In the wake of the murderous assault on Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in Paris, President Obama was been robustly criticized for his failure to attend the rally of solidarity in Paris, or even to send a high level representative. We believe that the criticism was justified. Indeed, even the White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, acknowledged that a mistake had been made, a remarkable admission for a White House from which mea culpas do not escape easily. Earnest, however, did not offer any credible explanation of how or why the mistake had been made. It may be plausible to claim that adequate security for the President could not be provided on short notice, but presumably the security needs of Vice President Biden could have been satisfied by the arrangements put in place for forty world leaders. And one of the more curious footnotes was the unexplained failure to attend even by Attorney General Holder who was already in Paris.
Perhaps the answer to the Holder absence will emerge from some future memoir. One possibility was that the President was reluctant to participate directly, or even by proxy, in an event where there would inevitably be references to “Islamic extremism” and “radical Islam.” Those are terms with which the President is plainly uncomfortable. Indeed, his Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, made it clear that the avoidance of those terms was quite deliberate. At a press conference on January 13, NPR’s Mara Liasson repeatedly asked Earnest why the White House had “gone to great lengths” and “bent over backwards” to avoid using the phrase “radical Islam.” Earnest claimed that it’s an issue of “accuracy,” because “these terrorists are individuals who would like to cloak themselves in the veil of a particular religion.” Thus, he said, the White House doesn’t want to give the terrorists the satisfaction of acknowledging their warped reasoning for carrying out these attacks.
We find the reasoning of Obama’s White House peculiar and unpersuasive. We may accept the point that the theology of the radical Islamists is an illegitimate distortion of Islam, but the point is irrelevant. The crucial fact is that the leaders of Radical Islam believe themselves to be faithful followers of Mohammed. That is the banner under which they reach out to recruit new warriors—and are doing so with conspicuously increasing success. That, therefore, is the banner under which they must be confronted. Needless to say, the European leaders do not share Obama’s semantic squeamishness. Prime Minister Cameron, President Hollande, Chancellor Merkel, for example, have all addressed the threat of radical Islam in explicit terms. Attempting to lead from behind in the Obama fashion is difficult enough under any circumstances, but it seems out of the question if one cannot speak the same language to describe the relevant threat.
Earnest also sought to justify the White House’s linguistic posture by noting that Muslim leaders all over the world had condemned the Paris attack. The condemnations by Muslim leaders did occur and should be encouraged in every way; many more similar expressions are vitally needed and on a continuing basis. But such condemnations, however valued, provide no excuse for closing one’s eyes, or resorting to double-speak, in describing the ideology of the attackers. On the contrary, they reinforce the point that radical Islam must be called out in unmistakable terms and sharply distinguished from the religion observed by the vast majority of Muslims. The latter love peace as much as we and indeed, are by far the most frequent victims of violence from radical Islam.
Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, put it well:
Terror incidents lead many Westerners to perceive Islam as inherently extremist, but I think that is too glib and simple-minded. Small numbers of terrorists make headlines, but they aren’t representative of a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents.
* * * *
Let’s also acknowledge that the most courageous, peace-loving people in the Middle East who are standing up to Muslim fanatics are themselves often devout Muslims. Some read the Quran and blow up girls’ schools, but more read the Quran and build girls’ schools. The Taliban represents one brand of Islam; the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai the polar opposite.
There is, of course a need to reassure Muslims that we have no quarrel with the peaceful practice of Islam. As reported in The New York Times, both President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel, have been attempting to do just that. Speaking to The Institute of the Arab World in Paris, Mr. Hollande said that inequalities and conflicts that have persisted for years had fueled radical Islam. He pointed out that “the Muslims are the first victims of fanaticism, extremism and intolerance,” and he continued, “French Muslims have the same rights, the same duties as all citizens. Acts against Muslims must not only be denounced, but severely punished.”
Chancellor Merkel, addressing the German Parliament, spoke in a similar vein: “Any exclusion of Muslims, any general suspicion, is forbidden. The great majority of Muslims in Germany are law-abiding citizens, loyal to the Constitution. We guarantee the free practice of the Islamic faith within the framework of our Constitution and other laws.”
The most distressing aspect of the President’s response to the Paris attacks is his failure to put them in a context and to explain that context to the American public. How, for example, do the Paris attacks relate to the al Qaeda presence in Yemen, the stunning seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria by ISIS, aka Islamic State, and the growing strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan. There is growing evidence that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was instigated and financed by al Qaeda in Yemen, which has in fact claimed credit for it. It is painfully ironic that only in September the President was citing Yemen as a model for the approach he had adopted toward ISIS in Syria. How does he view that “model” now?
Does the President see a direct connection between terrorism in Europe and the Islamic State? President Holland does. In announcing increased airstrikes against the Islamic State, the Voice of America reported, he condemned the international community’s slow response to the militant group as it overran parts of Iraq and Syria and added “So the mission that is starting is also an answer to terrorism. We are at war with them. So we must use military means that are best suited to face those threats.” Does the President agree? Does he truly believe that airstrikes, and a plan to train and equip 5,000 opposition fighters a year, is an adequate means of waging a war against the Islamic State in Syria? Or does he believe, on the other hand, that we are not at war because the risks of attacks by Islamic extremists are confined to the Middle East and Europe?
A parade of experts on network and cable news have opined as to the likelihood of attacks in the in the United States similar to that on Charlie Hebdo—or much worse. While estimates vary as to timing and severity, the clear consensus is that we are far from immune. Our intelligence and law enforcement personnel have performed brilliantly, and with far greater success than had been forecast after 9/11, but as shown by the Boston bombing, we cannot expect them to bat 1.000. Some observers, like Paul Waldman in The Washington Post, have argued that because terrorist attacks can be carried out with little training or financial support, the defeating of al Qaeda and ISIS is not that important. While some attacks may be accomplished quite independently, the more ambitious and dangerous plots will require outside support. Moreover, every success of al Qaeda or ISIS, now trumpeted through social media, enhances their ability to inspire and recruit prospective terrorists. In any case, we surely deserve a current appraisal from the President of threats to our homeland and the adequacy of our defenses.
Over the past several months or longer, it has often been noted that President Obama appeared to lack a global strategy with respect to Russia’s threats in Europe or the threat of radical Islam. As to the latter, Newt Gingrich has proposed that, given the vacuum in Presidential leadership, Congress should take the lead in assessing the strength of radical Islam around the world, understanding its underlying ideology and developing a strategy. We are skeptical of the ability of Congress to develop a strategy. Such matters must, for better or worse, remain largely within the province of the President. Nevertheless, Gingrich’s list of things we need to know is a useful one that should be taken taken seriously by both Congress and the President:
- The country-by-country danger. Americans simply don’t realize how dire the situation is in specific areas. Boko Haram has killed thousands more people in Nigeria alone than Ebola has in all of Africa, according to data compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Centers for Disease Control. One or more hearings should focus on each center of radical Islamism, including Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
- The role of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group is vital to the global radical Islamist movement, yet so little understood by Washington elites that it deserves its own set of hearings.
- The primary sources of radical Islamist funding, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran.
- The Arab countries—including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria—that have successfully contained and minimized radical Islamists. We must learn how this was accomplished and what aspects should be replicated.
- Radicalization in mosques and on social media. How are young Muslims being drawn into terrorism? What can be done to counter a seductive message that has reached deep into Europe and the U.S. and inspired jihadists by the thousands to travel to the Middle East for terrorist training that can be exported back home?
- The Islamist cyberthreat. The hacking of the U.S. Central Command’s social-media accounts this week apparently didn’t inflict serious damage, but the episode was evidence of a new front in the fight against terrorism.
It would be refreshing to have the President address radical Islam in his State of the Union message, but we’re not counting on it.