Last week, the Washington Post ran a story of a type familiar to its longtime readers: the random drive-by hit on a prominent Republican national-security official. In a remarkably hostile and misleading profile (“For a Trump Adviser, an Odyssey from the Fringes of Washington to the Center of Power”), the paper portrayed White House counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka as something akin to a national-security danger himself. It might be useful to reflect on what Gorka has argued, and what the policies are that he would like to see replaced.
Gorka’s critics, including at the Post, appear to have developed selective amnesia about the counterterror record of the recently departed Obama administration. Recall that Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009 determined to “end wars” against terrorists, partly by declaring these wars to be over. The former president seems to have believed that by reaching out to global Muslim opinion, expunging “jihadist,” “Islamist,” and similar terms from official documents such as the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, pressing Israelis on territorial concessions, blaming the Bush years for America’s international woes, focusing much more narrowly on the core of al-Qaeda along the Pakistanti–Afghan border, scaling back the inherited American counterterror apparatus, supporting moderate Islamists, and emphasizing his own transformative autobiographical potential, he might undercut support for terrorist jihadists throughout the Muslim world.
It didn’t work out as planned. Over the eight years of the Obama administration, while the original core of al-Qaeda was hammered, its affiliates and like-minded groups expanded in scale and influence through North Africa, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, the Sinai Peninsula, Syria, and Iraq. In particular, jihadists and militant Islamists took advantage of the chaos stirred up by the Arab Spring — along with Obama’s missteps in relation to this — to expand their geographic scope. The creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, made easier by American disengagement from Iraq at the end of 2011, was only the most dramatic of jihadist expansions.
Sometimes these groups coordinate with one another, as captured Bin Laden documents from 2011 make clear. Sometimes they contest for leadership of the global jihadist movement, as ISIS came to do with al-Qaeda. But they are all violently hostile toward the United States and bent on its humiliation and destruction, regardless of who is president and apart from any specific changes in American foreign policy. Indeed, jihadist attacks inside the United States only intensified under Obama.
Sebastian Gorka lays out his views on all this in his 2016 book Defeating Jihad. There he compares today’s global jihadist insurgents to 20th-century totalitarian movements such as Nazism and Communism, and he makes the case for a countering approach inspired by George Kennan and Paul Nitze, two of America’s most effective Cold War strategists. Gorka argues that Obama’s visible failures on counterterrorism were due to his misunderstanding of the enemy, followed inevitably by poor strategy. Obama consistently underestimated the sheer ideological breadth, intensity, and interconnectedness of the global jihadist movement even when its members sometimes fought one another.
The chief grievance of jihadists is neither joblessness nor regional authoritarianism (since they are themselves authoritarian) nor the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Rather, as part of a formidable transnational movement going back decades, jihadists seek to topple local rulers, erase national boundaries, establish strict Islamic law, expunge Western influence, kill American civilians, and restore an Islamic caliphate. Obama never quite seemed to grasp the full scale of this challenge.
Above all, Gorka favors a plain description of the enemy. And this is precisely what gets him into trouble with outlets such the Washington Post.
Yet while Gorka is hard on Obama, he does not entirely let George W. Bush off the hook. He credits Bush for good intentions but suggests that he was too optimistic about the possibilities for democratic nation-building in Iraq — especially given the dismantling of Baath institutions under American occupation.
For the most part, Gorka favors bolstered efforts against jihadists not through large-scale U.S. counterinsurgency and nation-building operations but through the more aggressive use of special operations, psychological warfare, direct action, technical support, and foreign internal defense, to stiffen the spines of our allies in Muslim armies throughout the region. Above all, Gorka favors a plain description of the enemy. And this is precisely what gets him into trouble with outlets such the Washington Post.
The Post’s print version of the Gorka profile carried the title “Gorka’s Views on Islam Drive Trump’s Security Agenda.” The implication, repeated throughout the article, is that Gorka views the Muslim religion itself as the enemy. But he says exactly the opposite. Here is what he said in Defeating Jihad:
We are not at war with Islam. The people most immanently in danger, in fact, are the nonviolent and non-extremist Muslims of the Middle East, such as our allies in Jordan and the modern Muslims of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
To repeat: The Muslim religion is not the enemy of the United States. The enemy is an extensive global jihadist movement that uses terrorist tactics against the United States and its allies. I find nothing in Gorka’s work to contradict this. In fact, I doubt that anyone associated with the Post profile bothered to read the man’s book. Gorka’s only claim is that jihadist militants consider themselves Muslim and are able to reference selected texts, including Koranic passages, that they interpret in support of their views. Obviously, these militants view themselves as, among other things, inspired by their own religion. The question of what is truly Islamic, as Gorka himself says in the Post interview, is for Muslims to decide.
Of course, none of this is satisfactory to the Post, so what we get in the article is a lot of heavy breathing about how “profoundly dangerous” it would be to name our terrorist adversaries as jihadist. Obama used to do something similarly slippery, claiming that his Republican critics believed that if only radical Islamist terrorists were publicly identified, they would vanish in a puff of smoke. We never believed any such thing. What we do believe is that you cannot have an effective strategy if you can’t even name the enemy or understand his ideological purposes. Obama’s counterterror policies were unsatisfactory in that he failed to either fully grasp or act on such an understanding.
This goes to a broader point about how the Washington Post has covered the Trump administration. Normally, the election of a new president is a moment when everyone takes a deep breath, partisan passions subside a little, and the incoming president enjoys at least a few weeks to implement his stated promises. In this case, no such luck. The editors of the Post have made it painfully clear, from literally the morning after Trump’s election, that they look not so much to report evenly on the new administration as to oppose it.
The Post’s editors seem to have mostly collapsed the traditional distinction between the op-ed page and the news section.
In a free republic such as the United States, they have that right and of course will continue to exercise it. But let’s not pretend that their reportage has been consistently fair or objective, because it hasn’t. For one thing, the Post’s editors seem to have mostly collapsed the traditional distinction between the op-ed page and the news section. In the latter, on almost any given day, one can find at least one story about Trump written in an amazingly snide, hostile, and partisan tone, as if this kind of writing were news. Profiles of serious figures such as Gorka, so long as they are Republican and working for Trump, read all too often like catty gossip columns. The tone of the news section then becomes indistinguishable not only from a very negative op-ed section, which is inappropriate in itself, but even from the Post’s rather weak entertainment section, with titles like “Ariana Grande Is on the Brink of a Major Image Problem. How Can She Fix It?”
During the George W. Bush administration, when teaching college classes in foreign policy, I used to defend the Post and similarly elite venues from charges of media bias. Perhaps this was naïve. Bush alumni will remember how their own service to their country was covered. In any case, I no longer defend these venues as unbiased. During the 2008 presidential election, as even honest Democrats admit, the Post dropped all pretense at objectivity and was entirely in the can for Barack Obama. Fundamentally, it remained so for the next eight years, despite some welcome and sincere criticisms from its editorial board about Obama’s foreign policy. I continue to read the Post every morning over breakfast, but not because it’s consistently objective. Rather, it’s an increasingly reliable barometer of liberal Beltway hysteria in the Age of Trump.
We seem to be moving forward in time, or perhaps backward, toward a media model reminiscent of the 18th- or 19th-century English-speaking world, when openly partisan venues slugged it out back and forth. And in a way, that’s fine. Britain and America were also free countries in those days, not fascist dictatorships. A free, rambunctious, and quarrelsome press didn’t seem to do us any harm. Quite the opposite.
But don’t tell me that the Washington Post’s front-page story on Sebastian Gorka and counterterrorism was fair. Because it wasn’t.