Politics & Policy

Alinsky Does Afghanistan

Obama's radical inspiration would have loved his speech on the war.

If there is one word that captures President Obama’s much-anticipated Afghanistan speech, it is “cynical.” Yes, the speech was also internally contradictory, counter-historical, and premised on fatally flawed assumptions about Islam and the Afghan people. Cynicism, however, is the defining feature of Obama speeches. This one was no different: from its use of the United States Military Academy as a prop to its concluding assertion that “our resolve is unwavering” . . .  after the president had spent the preceding 40 minutes in full waver mode.

There are two things to bear in mind in considering any Obama speech, and they go double for those that touch on national security.

First, the president is an Alinskyite, so steeped in the ideology of the seminal community organizer that he became a top instructor in Alinskyite tactics for other up-and-coming radicals. As David Horowitz explains in an essential new pamphlet, Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution: The Alinsky Model, Alinksyites are fifth-column radicals. They have, in substance, the same goals as open revolutionaries: overthrowing the existing free-market republic and replacing it with a radical’s utopia. That’s why Obama could befriend such unrepentant former terrorists as Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, and take inspiration from Jeremiah Wright, a black-liberation theologist. But Alinskyites are more sophisticated, patient, and practical. They bore in, hollowing out the system from within, appropriating the appearance and argot of mainstream society. Their single, animating ambition is to overthrow the capitalist social order, which they claim to see as racist, corrupt, exploitative, imperialist, etc. Apart from that goal, everything else — from the public option to Afghanistan — is negotiable: They reserve the right to take any position on any matter, to say anything at any time, based on the ebb and flow of popular opinion. That keeps them politically viable while they radically transform society. Transform it into what, they haven’t worked out in great detail — except that it will be perfect, communal, equal, and just.

#ad#The second thing to bear in mind is that the president is a power politician who shrewdly reads the vulnerabilities of both his opponents and his backers. He knows conservatives want to support both our troops and presidential initiatives that at least seem supportive of our vital interests. That makes conservatives a cheap date for Obama. He feels free to run down Bush and to tar our history: “We are not as young — and perhaps not as innocent,” he told the cadets at West Point, “as we were when [Franklin] Roosevelt was president.” He also frames national security as a distraction from his more important work socializing our economy. He knows that as long as he is tepidly supportive of a military mission — even one that neither aims to achieve nor can possibly achieve victory over America’s enemies — conservatives will not only overlook the slights; they will anxiously commend him and help the New York Times take the lash to those who won’t.

The president also knows the Left has no place else to go. They’ll grumble about “escalation.” We’ll get the occasional Michael Moore outburst. But as Horowitz observes, this is the same theater that has gone on for decades. Alinsky’s principles hold that open radicals unwittingly betray the cause by honestly urging their radicalism on a society that doesn’t want it. The trick, which Obama has internalized, is to masquerade as a concerned but benign member of that society and speak in high-minded abstractions – “our values,” “social justice,” “equality,” “dignity,” and the like. That way, you sell yourself as a well-intentioned leader but, upon acquiring power, determinedly shift Leviathan toward your own radical conception of values, justice, equality, and dignity.

It is a long march, and compromises — like surging troops in order to withdraw troops — have to be made along the way. But those compromises keep Alinskyites politically viable. As Ayers has found in his second act, as an “education reformer,” that’s a better prescription for success than blowing up the Pentagon. Explaining that he was still a “revolutionary, but just a more effective one,” Van Jones — a former avowed Communist who became Obama’s friend, fellow Alinskyite, and “green jobs czar” — put it this way in explaining why he now works within the system: “I’m willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends.” As Horowitz notes, “It was the Alinsky doctrine perfectly expressed.”

Placed in this framework, President Obama’s West Point speech was totally predictable. During the presidential campaign, he and his party cynically raised the Afghanistan mission to a noble calling, not because they thought it really was one but because it made their political attack on the war in Iraq more effective. Now, Obama is cratering in the polls and his party is in even worse shape. At this point, they can’t afford to abandon the noble calling: Even the legacy media couldn’t protect them from the fallout, which would have intensified when the Taliban overran Karzai — right about the time we headed into our 2010 midterm elections. So we can’t leave, but we can’t wage war either. The Obama Left can tolerate, barely, the appearance of waging war, if that’s what it takes to prevent rank-and-file Democrats from revolting. But the president’s base has no interest in defeating anti-American Muslims (who have a point, after all), or in pursuing American interests for their own sake.

What to do? The Right has given Obama his escape hatch. Conservatives keep talking about “victory,” but they never define it. We keep saying, “Give General McChrystal the troops he needs to win,” when neither McChrystal nor Obama is talking about winning, but about nation building. We’re mum on that: Half of us are convinced that the promotion of “Islamic democracy” is worth a try but remain reluctant to say so for fear of turning the rest of us, and the country, against the mission; the other half know it’s a bad idea but are reluctant to say so for fear of appearing not to support our troops. Thus, because we’re as vague as Obama when it comes to “victory” — a word the commander-in-chief won’t even utter — no one dwells on what the additional troops will actually do in Afghanistan. We’re content with the illusion that more troops means more resolve to fight and kill the enemy.

#page#So Obama knew he’d be fine politically as long as he agreed to send some reinforcements — low-balled, but reasonably close to the 40,000 extra troops in McChrystal’s request. Now the president can continue purporting to define the mission, in his own words, “narrowly . . . as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist allies,” while conservatives gush that we are over there to demolish bin Laden’s network and the Taliban. In reality, we’ll be chasing the thankless, impossible dream of turning Kabul into Kansas. Our unwavering resolve for this task will last 18 months, during which time we will continue solidifying the new narrative that the war is not ours but Afghanistan’s and that the hapless Karzai isn’t producing results fast enough. That will get Democrats through the midterms.

In the middle of 2011, the “taking into account conditions on the ground” part of Obama’s strategy will kick in. If, by talking down Karzai (which Obama continued doing in his speech), the Left succeeds in souring the country on the Afghanistan enterprise such that the president’s reelection chances won’t be impaired by a withdrawal, the president will pull out. If, instead, the noble cause is still popularly perceived as noble, Obama will reprise the West Point two-step: satisfying the Right by staying the course, and satisfying the Left by re-promising a phased withdrawal in about 18 months, so that those resources can be invested here at home in rebuilding our economy and putting Americans back to work (unemployment should be hovering around 12 percent by then). That’s the plan.


The president’s seduction of the Right would be amusing if it weren’t working so well. His speech’s “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies” section led off with this whopper: “Our nation was founded in resistance to oppression.” Does anyone say, Hey, wait a second: This is the same guy who said our nation was founded as an oppressor — our “fundamentally flawed” Constitution reflective of the “deep flaws in American culture,” including racism, “the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day”? No, no need to get into that. After all, now Obama is ringing our chimes:

More than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades – a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

#ad#Maybe he’ll even call us in the morning. In the mean time, we’ll pretend he’s not the “white folks’ greed runs a world in need” guy. If he’s going to say we’re the greatest country ever ever — even as he takes it apart brick by brick — why spoil the mood? Why remind people that on the eve of the election he vowed to “fundamentally transform the United States of America”? Why point out that he has said it was the “world coming together” — not that Reagan guy — that felled the Berlin Wall; that he despises free financial markets; that he usually portrays our capitalist economy as causing poverty; that he is actively clinging to a scientific hoax — man-made “climate change” — even as it crumbles all around him? And the frontiers of human liberty? Suddenly, Obama has decided America is the champion that “tends to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples”? This, from the guy who turned a blind eye to the massacring mullahs, wouldn’t meet with the Dalai Lama for fear of offending Chinese Communists, and tried to force a Chavez-style thug on democratic Honduras? Isn’t it just a bit much?

Apparently not. Not when he agrees to unleash the greatest fighting force of what he now says is the greatest nation ever against the “epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda.” “Didn’t you hear him?” say conservative flush with hope at the change. Even now, “new attacks are being plotted as I speak,” declared the president. “This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat.” “This danger will only grow if the region slides backwards and al-Qaeda can operate with impunity.” We must “break the Taliban’s momentum.” We must “deny al-Qaeda safe-haven.”

Boffo! So how are we going to do that? Whom do we attack first?

Attack? No, no, we’re not going to attack. We’re implementing the McChrystal plan. That’s the one that says “our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces.” Indeed, contrary to the president’s suggestion at West Point, the general says, “This is their war” — meaning, the Afghans’ war — “not mine.”

Wait a second, didn’t the president say, “It is important to recall why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan in the first place”? He was very clear that we are fighting the “violent extremists” because they attacked us, not Afghanistan, right? Well, yes, that’s what he said — Alinskyites will say anything. But what he said has nothing in common with what he’s planning to do. The plan is not for us to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It’s for us to convince the Afghans that they should fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban, that our war is really their war.

Obama’s speech thus offered up a laughable history of the Afghan people. They’re a peaceful bunch who were just minding their own business when, out of the blue, they were “ravaged by Soviet occupation.” (Actually, the Soviets intervened when the country disintegrated into chaos after Afghan Marxists tried to remake Afghanistan’s tribal Muslim society.) Then, Obama’s story goes, they somehow became the passive victims of their own civil war. In Obama’s telling, the Taliban is “a ruthless, repressive, and radical movement” that emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, because America — who else? — was inattentive. In fact, the Taliban is an Afghan movement, sprung quite naturally from the Islamic fundamentalism rampant in Pashtun society. It was strategically nurtured by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, our supposed allies against what Obama can’t bring himself to call jihadist terrorism. According to Obama, this spontaneously generated Taliban “seized control” of Afghanistan. But the Taliban is Afghanistan. They’re not a foreign force. Any victorious faction would have “seized control” — control was what the civil war was about.

The Taliban, Obama continued, went on to harbor al-Qaeda, “a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam.” Obama didn’t get into how exactly al-Qaeda did this, the better to avoid the inconvenience that the Koran actually does say the things al-Qaeda claims it says. But the suggestion that al-Qaeda was imposed on the unwilling Afghans — or, even sillier, that the Afghans were “confronted with occupation . . . by foreign al-Qaeda fighters” — is absurd. Bin Laden’s ties to such Afghan warlords as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (twice the prime minister of Afghanistan) were longstanding, dating back to al-Qaeda’s origin in the anti-Soviet resistance. That is, al-Qaeda, as a fundamentalist Islamic movement, was tolerated and even admired in Afghanistan before there ever was a Taliban. Sure, lots of Afghan factions hated bin Laden, too, but the Afghans make a habit of hating and fighting amongst themselves and their Arab interlopers — unless and until there is a common infidel enemy to target.


At that point, sharia kicks in and the Islamic world’s most influential religious authorities declare it a duty to attack the occupiers until they leave. And it doesn’t matter that, unlike the Soviets, “We have no interest in occupying your country,” as the president sought to assure the Afghans. Nor will the Muslim ulema be much impressed by the president’s cloying assurance of “a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.” Our good intentions are irrelevant.

#page#Has anyone noticed that in Mecca and Medina, the crown jewels of our Saudi partners, non-Muslims may not enter — not occupy, but even enter? Fundamentalist Muslims — not only terrorists but millions of Muslims who consider themselves faithful to Islamic doctrine — are offended by our mere presence as a military force in their countries. Even the perception that we are trying to implant Western mores and governance in a Muslim nation would be an affront, and what’s on tap here is more than perception. For all our vaunted mult-culti sensitivity, we can’t get beyond our self-regard and see ourselves as they see us. Because our clueless position, reiterated by Obama, remains that Islam, “one of the world’s great religions,” must be “distorted and defiled” in order to “justify the slaughter of innocents,” we remain blind to the stubborn fact that they don’t see us as innocents. Indeed, the McChrystal plan barely mentions Islam, notwithstanding that it is the most important fact on the ground in Afghanistan and the source of the ideology that drives the terrorist threat. But ignoring it won’t make it go away.

In any event, the president gives the game away in disingenuously describing dissenters from his plan: “Those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility [and] . . . call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort, one that would commit us to a nation building project of up to a decade.” If we were actually in pursuit of the vital national interest “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future,” there could be no timetable constraining that worthy goal. The nation would commit to stay as long as it took to win, and we dissenters would be the plan’s most ardent supporters. To be sure, it’s laughable when a president who has now spent generations’ worth of money we don’t have suddenly “refuses to set goals that go beyond . . . our means.” Afghanistan is a rounding error compared to Obama’s monstrous domestic agenda. But Obama is not too embarrassed to say such things, because he doesn’t see this fleeting surge as a matter of national security. It’s nation building, pure and simple, and, while defending our nation has no price tag, building somebody else’s does. If this were really the war we set out to fight after 9/11, our warriors would not be hamstrung by rules of engagement that require them to retreat, and result in their taking rather than inflicting casualties, simply because there is the slightest chance of harming civilians. Those rules are imposed because we are nation building — in a place where they don’t want our kind of nation, much less Obama’s kind of nation.

#ad#I’ve never liked the McChrystal plan, but give the general his due: He was committed to it for the long haul. He understood that to have a prayer of success (and dragging Afghanistan from the 7th century into the Third World would be a marked improvement), we had to commit to the place for many years. Michael Yon, a McChrystal-plan backer, forthrightly urges that America must “adopt” Afghanistan. Diana West, moreover, reminds us that we’ve already been through a 30-year comprehensive development program in Afghanistan (from 1946 to 1976) that failed miserably even without any Taliban or al-Qaeda blowing it to smithereens. But commitment is not in Obama’s stars. The president is adopting all the fuzzy “let’s not kill all the terrorists because it just breeds more terrorists” parts of McChrystal’s framework, but the “let’s instead dig in for as long as it takes to build a functioning government so the Afghans have a stake in ridding their society of violent extremists” parts have been ditched.

The surge in troops is to be followed immediately by the drawdown in troops. Even while we make it clear that we’re not planning to stick around, we will somehow persuade Afghan Muslims to carry on the fight on our behalf against their fellow Afghan Muslims. And in that 18-month bat of an eye, we will do what we haven’t been able to do in seven years, namely, turn Afghan security forces into competent soldiers and police who are motivated to do what we’re telling them it’s not worth our effort to do: battle the Taliban (who are not leaving in 18 months, by the way). And, in that same blink of an eye, we’ll also do what no one’s been able to do in history: Turn Afghanistan into a functioning country.

This would be preposterous if it were actually a national-security strategy. But it’s not. It’s a political strategy. It’s incoherent, but it’s working: The Right is snowed, the Left is appeased. We’re coming, but we’re leaving. We’re sending thousands of warriors, but they won’t be making war. We’re nation building in a place we’d have to occupy for a century to build a nation, but we’re not occupiers, and we’ll be calling it a wrap in 18 months. In the interim, Afghanistan can go off the radar while we socialize medicine, save the planet from the contrived heat death, and get ACORN busy on the midterms. We can deal with Afghanistan again in July 2011, when we’ll have a better read on the landscape for Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. Saul Alinsky would be proud.

National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (Encounter Books, 2008).

Most Popular


White Cats and Black Swans

Making a film of Cats is a bold endeavor — it is a musical with no real plot, based on T. S. Eliot’s idea of child-appropriate poems, and old Tom was a strange cat indeed. Casting Idris Elba as the criminal cat Macavity seems almost inevitable — he has always made a great gangster — but I think there was ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The White Ghetto

Editor's Note: In celebration of Kevin D. Williamson’s newest book, The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics, National Review is republishing some of our favorites of his from the past ten years. This article originally appeared in the December 16, 2013, issue of National ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Other Case against Reparations

Reparations are an ethical disaster. Proceeding from a doctrine of collective guilt, they are the penalty for slavery and Jim Crow, sins of which few living Americans stand accused. An offense against common sense as well as morality, reparations would take from Bubba and give to Barack, never mind if the former ... Read More
Politics & Policy

May I See Your ID?

Identity is big these days, and probably all days: racial identity, ethnic identity, political identity, etc. Tribalism. It seems to be baked into the human cake. Only the consciously, persistently religious, or spiritual, transcend it, I suppose. (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor ... Read More
Health Care

The Puzzling Problem of Vaping

San Francisco -- A 29-story office building at 123 Mission Street illustrates the policy puzzles that fester because of these facts: For centuries, tobacco has been a widely used, legal consumer good that does serious and often lethal harm when used as it is intended to be used. And its harmfulness has been a ... Read More