Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

Our Bungled War on Terror

(Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)

Speaking to a joint session of Congress a week after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the 9/11 atrocities, President George W. Bush outlined the only strategy that has ever had a chance of winning the “war on terror.” The plan, which became known as the Bush doctrine, had two simple steps: The United States would hunt down terrorist organizations — meaning, violent jihadists — wherever on earth they set up shop; and nations that abetted terrorists would be treated as terrorists — meaning that the United States would pressure rogue regimes until they reformed or were ousted.

Fourteen years later, the administration of President Barack Obama has inked a multilateral agreement that makes Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, a threshold nuclear power. Sanctions relief provides it with a $150 billion windfall that, the mullahs crow, will be used to continue underwriting Hezbollah, Hamas, and their other jihadist clients. The trillions spent and lives sacrificed in years of war against jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan have been squandered, with the former country now essentially surrendered to Tehran while the latter is gradually returning to the Taliban — which Obama gifted with a seat at the Afghanistan negotiation table and the release of its detained commanders even as the jihadists continued conducting offensive operations against our troops and the fledgling government we’d been propping up for over a decade.

The map of what used to be Iraq and Syria must be redrawn, because much of the territory has been seized, and the border erased, by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, or ISIL — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or the Levant). A breakaway faction of al-Qaeda that originated as the terror network’s franchise in Iraq, ISIS is building its caliphate by barbaric conquest, a rampage in which Christians and other religious minorities are programmatically enslaved, raped, crucified, immolated, and otherwise brutalized.

ISIS’s mother ship–turned–rival, al-Qaeda, is also thriving. Notwithstanding Obama’s risible claims to have put the organization on “the path to defeat,” its tentacles now reach farther than they did in the pre-9/11 days, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula and northern Africa — in hubs such as Libya, a now-failed state where a terrorist attack on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 killed the U.S. ambassador and three other American officials.

Meanwhile, the world’s most influential Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been ousted from power in Egypt — no thanks to the Obama administration, which championed its accession despite its commitment to install sharia, Islam’s repressive legal code, and its ardent support of Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch. The Brothers make headway in other states — including Turkey, our NATO “ally” whose Islamist government is a staunch Brotherhood supporter — and throughout the West, where the Brotherhood has spent three generations building an impressive political, financial, educational, and social infrastructure.

How have we gone from a sound strategy to a catastrophic outcome? Why are our enemies winning?

The most succinct answer is that the Bush doctrine, for all its elegant simplicity, proved too difficult for our modern culture to apply. The 9/11 attacks were more devastating than the bombing of Pearl Harbor — killing more Americans, destroying the Twin Towers, an iconic symbol of American economic might, and striking the Pentagon, the center of American military might. But this was not America circa 1941.

The schizophrenic Bush administration placed the nation on war footing while rhetorically absolving Islam, a mainstream, virulently anti-Western interpretation of which doctrinally underpins jihadist terror.

Of course, sharia supremacism is far from the only construction of Islam, and Muslims by the tens of millions reject it, struggle to reform it, or are indifferent to it. The desire to avoid alienating them was (and remains) prudent. Yet what seized Washington was not merely a prudent desire; it was a politically correct obsession, a mulish determination to avoid grasping the ideology that knits disparate Islamist factions together against their perceived enemies: non-Muslims, particularly the United States, Israel, and Europe.

Willful blindness about the nature of a threat does not make the threat go away; it creates a void of thought and strategy. In the matter of grappling with Islamic extremism, that void has been filled by delusion and opportunism. With a shroud over the enemy’s convictions — its belief in a divine summons to implement and spread sharia, by violence when necessary; its aim to conquer America and the West, just as it believes it conquered the Soviet Union — alternative theories of Islamic aggression gained currency.

The center-right settled on fantasy: Islam is a “religion of peace” with no intrinsic summons to aggression; hence, the correlation of Islam and terrorism was mere happenstance, not causation. Indeed, terrorism was nonsensically reframed as “violent extremism” — as if the violence were causing itself. Government officials in the United States and Europe even referred to jihadist brutality as “anti-Islamic” activity. The Bush doctrine was refurbished to prescribe Islam as the solution to our security problem, not a significant contributor to it. Campaigns to defeat the enemy by military and intelligence operations morphed into exercises in sharia-democracy–building, on the bien-pensant theory that Western liberty and Islamic law were seamlessly compatible. (The new constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which the U.S. State Department helped draft, explicitly incorporate sharia as governing law. Although they also include Western human-rights guarantees, they provide that no law that contradicts sharia is valid.)

The Left took this ball and ran with it. Not only was Islam blameless; the real culprit threatening American national security was American government policy. This was conveniently interpreted to mean any policy abhorrent to the Left: the pursuit of U.S. interests; the treatment of terrorism as a military rather than a law-enforcement issue; the deployment of U.S. forces in Muslim countries; the focus on intelligence-gathering; the detention and interrogation of terrorists; the American alliance with Israel and support of its purported “occupation” of “Palestine”; and the failure to engage Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a bloc of 57 sharia-promoting Muslim countries hostile to Israel and free speech.

It has been 14 years of consciously avoiding the nature of a growing threat, of enabling and empowering the enemy. If the world is exploding, it is not hard to see why — or it wouldn’t be if we opened our eyes.

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