The president appointed Attorney-General Eric Holder, himself under fire for approving mass wiretaps of the Associated Press and the surveillance of Fox News reporter James Rosen, to report back to him on the latter issue. That appointment called to mind Michael Ramirez’s cartoon of Holder leading a bloodhound around in a circle following his own tracks.
Still there were positive elements of the speech. For the first time to my knowledge, the president acknowledged that the majority of the terrorism directed at the United States is “fueled by a common ideology – a belief of some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West.” He even went so far as to say that the Ft. Hood massacre “appears” to have been of that nature, something that neither the Pentagon report on the massacre nor Attorney-General Holder in testimony before Congress could ever bring themselves to admit, even though the perpetrator shouted “Allahu Akbar” throughout his attack.
The president labeled that perception that the United States is at war with Islam a lie. But he ignored the other possibility – i.e., that a large segment of contemporary Islam views itself as at war with the United States. Contrary to the old adage, it doesn’t always take two to fight, though it does take fighting to win.
In addition, President Obama effectively downplayed the admission that the terrorist threat against America is Islamist in nature by continually referring to the “war on terrorism” as if it were almost exclusively a war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, not against numerous, and often unrelated, jihadi groups hostile to the United States and the West.
In his review of drone strikes, the president stressed that they were legal, justified, and effective. The attacks are justified, he argued, because the United States is at war with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That admission has implications for Israel as well, since the president now acknowledges that a country can be at war with non-state actors such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda – or in the case of Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah – as well as with states.
Obama argued that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” – a standard impossible of fulfillment when terrorists shelter and conduct operations from the midst of civilian populations. But he acknowledged that the need to protect civilians must be weighed against “doing nothing in the face of terrorist networks,” which would often be to invite far more civilian casualties in the long run. That is a point that Israel, which is far less promiscuous in its use of drone strikes than the United States under President Obama, often makes.
And finally, the president, quite sensibly, insisted that American citizens who go abroad to fight against the United States, like the late and unlamented Anwar Awlaki, spiritual advisor to Lt. Col. Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Ft. Hood mass murderer and other terrorists, do not have any special shield against drone attacks, any more than a sniper in a crowd in the United States would be protected from being shot by police. Such common sense is often absent from the discussion of anti-terror policies.
SO MUCH FOR THE GOOD STUFF. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the speech was characterized by the same fecklessness that has marked Obama’s foreign policy. The president, for instance, had not a single word to say about Iran as an exporter of terror or what would be the effect on Iranian proxy terror groups, like Hezbollah, if they acted under an Iranian nuclear shield.
The president repeated a fair measure of the usual claptrap about the need for the United States to address the grievances of the Muslim world, including its endemic poverty. Among the means of addressing those grievances, the president predictably listed promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The penny has still not dropped for the Obama foreign policy team that the great divide roiling the Muslim world today is between Sunnis and Shiites, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entirely irrelevant to the major source of regional conflict.
It beggars the imagination that the new secretary of state, John Kerry, has invested so much energy in restarting Israel-Palestinian Authority talks when Iran is on the verge of going nuclear and the highly unstable situation in Syria could trigger a Middle East conflagration, into which Russia and the United States might be dragged if Israel attacks Russian anti-missile batteries being delivered to the Assad government.
Kerry must be told to focus on what is urgent and disabused of the absurd notion that he has some new, magical formula for advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. Kerry recently unveiled plans for a $4 billion bribe to the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table without preconditions. “Experts [mercifully unnamed] believe,” said Kerry, that such an aid program could increase Palestinian GDP by 50% over three years and cut unemployment by two-thirds. Yeah, right.
Even better, Kerry would use that money to build up the Palestinian tourist industry, despite there being only one Palestinian tourist attraction – Bethlehem – which is a short car ride from Yerushalayim’s plentiful hotels.
The notion that Islamic terrorism is primarily a function of Muslim poverty is, in any event, entirely fanciful. Islamic terrorists are often drawn from the upper strata of society. Moreover, the backwardness of the Muslim world is largely cultural and beyond the capacity of economic aid to relieve.
President Obama also suggested that the key to preventing homegrown Islamic terrorists is for the American government to engage with American Muslim groups. The problem here, however, is, as we detailed last month, that the administration keeps engaging the wrong Muslim groups – i.e., Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated “defense” organizations, whose ultimate goal is the imposition of sharia law, rather than genuinely moderate Muslim groups, for whom Islam is a personal faith, not a political program for supplanting Western democracy.
BY FAR, THE MOST DISCUSSED part of President Obama’s speech was his suggestion that the terrorist threat has somehow abated to the more livable pre-9/11 level of the ‘80s and ‘90s. While admitting that the United States is still threatened by terrorism, the president claimed that the “threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.” If dealt with smartly and proportionately, terrorism need not rise to the level that “we saw on the eve of 9/11,” he urged.
The obvious rejoinder is: On the eve of 9/11, no one foresaw the events of that day either. Until then, we were still living with pre-9/11 levels of terrorism, just as the president says we are today. And our very lack of response to those lower levels – Hezbollah’s bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon in the ‘80s, al-Qaeda attacks on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania under President Clinton – emboldened the 9/11 planners. To pretend that we live in a pre-9/11 world is to invite a return of 9/11.
Contrary to the president’s claims that the terrorist threat is waning, it is actually increasingly dramatically, in part as a consequence of recent American foreign policy blunders. Terrorists flourish in failed states, where there is no centralized authority and they pretty much have free reign. Libya is already such a state, where local militias, not a central government, control the country. The prime minister must cross five checkpoints, manned by different militias, just to reach his home from work. Syria, too, is most likely to split into several weak states, lacking any effective central authority, and become a terrorist haven like Libya.
As David Goldman points out, the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria – all of which have attracted large numbers of foreign jihadists of various stripes – have created a vast reservoir of young men trained in irregular combat. Afghanistan in the ‘80s and ‘90s was the prime training ground for terrorists, and the multiple intra-Muslim conflicts in this decade are the new training ground for large numbers of young men “with no skill except irregular warfare, nothing to return to, nothing to lose, and with no motivations except for fanatical hatred.”
At the same time, the breakup of stable, if oppressive, Middle Eastern states, has cost the United States the anti-terrorist cooperation of Arab intelligence services, which effectively employed “enhanced” interrogation and did not suffer the same dearth of Arabic speakers that U.S. intelligence agencies must contend with.
The fighting in Libya brought vast stocks of new weapons into terrorist arsenals, and today Iran seeks, according to Goldman, “to gain control of Syria’s chemical weapons” and to turn Syria into a weapons platform against Israel.
At the same time that there is an enormous increase in the number of prospective terrorists and a significant reduction in our intelligence capacities to combat them, the Muslim world is witnessing civilizational ruin. The dire economic straits of Egypt provide one prominent example. Radicalized young Muslims have little to look forward to, and for them the failure of the Muslim world to develop is a constant source of humiliation. Many have become modern-day nihilists seeking to bring down as much of the rest of the world, along with them, as possible.
So we may be pre-9/11, but, sadly, not in the way President Obama imagines.