The military effort against the Islamic State hinges on a successful threefold approach involving intelligence, homeland security, and diplomacy. Unfortunately, the Obama administration does not have much past history in these areas to warrant confidence.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper just announced that the U.S. has underestimated the Islamic State. Clapper was probably correct, if unwise in apprising the world of U.S. incompetence. But he left out of his apologia any mention of why the U.S. has continuously downplayed the dangers of radical Islam. The answer is largely found among the Obama team, of which Clapper is a key part, and which has constructed its assessments to fit preconceived political directives.
The overriding belief of the Obama administration is that there is not really a radical Islamic movement that seeks to destroy the present nation-state order in the Middle East, form some sort of caliphate out of the mess, and then marshal the region’s population and resources to attack the West.
Clapper himself usually adheres to that belief. He once described the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as largely secular. His veracity and his judgment are equally suspect. Under oath before Congress, he once insisted that the NSA did not gather information on ordinary Americans — a flat-out lie (or, as he put it, the “least untruthful” answer he was in a position to give). He also once assured us that Moammar Qaddafi would survive in Libya.
The present director of the CIA, John Brennan, called the idea of a caliphate absurd. He has given us all sorts of strained, politically correct takes on jihad (“a holy struggle,” “a legitimate tenet of Islam”). He warned us when he took office in 2013 that the new Obama administration would focus on “extremists” rather than radical Islamists. That naïveté might explain why, days after the foiled attempt by the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Brennan seemed to have almost no detailed knowledge of the plot and suggested that there had been no breakdown in either intelligence or airport security. Then again, Brennan also once assured us that there had not been a single collateral death from drone attacks for an entire year, and insisted to U.S. senators that the CIA had never hacked into their computers.
Our two intelligence czars in their earlier political manifestations were once staunch defenders of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, when it was helpful career-wise to be so. Then they became public critics when it was more helpful to denounce them and to join the Obama team. Once upon a time, Clapper defended one of the many casus belli for going into Iraq by stating that Iraq had transferred its WMDs to Syria, a believable, if not politically correct, assertion that Clapper has never since repeated. Brennan, in his own earlier Bush incarnation, was a strong advocate of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols — including enhanced interrogations — which he subsequently derided as counterproductive.
If our intelligence grandees have been naïve about the dangers of radical Islam, have we at least enjoyed competent Homeland Security directors? Again, there is reason to worry. Former director Janet Napolitano once urged that we move away from using the word “terrorism” and the supposedly accompanying “politics of fear” to prefer instead “man-caused disasters.” That gullibility reflected an ongoing administration campaign of euphemisms among copycat bureaucrats, from “workplace violence” to “overseas contingency operations.” We see this again in the administration’s fashionable collective denial that the Islamic State has anything to do with Islam — as if foreign tourists visited Mecca as freely as they do the Vatican; as if Muslim apostates picked and chose their new religions as easily and safely as do Protestants; as if beheadings and stonings were as frequent in Paris and Houston as they are in Riyadh and Teheran; as if Bibles were brought into Iran and Saudi Arabia as freely as Korans are into America; as if churches sprouted up in Turkey, Iran, and Gaza as do mosques in Britain and Michigan; and as if women and gays were as equal in the Middle East as they are in the West. Islam is not just different from the West, but different in a manner that means its own extreme versions manifest themselves in predictable ways.
To deflect criticism about an increasingly open southern border, Napolitano suggested falsely that the 9/11 attackers had come through Canada to the United States. She also suggested in an official assessment that the real threat of terrorism in this country came from supposed right-wing groups, among them veterans and critics of Obama, not radical Islamists. Like Brennan, she was unconcerned about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; she even claimed that “the system worked” when he successfully got on a plane with a bomb in his underwear and tried to blow up 290 people — as if a mechanical failure in the bomb’s triggering device had reflected her department’s vigilance.
Unfortunately, Jeh Johnson, Napolitano’s successor, does not seem eager to adopt new policies. Recently, he seemed equally clueless about the threat of radical Islam. When testifying to Congress, he was asked about reports of Middle Easterners crossing illegally into the U.S. across the southern border. He seemed completely unconcerned about the possibility. (“I’ve heard reports to that effect. I don’t know the accuracy of the reports or how much credence to give them. But I’ve heard reports to that effect.”)
Hillary Clinton is all but running for president, boasting about her reset diplomacy while secretary of state during Obama’s first term. But it is hard to find a single example of inspired diplomacy during her tenure. Canceling missile-defense cooperation with the Czechs and Poles while resetting relations with Vladimir Putin was not wise. Nor was leading from behind in Libya (“We came, we saw, and he died”). Nor was her emphasis on climate change as a global threat or her pressure on Israel to grant concessions supposedly to ensure Middle East peace. Nor was welcoming the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Nor was ignoring requests for beefed-up security at the consulate in Benghazi. Nor was claiming that the deaths of the four Americans in Benghazi were due to a spontaneous riot over a video (“What difference at this point does it make?”). Nor was pulling all troops out of Iraq. Nor was lifting the embargos and trade sanctions against Iran. Nor was much of anything except an impressive near million miles of traveling while secretary, an astonishing feat for someone in her sixties and often in poor health.
Perhaps John Kerry will eventually be an improvement. But so far, his assessment of the threat of the Islamic State and what to do about it have often been at odds with the characterizations of both the president and the Joint Chiefs. Kerry was once widely quoted as assuring us that Bashar Assad was a “man of his word” and “generous.” He and Obama were both confused over red lines, and it helped little that Kerry then assured Americans that any strikes would be “unbelievably small.” His offhanded remarks about WMDs gave Vladimir Putin a green light to enter the Syrian fray. The Bowe Bergdahl swap let loose five dangerous terrorists and may have encouraged further hostage taking by radical Islamists.
In the politically correct administration worldview the Islamic State is not Islamic. The Muslim Brotherhood is secular and to be welcomed into office. A caliphate is absurd. Terrorism is really just workplace violence and man-caused disasters, and it can be dealt with by overseas contingency operations. Right-wing videos and ad hoc demonstrations are the real dangers to our consulates. The Canadian border is as dangerously porous as the Mexican border. Right-wing terrorists are more likely than Islamists to commit another 9/11 terrorist attack. In President Obama’s words, the result is that the world has never been calmer, or America safer.
Obama’s confederacy of intelligence, security, and diplomatic minds is aimed at denying that there is something called radical Islamic terrorism, a movement that has enlisted millions in its cause to destroy the West.
The Obama team’s apparent aim is to assure Muslims that the United States does not associate the rise of terrorist killers in their midst with any passive or active support from the wider Muslim community. This way, the Muslim world supposedly will appreciate American friendliness and engage with us in defeating those whose nature and agenda we will out of politeness not mention publicly. Given that commandment, intelligence, security, and diplomacy reflect theory, not reality.
What then keeps us safe? Three considerations alone.
First, for all the convenient trashing of the Bush-Cheney protocols, so far the Obama administration has quietly kept most of them. It tried to square the circle of embracing what it once denounced by creating euphemisms and politically correct banalities while the drones bombed on, the renditions kept occurring, and the NSA stepped up its spying.
Second, the U.S. military, despite massive cuts and efforts to force on it proper politically correct mentalities, is still preeminent. Just as it had broken the back of the insurgencies in Iraq by 2009 and killed thousands of would-be global terrorists who flocked to Anbar Province, so too, if it is unleashed, it can probably destroy the Islamic State.
Third, so far we have been very lucky, and yet we are not out of the woods. The underwear bomber easily could have blown up nearly 300 Americans and paralyzed air travel for months. The Tsarnaev brothers could have dropped off more backpack bombs in Boston and tripled the number of casualties. Iran is probably accelerating its efforts to get a bomb before Obama leaves office. We still have no strategy to stop the onslaught of the Islamic State. Putin may soon invade a NATO-member Baltic State — just to see what the United States is going to do about it.
So real dangers will persist for the rest of Obama’s tenure. Our enemies have been carefully watching the administration’s hedging and self-doubt, and have taken the full measure of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and their diplomatic, intelligence, and security subordinates. They understand all too well how we view red lines, step-over lines, deadlines, and other assorted threats.
What we are doing silently from the past is saving us from what we are saying loudly in the present — at least for a bit longer.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.