to indulge their blood lust.

    The question I still have is whether it is sufficient to seek out these support organizations and destroy them, or is there so much philosophical support for them in Islam that it would be a never-ending task? Is some sort of theological change necessary (as proposed by Egypt’s Al-Sisi last week in a speech at Al-Azhar University) or is it simply a matter of destroying the power of some number of radicals?

    • You’re running together a whole bunch of complex issues there ….

      • justme permalink

        I simplified, yes. But that’s the question in everybody’s mind, isn’t it? And the fact that it goes unasked, let alone answered, is the reason why people like Marine Le Pen are all of a sudden finding an audience.

        Unfortunately, people like Le Pen aren’t questioning either–they think they already know the answer.

  8. Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Worth reading !!!

  9. Martin Sattler permalink

    “Obama is the product of an elite liberal education and possesses exactly the views one would expect to find in someone so educated. ..their take on security matters …is one that tends to find blame in the West, America especially, while excusing away crimes and outrages by “the oppressed” as “really” the fault of colonialism, neo- or old school.” If you are saying that Obama is not only a product of, but also acts on the views found in these institutions (hardly elite, I would say, since they do not stand for the foundational ideology of the country), then this is a very troubling take on Obama. It suggests that Obama finds ideological fault with the very country he swore an oath to protect. This further suggests that Obama is consistently working against the best interests of our country. I for one do not disagree with this analysis. In effect, we have twice elected a man who not only wants to transform this country but is willing to do so any way he can. And foreign policy is the area where this “blame America first” attitude is most evident.

  10. Serious question, what would be Obama’s next step? He does as John suggests and acknowledges that we are dealing with Salafi Jihadism, what next? What questions does this answer, what solutions are on the table that weren’t before?

    As to Obama not turning up in France, perhaps he thought it hypocritical and counterproductive to grand stand on France’s pain. Especially given America’s egregious mistakes arming the Jihadists and bombing innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

  11. Signcutter permalink

    I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years now and have been remiss in not previously expressing how valuable and insightful your analysis is. Unlike so many commentators and talking heads, you don’t lack for credibility on the subject and while you express distinct viewpoints, it clearly comes across as based on objective analysis and cogent reasoning and not “group think” or ideologically driven rants. That’s especially refreshing in today’s world.

    As for this subject, I wholeheartedly agree that until the West clearly understands that certain interpretations of Islam (the commentary, if you will, on the Koran, which ranges wildly in tone to begin with) are lending justification to a range of malcontents, religious zealots, and cynical manipulators to commit heinous acts “to defend the faith” or punish those besmirching the reputation of “the prophet,” and forces those sponsoring these voices to confront this evil and account for what they’ve done, we are not getting at the root of the problem.

  12. G Humphries permalink

    Barry will be punished for this. It is going to be fun to see how.

    • Section9 permalink

      No, unfortunately, it won’t.

      Matters will get a lot worse before they get better.

  13. Alex permalink

    Perfect article, and I sense one backlit by a bubbling frustration.

    I would just add that as part of naming the enemy (not just Salafi jihadism, but the Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeinism as well) Western leaders, with the POTUS at their forefront, should be required to delineate the aspects of Islamism that Muslims themselves must eliminate and replace as a means of coexistence with modern societies. It is not enough for liberal or moderate Muslims to condemn terrorism or claim that their textual traditions support a tolerant worldview–as Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah El-Sisi intimated, it is the books of Shari’a jurisprudence, and presumably the Hadith compilations on which they are based, that Muslim religious scholars must challenge and fundemtally alter. Pressuring Muslim governments–to whom many ulema owe their livelihoods–ought to be a central tenet of the U.S. State Department’s current mission. I realize that is a fantasy, but it is a necessary one.

    • Necessary fantasy indeed, IMO

    • Signcutter permalink

      I agree with Alex per my comment above… Too many Muslim governments are either aiding and abetting the sociopaths who wrap themselves in the trappings of religion in order to deflect attention from their own failures and shortcomings, or are tolerating the propagation of mindless hate to further their own ends.

      This is similar to what is happening in the West under the guise of “free speech.” For us Americans, the 1st Amendment is precious (and reinforced by the 2nd), but there are limitations, and it seems logical that in any civilized society, one should have freedom to express an opinion up to the point where you are calling for violence against others. At that point, you’ve crossed a line of decency and should be subject to legal repercussions.

  14. gaspar juarez permalink

    I made ennemies, I lost friends, even family, for being honest about what islam represents for western countries. They seem to see the world with pink glasses (dont know how to translate that from french), meaning they are too naive and think everybody thinks like canadians. So wrong.
    I think, like you, this is only the beginning, unfortunately I really believe the critical mass has been reached and there is no way back, specially for europe, either they fix that problem or that problem will break them.

  15. SteveM permalink

    I don’t follow how they are self defeating. They seem to be growing and very successful even after 11 years trying to beat them back with most powerful Army the world has ever known. They control 1/3 of Iraq and Syria, will control Afghanistan weeks or perhaps at most months after we leave, large parts of North and Central Africa and growing more followers the stronger they get by the day. As Osama has been quoted as saying – “everyone likes a strong horse” – and ISIS is the Salafi Jihadist strong horse with similar groups joining the Caliphate by the day.

    They were also extremely successful historically and conquered half the world and ruled it for about 800 years with extreme brutality we see ISIS employ until so-called evils of reconquest and colonialism set them back with similar methodology.

    The West OTOH seems to be in retreat. You speak about it often enough…lack of accountability for a cosseted elite at all levels of government and corp elites, intractable rent-seeking, venal politicians, aimless ignorant reality TV/kardashian public drones among other things which make any kind of war against a determined enemy since at least Vietnam demonstratively unwinnable. West seems locked into economic, political, and moral malaise and anyone raising alarms is shut down immediately by the people above and PC.

    Then you have no small problem of demographics. I don’t suppose when a Turk Muslim is elected President of Germany or France in 50-70 years he will act much different than Erdoğan with regard to ISIS but this time they have real weapons having access to Europe’s Armories.

    Finally the sense of purpose is lost in the West. What do we stand for exactly? So many forces pulling so many directions while they have one singular purpose world or regional conquest at all costs not unlike Nazi Germany which I doubt we could beat today. The fastest growing religion is Islam and I suspect a fair number to the Salafist variety evidenced by today’s arrest.

    • Read the Terrorist Perspectives Project, will answer your Qs on self-defeat, at least.

  16. Efstratios Psarianos permalink

    Yep, Obama & Company are Celebrity Ding-Dongs all right.

    Mind you, this isn’t nearly as consequential when President Obama decided to Do Something Military against Syria when the latter gassed people there. President Hollande had publicly stated that France was ready and set to be part of the action. Next day, PO announced that he was referring the Syria thing to Congress.

    A damn shame … and a first of now two humiliations for France. The French must be having second thoughts after having joined NATO a few years ago.

  17. MarqueG permalink

    You have to be highly educated to miss these kinds of basics.

    Köstlich. Einfach köstlich.

  18. Fritz Wunderlich permalink

    Yet Islamism, as distinct from Islam, is a genuine problem in many places.
    Sorry, but II doubt that you get it.
    When attending a conference at the Viennese Hofburg, ten years back, the beacon of western hopes, Khatami, told the audience that nothing is outside Islam, not politics, not rights, everything is ruled by the law of Alllah, the shariah.
    http://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/archiv/126697_Islam-Experten-diskutieren-in-Wien.html
    My guess is that the much denounced military leader of Egypt has a grip on the basic problem

    http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2015/01/07/al-sisi-gives-speech-christmas-mass-abasseya-cathedral/

  19. fortescue bullrout permalink

    Any comment on the Ron Paul Institute wondering if the Charlie Hebdo killings were a false flag operation?

  20. Robert Marchenoir permalink

    Let me phrase this differently : if you allow too many Muslims within any given country, you will get the social pathologies of Islam. Including “Islamism” (whether or not this is a valid concept), terrorism, intolerance of others, wilful ignorance and so on.

    Western states cannot micro-manage their way out of this simple truth ; they need to deal with it.

    And another thing : relative numbers of Muslim immigrants in Europe (and America, and Australia) are still very low. This does not mean their presence does not already constitute a grave danger, contrary to what the PC brigade would have us think.

    It does mean, however, that if there is the political will to reverse the trend (and admittedly, that is a big if), it can be done. Much of the current hand-wringing about the “inevitability” of Islamisation is just internalised propaganda from the Muslim side and their Leftist facilitators.

    The latter do have the stage to themselves right now, but nothing is eternal in history. Things could be changing as we speak. The Charlie-Hebdo killings could be a turning point.

    All those heads of state marching in Paris can be derided as political comedians, but I don’t remember anything like this happening before. Indeed, as a Frenchman, I’m surprised Obama’s failure to join the crowd might become such a subject for public criticism in the United States.

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