Since the Islamic State attacks in Paris on November 13, we have seen the development of a new, and strange justification for the Obama administration’s insistent refusal to jettison its manifestly failed strategy of contending with IS specifically and with Islamic terrorism generally.
In broad terms, Obama’s strategy for dealing with radical Islamic terrorism and jihadist movements is to ignore their motivating ideologies, take minimal action to combat them, criticize other governments for failing to destroy IS and its jihadist brethren on their own, and attack Republicans for criticizing Obama’s strategy for defeating radical Islamic terrorism.
The new justification for Obama’s refusal to revise his strategy was first uttered by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the Democratic presidential debate on November 14. Five days later, the Democratic National Committee produced an ad attacking Republican presidential candidates based on this new rhetorical theme. Obama himself resonated the new message during his press conference in Malaysia on Sunday.
According to the new talking points, Republicans have no right to criticize Obama, or Clinton for their failure to contend with the nature of the enemy because in ignoring the enemy’s doctrine, ideology and strategic goals, they are merely following in former president George W. Bush’s footsteps.
During the Democratic presidential debate, Clinton argued that refusing to identify the radical Islamic nature of the enemy that attacked the US on September 11 and in the months and years that followed “was one of the real contributions — despite all the other problems — that George W. Bush made after 9/11, when he basically said — after going to a mosque in Washington — we are not at war with Islam or Muslims.”
In its new ad, the DNC attacks five Republican presidential candidates that have stated in recent days that radical Islam is the force that is warring against the US and its allies.
To prove that the candidates are “unpresidential,” for naming the enemy, the DNC ad includes a clip of Bush’s speeches in praise of Islam as “a religion of peace,” which he delivered in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Democrats’ invocation Bush, as their counterterrorism authority and as a means to justify their refusal to use the term “radical Islam,” is more than a bit ironic, of course, since they have spent the past 14 years pillorying Bush’s counterterror policies.
But it is also extremely helpful. By aligning with Bush to justify their refusal to discuss the radical Islamic foundations of the terrorist scourge facing the free world and devouring large swathes of the Middle East, the Democrats have given us the opportunity to consider what that refusal has meant for the US’s ability to lead the free world in its war against the forces of radical Islam.
At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, and for the first five years of Bush’s war on terrorism that followed them, Michael Gerson served as Bush’s chief speechwriter. Gerson authored Bush’s statements about Islam being a religion of peace.
In November 2014, Gerson participated in a debate about the nature of Islam and the war on terror. Gerson explained that Bush’s decision to ignore the nature of the enemy emanated from a strategic calculation.
Bush believed that radical Islam was but a marginal force in the Muslim world. By embracing Islam as a whole, and insisting that the terrorists from al Qaeda and other groups did not reflect the authentic nature of Islam, Bush hoped to draw the non-radical Muslims to America’s side against the jihadists.
In Gerson’s words, “Every religious tradition has forces of tribalism and violence in its history, background and theology; and, every religious tradition has sources of respect for the other. And you emphasize, as a political leader, one at the expense of the other in the cause of democracy.”
Gerson continued, “That is a great American tradition that we have done with every religious tradition that comes to the United States — include them as part of a natural enterprise and praise them for their strongly held religious views, and emphasize those portions that are most compatible with those ideals.”
The flaws in this reasoning began surfacing immediately. When Bush made his remarks about Islam after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was flanked by Muslim leaders who were in short order exposed as terrorism apologists and financiers.
On the battlefield, by failing to acknowledge, let alone discredit the enemy’s world view, Bush made it all but impossible for Muslims who oppose radical Islam to stand up against it. After all, if the Americans didn’t think it was a problem, why would they?
Since the Americans refused to admit the existence of radical Islam, the US refused to favor non-radical forces over radical ones. And so, in the 2005 Iraqi elections, while Iran spent a fortune financing the campaigns of its supporters, the US did nothing to support the Iraqi forces that shared the US’s goal of transforming Iraq into a multi-denominational, pluralistic democracy.
The results were preordained. The elected government took its cues from Iran, and as soon as US forces withdrew from Iraq, all of America’s hard won gains were squandered. The Iraqi government became an Iranian puppet. And in areas where Iran didn’t care to assert its control, al Qaeda-aligned forces that now comprise Islamic State rose once again.
Obama’s refusal to discuss radical Islam stems from a different source than Bush’s refusal to do so. Unlike Bush’s position, Obama’s insistence that IS, al Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram, and their brethren have nothing to do with Islam, does owe to a strategic calculation on how to win a war. Rather, it stems from an ideological conviction that the US and the rest of the Western world have no right to cast aspersions on jihadists.
As Obama sees things, the problems in the Middle East, and the Middle Eastern terrorism plaguing the rest of the world, are the result of past Western imperialism and chauvinism. All anti-Western movements – including jihadist movements – are legitimate responses to what Obama perceives as the crime of Western power.
Obama’s peevish response to the massacre in Paris and his assaults on Republicans who argue that the religious convictions of Syrians requesting asylum in the US are relevant for determining whether or not to let them in have brought his refusal to identify the enemy to the forefront of the US debate on how to defeat IS.
This debate is clearly uncomfortable for liberal US media outlets. So they have sought to change the subject.
As the Democratic Party adopted Bush as its new counterterrorism guru, the liberal media sought to end discussion of radical Islam by castigating as bigots Republicans who speak of it. The media attempt over the weekend to claim falsely that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump called for requiring American Muslims to be registered in a national Muslim database marked such an attempt to change the subject.
The common denominator between Bush’s strategic decision to lie about the nature of the enemy, Obama’s apologetics for IS, and the media’s attempt to claim that Republicans are anti-Islamic racists is that in all cases, an attempt is being made to assert that there is no pluralism in Islam – it’s either entirely good or entirely evil.
This absolutist position is counterproductive for two reasons. First, it gets you nowhere good in the war against radical Islam. The fact is that Islam per se it is none of the US president’s business. His business is to defeat those who attack the US and to stand with America’s allies against their common foes.
Radical Islam may be a small component of Islam or a large one. But it certainly is a component of Islam. Its adherents believe they are good Muslims and they base their actions on their Islamic beliefs.
American politicians, warfighters and policymakers need to identify that form of Islam, study it and base their strategies for fighting the radical Islamic forces on its teachings.
Bush was wrong to lie about the Islamic roots of radical Islam. And his mistake had devastating strategic consequences for the world as a whole. It is fortuitous that the Clinton and the Democratic party have embraced Bush’s failed strategy of ignoring the enemy for justifying their even more extreme position. Now that they have, they have given a green light to Republicans as well as Democrats who are appalled by Obama’s apologetics for radical Islam to learn from Bush’s mistakes and craft an honest, and effective strategic approach to the challenge of radical Islam.