Two plus two equals five. I mean, I really want it to be five. So let’s just pretend it’s five and, before you know it, it’ll be five. After all, we are the ones (or is it the fives?) we’ve been waiting for. My narrow-minded opponents, stuck in the mathematics of a bygone time, would have us make a false choice between elementary addition and our values. But as James Madison or James Rosen or somebody said, “The arc of arithmetic is long, but it bends toward, um . . . five.”
That, it seemed to me, was about what President Obama was saying in his wag-the-jihad speech on Thursday at the National Defense University in Washington. Poetic justice would not give social justice the time of day, so it is tempting simply to ignore this cynical exercise — the speech was less about national security than about changing the subject. But the otherworldliness of Obama’s meanderings on war and the enemy is worth mulling over.
Why this speech at this time? Because the president is embroiled in not one but three scandals (and counting), involving his derelictions of duty in connection with the Benghazi massacre, as well as his administration’s serial abuses of prosecutorial and regulatory power (siccing the Justice Department on the press and the IRS on the Tea Party). All this malfeasance was for the benefit of Barack Obama, and occurred in an anything-goes climate created by Barack Obama; but, we are told, it happened unbeknownst to Barack Obama, for whom leading from behind is apparently not just a foreign policy but a management style.
The immediate aim of Thursday’s hour-long drone on drones was to turn the news page just before the holiday weekend. From the president’s perspective, it must have seemed a better idea than dispatching yet another of his bumbling emissaries to implode on the Sunday shows.
Longer term, Obama knows who he is and where he is from. When past presidents have gotten into hot water, their instinct has been to mollify the opposition: The monthly Clinton scandal would hit, and next thing you knew a budget was balanced, welfare was reformed, or the era of big government was suddenly over. In marked contrast, Obama is a movement leftist, so when the going gets tough, back into the fever swamp he dives. Thus the speech was like old times: as if it were 2008 again and we were back to Bush’s Iraq War, Bush’s crimes, and Bush’s gulag at Gitmo.
On these accounts, the speech was a yawn. Iraq is in flames, but the Left never cared about that, and most of us who supported toppling Saddam Hussein never shared Bush’s fantasy of a stable “Islamic democracy” that would be a reliable American ally. That Shiites and Sunnis have reverted to their default position, internecine butchery, is a dog-bites-man story. As for Bush’s notorious “crimes,” the public largely supported the interrogation practices the Left demagogues as “torture.” After all, these practices generated the intelligence responsible for the very triumphs — notably, killing bin Laden — Obama ceaselessly brags about. And Congress is not going to close Gitmo when two-thirds of the country (a) strongly supports keeping it open, (b) does not believe it causes terrorism, and (c) couldn’t care less that Obama and his Code Pink base say “history” will judge us harshly. Truth be told, we’re more concerned about how history will judge Obama’s plan to repatriate scores of Gitmo detainees to al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Yemen.
The consequential part of the speech dealt with Obama’s views on the nature of the war. On even this, the president is nothing if not cynical. He proclaimed himself the scourge of what he freely called “violent jihad” — evidently figuring no one would remember he’s the guy who purged words like “jihad” from the government’s counterterrorism lexicon. But when it came to the ideology of our enemies, the speech really did get interesting.
For one thing, the president actually acknowledged not only that the threat to the United States is ideologically based, but also that the adherents of this ideology are Muslim extremists. This was a refreshing change from his wont of calling the threat “violent extremism” (violence being a consequence, not an ideology), and pretending that its adherents are anti-Islamic.
Obama continues to miniaturize the threat, treating it as if it were primarily limited to the “decimated” faction of al-Qaeda in the Afghan–Pakistan border region — the better to rationalize a return to the pre-9/11 days of treating terrorism as a mere crime problem. The president did, however, admit that al-Qaeda had spread across the Middle East — although, counterfactually, he maintains that this more “diffuse” terror network, while “lethal,” is “less capable” than it was twelve years ago.
The president’s main point was that the war is nearing an end because . . . he wants it to be over. He succinctly summed up his confounding perspective as follows:
Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology, a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam.
Let’s parse. Obama comes maddeningly close the bull’s eye. Our enemies’ ideology, Islamic supremacism, is not, as the president contends, merely “a belief by some extremists”; it is a mainstream interpretation of Islam — indeed, it is the dynamic Islam of the modern Middle East. But he is quite correct that it is the “larger cause” pursued by the “extremists.”