Obama’s formulaic remarks, dispassionately delivered, on the death of James Foley were both disturbing and revealing. Disturbing precisely because they were revealing.
So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just god would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt. They may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery to their empty vision and the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.
People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy. The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him. The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, standing alongside others. The people of Iraq, who with our support are taking the fight to ISIL must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their community. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.
From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century. Friends and allies around the world, we share a common security and a common set of values that are rooted in the opposite of what we saw yesterday. And we will continue to confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and civility.
A few quick comments.
- Obama’s progressivism, in many senses of the word, shines through here. According to Obama, ISIS is an atavism that is destined for extinction, because it does not fit into the 21st century. Through some sort of (unstated) dialectical process, such people “ultimately fail.” Humanitarians prevail, as the world progresses to higher and higher states of development and consciousness. This is profoundly ahistorical. Atavistic forces have repeatedly toppled far superior civilizations. The barbarian invasions of Rome. The Mongols in China and the Middle East (Tamerlane, anyone?) The Arab/Muslim onslaught in the Middle East and North Africa. I could go on. The very single-minded primitiveness of these peoples allows them to triumph over far more civilized and productive cultures that have lost the will to defend themselves, or whose societies are suffering from internal division and political disarray. Dark Ages have occurred throughout history precisely because of the triumphs of nihilistic but highly motivated peoples. The bankruptcy of ISIS’s ideology is rather beside the point: eye-rolling in the faculty lounge won’t defeat it. If it is sufficiently motivational to lead people to overthrow more constructive and creative ideologies, it can do incredible harm. Yes, such peoples “fail” in the sense that they are incapable of creating anything. But the problem is that their failure occurs only after they’ve destroyed societies that can create. Their ultimate barrenness is cold comfort to the lives and societies that they destroy. Which is why they must be confronted and defeated.
- Note that this atavism trope is one of Obama’s favorites. He says the same about Putin and Russia. The message implicit in this trope is that since these atavistic forces are doomed to extinction, we don’t need to do anything. Again, given the profound damage that these people can do before they collapse, this is a dangerous, destructive illusion.
- Whether it is Tony Blair, George Bush, or Barack Obama, few things are more grating than western leaders presuming to say what is, and what isn’t Islam. There isn’t an Islamic Pope, and if there was, his name wouldn’t be Tony, George, or even Barack Hussein, born in Hawaii. Islam isn’t any one thing, any more than Christianity is. There is no official scorecard. People energized by their visions of the teachings of Mohammed are wreaking havoc, especially in the Middle East. I can only imagine the snorts of derision among the adherents of ISIS, or other Salafists, at the presumption of kaffirs like Tony, George, or Barry to pontificate on what “true” Islam is. One can imagine them saying: tell it to the knife.
- The insistence on collective action (“standing alongside others”-note the passivity of “standing alongside”). The implied deference to others-in Obama’s remarks here, as elsewhere-suggests that if others don’t rally to the cause, the US will not act unilaterally. This betrays a complete ignorance of the frailties of collective action-notably, the incentive to free ride. The failure of others to pull their weight provides a justification for American inaction.
- The return of the law enforcement model: “ When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.” ISIS is a military organization that poses a military threat to American interests. Confronting ISIS is not a matter of serving a warrant and putting those who hacked off Foley’s head on trial. It is a matter of destroying its military capacity with military means.
All in all, there is an odd passivity: ISIS will fall either due to the Progress of History, or the collective disapproval of outraged humanity. The only American action even suggested is a law enforcement action, or at most a punitive expedition mounted against a few brigands. At most something along the lines of “Pedicaris alive, or Rasuli dead.”
In this vein, consider related news: that the US attempted a rescue operation by Special Forces that overpowered the ISIS forces at the target, but which failed because Foley had been moved before the raid.* Yes, it is good that Obama is not entirely allergic to the use of military force, but the type of military force he is willing to use (evidently after some hesitation) is also disturbing for what it reveals. One-off Special Forces raids of this type are inherently limited in their objective and duration. They are totally tactical, with no strategic purpose or effect. Yet this raid was mounted at a time when it had become evident beyond cavil that ISIS was a serious threat to strategic American interests, and when Obama stubbornly refused to acknowledge, let alone address, that threat. The most charitable thing that could be said is that by freeing Foley Obama would have eliminated an obstacle that limited American freedom of action. But this too would be disturbing, as it would imply that taking a single hostage can forestall American action. We may not pay cash ransom (most of the time anyways, with Bergdahl and Iran-Contra being prominent counterexamples), but such knowledge is priceless to a terrorist-and very ominous for any American in their reach.
Obama’s cramped and bloodless remarks are all the more striking, when contrasted with the alarms his own administration is raising. Today, Hagel-Chuck Hagel!-stated that ISIS is “beyond anything we’ve ever seen” and is “imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.” That would seem to call for something more than waiting for history, or the collective disapproval of civilized humanity, to consign ISIS to oblivion.
What’s more, it’s not like this should be news. It should have been known in June, when ISIS irrupted into central Iraq and advanced to the gates of Baghdad. It should have been known in January and February, when it conquered Fallujah and Ramadi-precisely when Obama dismissed it as the junior varsity. It should have been known earlier, when ISIS was battering other opposition forces in Syria (though perhaps I should not say “other” because it is not clear that ISIS was in opposition to Assad: more likely, he facilitated its growth).
Even if the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a necessary condition for the emergence of ISIS, this was not a sufficient condition. ISIS’s predecessor had been thoroughly beaten down, but for a variety of reasons, Obama created the conditions in which it metastasized to the threat it has become, a threat his own military and diplomatic officials recognize. Yet he still resists doing anything beyond the most limited air strikes.
Obama’s post-statement rush to the links, complete with big smiles and fist-bumps with his buds was also very disturbing. Given all the criticism of his golfing-while-the-world-burns, he had to have known that this would attract attention. But he did it anyways. I get the impression that this was a big FU: “Yeah, I know my golf gets criticism. Well, you know what, I don’t give a damn what you think. And just to show you, I’ll pivot from giving a statement about the slaughter of an American to yukking it up on the links.”
*Such a failure is not unprecedented. In 1970, the US mounted a raid to free prisoners at the Son Tay prison in North Viet Nam. The special forces troops succeeded in securing the camp, and killing 200 NVA, all the while suffering a single casualty: a helo pilot who suffered a broken ankle. But the prisoners had been moved prior to the raid, so it failed in its object. Intelligence is extremely hard to come by in these circumstances, and hence it is very difficult to know that the would-be rescue-es are at the target.