Tags: Islamism

Bergdahl Rose Garden Ceremony Was an Insult to Flacks


The Obama administration’s now-defunct effort to turn the release of Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl into a cheerable moment was more than just a failure of ethics. It was a failure of communication, and an outrage to the honorable profession of image management and crisis public relations.

Put aside for a moment the very clear disrespect to both active and former service members implicit in trying to manufacture a feel-good narrative out of Bergdahl’s release by the Haqqani terror network in exchange for five high-value Taliban prisoners.

Suppose that there were valid reasons to require non-disclosure agreements from other soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit. Assume that the value of no longer having an American serviceman held captive by Islamists is so great that it’s worth the risk of such an asymmetrical prisoner exchange.

Even if you put these moral concerns aside, it still made no sense for President Obama to hold a Rose Garden event with Bergdahl’s parents Saturday. The White House had every reason to know this story would blow up.

Suspicions about Bergdahl’s disappearance from his unit on the field of honor were not hard to come by. Ralph Peters called him an “apparent deserter” on Fox News shortly after his capture. A detailed and damning narrative of his disappearance was written up in 2012 by Michael Hastings, a Rolling Stone journalist who died in a suspicious car crash in Los Angeles last year.

Even if there had been no such public speculation — if the masses had no inkling of the apparently low opinion soldiers of the the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, had of Bergdahl — the president himself gets regular briefings and had every reason to understand that the question of his behavior and possible culpability would come out. Presumably members of Bergdahl’s company were questioned by superior officers after his disappearance, and records of those interrogations were kept. And presumably the president or some designate was authorized to look at those records.

So why go ahead with the Rose Garden event? Obama had a perfectly legitimate story to tell: The American POW in Afghanistan had to be returned, irrespective of his character, and even at the cost of negotiating with terrorists or violating the law governing notification of Congress. (The Constitution affirms that the president is commander of the armed forces in wartime; and throughout American history presidents have assumed, correctly, that in practice they have essentially infinite wiggle room against any congressional attempts to restrain their power. The congressional notification scandal should have been a twelve-hour story.)

So why bring Robert and Jani Bergdahl in for a photo-op that at best would look a bit strange, given Robert’s grooming and his public attempts to find common ground with his son’s captors? The story of how the Bergdahls ended up at the White House is pure turnip-truck territory. According to Time:

Their presence at the White House on Saturday was the apparent product of coincidence: the couple had visited the capitol for a Memorial Day event and then stayed in town for meetings in Congress. Had they been at home in Idaho when the deal was announced, they likely would not have flown to Washington to appear with Obama—and a key visual element of the drama, replayed endlessly on television, might not have occurred.

Does this happen often, that somebody with business before the president of the United States just happens to be in D.C. and gets invited to swing by the White House? Where did the Bergdahls stay during their D.C. visit, and who paid? How were they vetted before their appearance with the president — both for security and for political sensitivities — and how long did the process take? Did anybody at the White House know Robert Bergdahl was going to say “bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim,” along with the “Pashto phrase” that has been getting so much attention?

I am not damning Robert Bergdahl here; I hope never to find out how I would behave if my child were at the mercy of Muslim psychotics. But I am saying it was bafflingly stupid to have him buddy up with the president for international television coverage.

The conventional wisdom now is that the Bergdahl story was at first viewed as a triumph, until questions began to emerge. This is not exactly true. National Security Adviser Susan Rice was already on the defensive by Sunday morning, when she made her infamous claim that Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction.” The Rose Garden ceremony was creepy at its heart. Had it not been creepy, there was still a roughly 100 percent probability that people would pay attention to the story.

The shilly-shallying and crabbed vocabulary coming out of the executive branch this workweek (State Department spokesman Marie Harf uncorked “fact pattern” Tuesday) indicate something worse than garden-variety presidential dishonesty. They indicate incompetence.

It is a cardinal rule of image management that you never roll out a story you may have to walk back. In this respect, strict and well-supported factual accuracy is even more important to a flack than it is to a journalist. A reporter who gets something wrong can generally make post-facto corrections without much fuss. But if you’re trying to make a client look good (or just less-bad), even minor inaccuracies are poisonous.

In this case, the weaknesses in the official story would have been clear to one of Kim Jong-un’s staffers. How much contempt must the president have for the voters if he can’t come out and say: Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has been freed in exchange for the release of five Guantanamo detainees. We thank the royal family of Qatar for helping negotiate the exchange. Sergeant Bergdahl, the last POW of the Afghan war, remains on active status and is being well treated?

What was served by the Rose Garden show? What was the teachable moment? 

Tags: Bowe Bergdahl , Afghanistan , Islam , Islamism

Islamism’s Trajectory


Andrew C. McCarthy and I are allies over the long term, fighting the Islamist scourge in the same trench for two decades. But alliance does not mean singlemindedness and he responded critically over the weekend on NRO in “Can Islamism Evolve?” to my earlier NRO article, “The Growth of ‘Moderate’ Islamism.”

I wrote there that while Islamism — the radical utopian movement aspiring to a consistent and global application of Islamic law under the rule of a caliph — remains in large part violent and tyrannical, developments in several countries suggest the slight possibility that this ideology will evolve in a more benign and decent direction. To which, Andy responded with three main observations, which I shall briefly answer:

1. Andy observes: “Western democracy is regressing away from a culture of individual liberty protected by limited government. If it now seems conceivable that Islamism could democratize, it can only be owing to modern democracy’s accommodation of more centralized and intrusive government.”

I reply: Indeed, democracy is a flexible concept and recent developments have mostly been negative; think of the pseudo-democratic nature of the European Union. But I am not so much talking about a debased form of democracy as an evolution toward something civilized; I am not being technical about democracy but political about freedom and the rule of law.

2. Andy disagrees with my statement that “Islamism has significantly evolved over the past 13 years,” moving away from violence in favor of working within the system. He finds that Islamism has not “materially changed at all” but there is simply more awareness today of non-terrorist Islamists.

I reply: I knew 13 years ago of non-violent Islamists; indeed, this was implicit in my 2001 assertion that while “peaceable in appearance . . . they all must be considered potential killers.” I now find that “these words ring archaic” because I now recognize that some Islamists are not potential killers. Some of them are truly political with no intention to use force. Andy has not come to this conclusion but I suspect he eventually will.

3. Andy takes up a topic I did not discuss, namely the policy implications of the possible decency of Islamism. He argues there are no implications, stating that there is no worse choice than to “see a small ray of hope that Islamism could improve as a rationale for further collaboration with and concessions to Islamists. Islamism is the ideology of our enemies and . . . needs to be defeated, not brought around.”

I reply: We agree. My seeing “a small ray of hope” does not mean Western states should go haring after Islamist movements, hoping they will moderate. No, this is indeed the ideology of our enemies that needs to be defeated and marginalized, as were fascism and Communism in earlier eras. 

Tags: Andrew C. McCarthy , Islamism

Sisi’s Incompetent Anti-Islamist Campaign


Tuesday, an Egyptian court in short order sentenced some 529 people to death for the death of a single police officer. News like this gives one pause. 

Very tough treatment of Islamists is needed to repress this totalitarian movement, including rejection of their efforts to apply Islamic law, keeping them out of mainstream institutions, even excluding their parties from the democratic process. But General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s extra-legal crackdown on Islamists will likely backfire and help the Islamist cause by winning them broad sympathy. Even if today’s absurd judgment gets reversed on appeal, it and others like it are doing real damage.

Sisi is riding high now, with out-of-sight popularity ratings, but he appears as unprepared to rule Egypt as another military man, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was 60 years ago. Two factors in particular – the dismal economy and the hostility between pro- and anti-Islamists – will likely bring Sisi down fast and hard. When that happens, Islamists will benefit from his incompetence no less than Sisi exploited the failures of Mohamed Morsi. The cycle continues, the country falls further behind, and the precipice looms.

More broadly, because the expected Egyptian failure in suppressing Islamism will have global ramifications, Sisi’s mistakes damage the anti-Islamist cause not just in his own country but internationally. The stakes in Egypt these days are high indeed.

Tags: Egypt , Sisi , Islamism

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