The recent terror attacks in Paris thrust the issue of terrorism, its relation with Islam, and how to defeat it back into the forefront of national debate. At the same time, it has created a wave of reckless rhetoric on the far right. That rhetoric while not amounting to treason, or approaching sedition, certainly falls within the definition of defamation. Because we are engaged in a global war on terror, should we not challenge such rhetoric and question its intellectual and logical underpinnings or lack thereof? Should not the proponents of such rhetoric be taken to task?
Since the Paris attacks, there has been a near endless procession of articles and commentary that seeks to portray progressives, the mainstream media and the Obama administration as being muddled and confused in their thinking regarding the terror issue. Representative of this effort is Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly. In his nightly diatribe against all things progressive, he has portrayed all of the abovementioned parties as avoiding the central issues of Islamic terror. In his opinion, they collectively act as apologists for radical Islam. O’Reilly justifies his position by way of a simple argument. If you are not talking about Islam in connection with terror, specifically using the phrases “radical Islam” or “Islamic terror”, then you are not on topic. He states it is difficult to “convince left wing zealots” of the gravity of the issue at hand and that, these people put our security at risk. The administration is portrayed as lacking an orchestrated approach and a well-grounded strategy. Simply put, Obama is disengaged from the fight. O’Reilly regularly mocks the fact that most Muslims are not overtly prone to violence in spite of the fact that there have been empirical studies that refute his position. See M. Steven Fish: Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence referenced below. He insists to a fault that the White House and the mainstream media consistently misreport on issues related to terrorism. Moreover, they shy away from a full-throated endorsement of “free speech” by declining to reproduce the controversial cover from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Also appearing regularly on Fox is Neoconservative Steven Hayes of the Weekly Standard who believes that the Obama administration largely focuses on Al Qaeda because, “They don’t want to admit that they aren’t prosecuting the war on terror”, and that “Day after day the administration dances around the term “Islamic Terror” and it confuses everyone.”
Fox News is not the only national conservative news organ to have so heavily invested in this rhetorical exercise. Even the National Review, once the most prominent conservative periodical in the country, has charted a similar course. Editor Richard Lowry: “The Obama administration’s mind-bogglingly determined refusal to say that we are at war with “radical Islam,” together with the left’s evasions about Islamic terrorism means that there has been a haze of euphemism and cowardice around what should be a galvanizing event in the West’s fight against terror.” The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg argues that those who avoid using the phrases “radical Islam” or “Islamic terror and instead use words like extremist and terrorist think that we are merely at war with “unspecified extremists.” Even MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough made the outlandish claim that “Christians don’t go out and kill 3000 people in a reference to September 11, 2001. Readers could go “down market” from here and find all manner of such commentary in the tabloids, on the blogosphere, on FaceBook and on Twitter.
At this point, it is imperative to take issue with the multiple misconceptions and misrepresentations outlined above and deal with them each in its turn. In doing so I have spent a good deal of time researching what the administration has said, what the military commanders have said, and what national security scholars have written on the subject. The bottom line is that the obsession with whether or not the President, the administration, the combatant commanders or progressives regularly use the phrases “Islamic terror” or “radical Islam” is a meaningless exercise in word games and is, as such, a contrived issue. If the professionals prosecuting and analyzing the war are not using these phrases are they even important? If they are in fact unimportant why continue to make this an issue?
First, look at how President Obama recently addressed the rise of ISIS in Syria. He spoke directly to the terror threat posed by ISIS on multiple occasions: “Because of our strikes, the terrorists of ISIL are losing arms and equipment. In some areas, Iraqi government and Kurdish forces have begun to push them back” and “U.S. intelligence officials failed to appreciate the gains made by Islamic State extremists in Syria during the last few years of that country’s civil war.” At the U.N. Security Council Mr. Obama made clear that, we are fighting what he called “the cancer of violent extremism, embodied in groups such as Islamic State.” In a 2013 address at the National Defense University the president clearly outlined his thought process on terror: “Most, though not all, of the terrorism we faced is fueled by a common ideology — a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam. In addition, the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist attacks, rejects this ideology. Nevertheless, this ideology persists…”
Attorney General Eric Holder appeared on Meet the Press the weekend after the Paris attacks and was asked: “Would you say the United States is at war with radical Islam? Holder’s answer: “Well, I would say that we are at war with terrorists who commit these heinous acts and who use Islam, they use a corrupted version of Islam to justify their actions.” Later in the week, Martha MacCallum of Fox News interviewed the State Department’s Maria Harf. Harf had no problem saying that we’re at war with Islamic terror but went on to point out that the administration seeks not to overuse phrases like Islamic terror and radical Islam so as not to conflate Islam with terror thereby radicalizing Muslims who might not otherwise be prone join in with terrorists.
The point here is a simple one, if the administration and other concerned parties are talking about Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab what else are they talking about other than radical Islam or Islamic terror? The fact that the administration does not utter the phrases “Islamic terror” or “radical Islam” in every other sentence is immaterial. Does anyone think that when Osama Bin Laden was about to die or that those terrorists dying amidst the rubble of drone-targeted buildings in Yemen are in any way confused as to who is killing them and why? If commentators on the far right and their audience can’t discern the complexities involved in the war on terror or the nuances employed by the administration in its attempt to deter the further recruitment of Muslims radicals into the fight, who then is it that is confused? There is little in the way of logical thinking that would bring any prudent person to doubt that the administration knows who it is currently fighting or why it is carrying out that fight.
I reviewed a good deal of testimony on Capitol Hill, commentary in Department of Defense News and other sources and found that our top military leaders rarely if ever use the phrases “Islamic terror” or “radical Islam”, in fact most never do. Referenced below are numerous citations by General Martin Dempsey U.S. Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Campbell U.S. Army, Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps and former Commander, International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. Commander U.S. Marine Corps Central Command and Lt. Gen. Steve Hummer, U.S. Marine Corps from U.S. Africa Command.
In his interview on Fox News Sunday 1/11/2015 General Dempsey never uses “Islamic terror or Islamic extremists” in his conversation with Chris Wallace. In answering Wallace’s questions General Dempsey used the phrases like radical ideology and radical extremism multiple times. With regard to the shortcomings of the Iraqis in combating ISIS General Dempsey said: “Here’s the reality of the campaign in Iraq. It’s the government of Iraqi’s strategy enabled by us. It’s not our strategy.” The General went on to point out the burden imposed on the military by sequestration, something that those on the far right originally championed but a subject on which they are now notoriously silent. To wit: “The Budget Control Act and the sequestration mechanism is imposed on us in 2016 — yes, we will have to change our strategy, become far less able to do the things that we think the country needs us to do.” The head of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) on January 20, 2015, echoed General Dempsey’s concerns: “The problem with sequestration is not primarily about numbers and statistics. It is about whether we have the capability to do what the nation needs and the times demand.” In his analysis of the current conditions in Afghanistan Army General John Campbell never once used the phrases radical Islam or Islamic terror.
General Dunford, Commandant of the USMC, in his comments on Capitol Hill and in the media never once used the words Islamic terror or Islamic radicals but used terrorism, extremism and counter terror quite freely. One can pore over all of the references below where the abovementioned generals have discussed the issues at hand and you will be hard pressed to find them talking about anything other than counter terror, radical ideology, radical extremism or terrorism per se. None of the above referenced generals could ever be referred to as “apologists”, “appeasers” or that their failures to employ stock right-wing talking points undermines our security. I would challenge anyone who thinks that one must monotonously repeat the phrases “Islamic terror” or “radical Islam” as a way of establishing one’s anti-terror credentials to take issue with these generals and to suggest to them that we do not have a strategy or that they, or their troops, are confused in their execution of it.
I went on to review the writings of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies which touts its role in “Fighting Terrorism and Promoting Freedom” in its byline. The Foundation is an organization that counts the prominent Neoconservative James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA. on its Executive Board. The Foundation publishes the Long War Journal and maintains the Threat Matrix blog. Once again having reviewed numerous publications referenced below I found few if any references to Islamic terror or Islamic radicals. Likewise, I reviewed numerous articles from the Armed Forces Journal and again, found few references to Islamic terror or radical Islam but many that addressed terror, insurgency, global war on terror, etc.
Lastly, in her rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union Speech Iowa Senator Joni Ernst spoke at length about foreign policy issues, from nuclear issues with Iran to terror and never once did she use Islamic terror or radical Islam in her speech. Ms. Ernst is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa National Guard who spent 14 months deployed in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom and 21 years in the service of her country. Are we to believe that she too is disconnected, an appeaser, an apologist? Is she cowardly because she will not frame her thoughts through the lens of far right rhetoric and because of that, her presence in the Senate Armed Services Committee undermines our national security?
When speaking of safeguarding our security many on the far right seemed to have forgotten that during the tenure of the Obama administration we have suffered from one homegrown terror attack, the Boston Marathon bombing. However, during the previous Republican administration we suffered the worst loss of life in American history on 9/11/2001. There is reluctance on the part of many on the right to acknowledge intelligence missteps stemming from failure to act on reports of an Al Qaeda plot to attack the U.S., which surfaced in August 2001. Somehow lost in the discussion, particularly when Neoconservatives are involved, is the fact that Islamic radicals have flourished within the context of failed states. There are too many on the far right who continue to fail to make the connection between the instability in Iraq resulting from an ill-conceived war and the rise of ISIS. Thus, I found it ironic when on 13 January Bill O’Reilly admitted during Talking Points that it was a mistake to undertake two wars in South Asia at the same time and that neither had done anything to impede the rise of Islamic Terror. He then went on to bemoan our continued anti-terror aid to Pakistan because we were not “putting boots on the ground” to successfully assure the outcome. Now again I ask the readers who is it that is muddled and confused in his thought process?
Those same voices on the far right seem to have forgotten the effects of the sequestration that they so vigorously championed in their “starve the beast” approach to managing government spending and how it may be hampering out counter terror efforts now, as pointed out above. One could legitimately ask what they were thinking when they initially chose not to fund the Department of Homeland Security beyond February 2015. How about those on the far right who lionized Edward Snowden and portrayed his leaks as a worthwhile endeavor in fighting government overreach. I ask the readers once more who is it that is undermining national security and may in fact be muddled and confused in their thinking.
On the subject of media misrepresentation, to say that Muslims have cornered the market on violence or are somehow prone to or innovative in using religion as a doctrine to wage holy war I would simply reiterate several established historical facts. The onset of the great era of Christian Crusades in the Middle Ages saw the widespread murder of Jews in Germany and Cathar Christians in Southern France, all amply justified, at the time by current religious thought as detailed in the Malcolm Billings book referenced below.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Serbian Christians were conducting ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and killing Muslims in Bosnia and in numbers far beyond the aforementioned 3000 lives that were lost on 9/11. In the run up to the American Civil War, passages from the Bible served as justification for maintaining the slave economy. You can verify these facts in the works of James McPherson and Eugene Genovese referenced below. Biblical justification was used in rationalizing the disenfranchisement of the American Indian from his land and with that his societal sustainability. Please see William Cronon’s book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England cited below.
In concluding the discussion on who is most at fault when it comes to misreporting and misrepresenting the story, here once again, recent facts show it is more likely to be the Fox News Network than the President, his administration or the mainstream media. To date Fox News has had to apologize four times for misreporting on the Muslim communities in Europe, particularly their characterization of large scale “no go” zones in Britain and France. Even the conservative Prime Minister of Britain, Mr. David Cameron, labeled one Fox “terror expert” a “complete idiot.” That is sad commentary coming from on of the most prominent conservative leaders in the West and our closest ally.
To the charge, that declining to reprint the covers of Charlie Hebdo amounts to “media cowardice” I would simply point out that free speech is never an absolute and never was. Free speech has always been conditioned by what is reasonable and restrained by a certain amount of self-censorship, especially in wartime. One thing is certain, you do not win wars by creating more enemies and to the extent that publishing the Charlie Hebdo cover creates more Islamic radicals the fewer reprints the better. We have heard repeatedly since the Paris attacks that French Security Forces cannot keep track of all the potential radicals within France or those who have traveled abroad. Why then would they, we, or anyone else seek to create more adversaries? Richard Engle on Meet the Press recently reported that since the original publication of the Charlie Hebdo cover satirizing the Prophet Mohamed and subsequent reprints there us been a marked up tick in recruitment into radical Islamic organizations. Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, appearing on MSNBC the week before pointed out that if Charlie Hebdo was regularly distributed in this country Evangelical Christians would flood the streets protesting less than flattering depictions of famous Christians, the Virgin Mary foremost among them. I would also point out that there was widespread condemnation on the right when Andres Serrano depicted Christ on the Cross in a glass of urine or when Chris Ofili created an image of the Virgin Mary that utilized elephant dung in its composition. Thus if we consider desecration of our religious symbols unacceptable why should not Muslims have similar feelings? We can go back and forth as to the legal particulars of free speech and as to when it should or should not be abridged, but minimizing inflammatory media during wartime or in crisis is not a hypothetical exercise but a necessity. To the extent that the far right continues to make this an issue one can only ask what their real goal is, is it to protect the First Amendment or undermine the present administration?
With regard to how today’s Muslim communities have reacted to the twin terror attacks in Paris I would point out that within hours of the attack on Charlie Hebdo the Imam of the largest Paris Mosque and many other Muslim clerics were in the street speaking out against the terrorists. Iranian scholar Reza Aslan, appearing on Meet the Press the following weekend pointed out that every legitimate Muslim organization had condemned the attack as they regularly had condemned past attacks and that those who would deny this need to learn how to use Google. Quoting Aslan, “The answer to Islamic violence is Islamic peace. The answer to Islamic bigotry is Islamic pluralism. And so that’s why I put the onus on the Muslim community, but I also recognize that that work is being done, that the voice of condemnation is deafening, and if you don’t hear it, then you’re not listening.” Even a relative of the Muslim police officer who was killed in Paris said, “These killers weren’t Muslims but terrorists.” Again, I ask the question who is doing the misrepresenting.
The fixation on the far right with the particulars of how the war on terror is being executed by the Obama administration covered by the mainstream media and conceptualized by progressives is all part in parcel of a larger socio-political grievance arising out of the profound and rapid changes affecting America today. A discussion of those changes is beyond the scope of this piece but the radicals on the far right believe there is only one version of the true America and it is theirs. Anything other than their cherished views amounts to an attempt to destroy America either overtly or covertly. This constricted approach to history, warfare and the conduct of foreign policy along with the myriad misconceptions upon which so many of their essential arguments are based, is at this time is a major source of embarrassment for both the nation and those within conservatism who hold a more balanced view. If our military commanders, conservative scholars and even a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not a bleeding heart liberal among them, refrain from using those stock phrases bandied about daily in the far right press what does that tell you? The radicals on the far right would have you believe that we have no strategy with which to fight Islamic terror but when you read, what the generals leading the fight have to say it is apparent that the radical have not done their homework. That is not to say that the strategy is a resounding success, most war planning and execution rarely goes off without a hitch. However, to say that the administration has no strategy is an outright lie. Apparently, those who are at the forefront of our anti-terror effort do not see the import of such commentary or the arguments based thereon. Am I wrong in suggesting that those who matter most in fighting the global war on terror do not take much of the criticism leveled at the administration, the media and progressives seriously, I do not think so.
In our body politic, we can abide dissent and heated discussion. However, it is in the best interest of all that that debate and discussion focus on what is best for the country rather than what is narrowly best for a particular political vision. Look at the profound differences between American politics during the Second World War and today. Roosevelt knew that it was probable that we would one day be at war with Fascism. His best assumption was that it would arise from an incident at sea resulting from the ongoing Battle for the Atlantic. A threat from Japan if it came first would be either an attack on the West Coast or the Panama Canal. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the entire immediate focus of defense and war planning changed. We lost almost the entire U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the waters off the Philippines, Malaya and Indonesia. We lost the Philippines due to serious miscalculations on the part of General Douglas MacArthur. We had widespread technical problems with torpedoes that did not detonate or reach their targets, a major impediment to waging war at sea against the Japanese. Our Army was smaller than that of many lesser European states and was woefully lacking in everything from guns to tanks to transport. Prior to the war FDR was labeled everything from Socialist to Fascist to at the very least “a traitor to his class.” That said when the nation was in danger both Republicans and Democrats rallied to put their full effort behind total victory.
I have been a student of history my entire life and I have read more on the Second World War than any other topic. I cannot remember ever seeing anything in the way of political discussion from that time that approaches the vitriol and rancor that we see today. That is particularly true when it comes to debating the war on terror. In the midst of all of this misguided and reckless rhetoric conservatives, and everyone else, should remember the words of that now famous Republican Senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Vandenberg asserted, “politics stops at the water’s edge.” The entirety of the argument waged by the far right against the Obama administration, the mainstream media and progressives generally is at this point an unwanted distraction in the war on terror. This unwanted distraction does nothing to enrich or enliven the vigorous debate between competing political schools of thought upon which viable democracies thrive. This unwanted distraction does nothing to aid in the fight against terror or in formulating changes in policy related thereto. Regrettably, with regard to the global war on terror the radical right has become part of the problem.
Steven J. Gulitti
21 January 2015
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Jihadists strike two towns in Mali, killing at least 4; http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2015/01/attack_in_central_mali_leaves.php
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Obama Silent Over Calls to Denounce “Piss Christ” Artwork; http://nation.foxnews.com/war-religion/2012/09/21/obama-silent-over-calls-denounce-piss-christ-artwork
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