Obama and the Global War on Whatever
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.