Can we please--finally--have a mature conversation about Islamic extremism? Over the past week a few politicians have dared speak its name. It is no longer treated like Voldemort, but we have yet to transition to a discussion about how we undermine the ideology that motivates terrorists. Our last two presidents have done backflips to avoid the issue because of political correctness and because we now lack the institutional capability to take on a hostile ideology. Without either the will or the right tools, our only option is more cowbell--more UAV strikes. The result is constantly bombing more Muslims. It is stupid and ineffective.
First, you would need to be deliberately obtuse not to see the bright red line between everyday Muslims and the ideology of the Islamic radicals. During my interactions with Muslim officials I have never once felt the need to first define Islam for fear our discussion of head-chopping lunatics might offend them. The UAE's impressive ambassador, Yousef al Otaiba, a Muslim, does not have a problem comparing this scourge to fascism and cancer. Yet, we in the U.S. seem afraid to call it like we see it, apparently concerned about the opinions of people protesting theoretical Halloween costumes, or partisan pressure groups like the Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR)?
On Monday, President Obama made a point to praise President Bush for visiting a mosque after 9/11. It was absurd when President Bush felt the need to do it and it is absurd to praise it now. President Clinton didn't feel the need to visit churches after that nut job David Koresh became a crispy critter in his Waco standoff with the feds. The guy believed himself to follow Christianity. Who am I to argue? We do not preface every conversation with apologies that our criticism was of him, not Christianity. As my name would imply I am a Christian. Koresh is even buried in my hometown. I am not concerned about being associated with him, and it is hard to take someone serious who thinks otherwise. Likewise, the idea that we need to define Islam to have a discussion about radical Islamists is absurd. Radical Islamists are people sowing a dangerous, millennial ideology that they associate with Islam. Why do we belabor the point?
The way President Bush danced around this was by settling on the phrase, "War on Terror." Not only was that description inaccurate--we are not at war with a tactic--but each time he went to describe it he would breathlessly point out that it was not a fight with Islam. Of course not, but that misses the point. Ironically, Hillary Clinton uses similar false logic. In last weekend's debate she said she prefers the term "jihadist". That point was overshadowed by her use of 9/11 as rationale for taking money from Wall Street.
President Obama has been even less logical, insisting terrorism is a criminal justice issue and then equating it with any flavor of radicalism out there. He declared an end to the War on Terror and instead launched a crusade for Combatting Violent Extremism. He even sanctified it with an acronym, CVE. He held an international CVE conference to which he invited our Gulf Arab allies. I am sure they felt the need to discuss the rump of the KKK in the U.S.
President Obama and his advisors have been obsessed about security policy not becoming a defining issue that hijacks the administration's domestic agenda. Away from public scrutiny, they dramatically expanded the U.S. drone war, extending the pointless exercise of simply killing terrorists into our 14th year. While drones can be important tools--and to be clear, I have no problem facilitating a terrorist's wish to meet his 72 virgins--if, after 14 years of a "secret" air war conducted by the CIA, we see results like Sinai, Beirut and Paris (twice) it might be time to reassess.
Beyond the PC nonsense, there is a bureaucratic dimension to all of this. The U.S. government is not equipped to fight an ideological war. When you do not have the tools to fix a problem the tendency is to pretend the problem does not exist. When the inevitable terrorist attack forces the president's hand the only option available to "do more" is to bomb more.
Many of the Republican candidates veer away from President Obama's isolationism, yet fall into the same trap. A common theme for combatting the threat is to be hawkish, just because... Jeb Bush oddly called for forward air controllers in Iraq. Scott Walker gave a speech at the Citadel essentially demanding more of the same strategy that we have been trying in Afghanistan since the graduating cadets were six years old.
The U.S. government needs the ability to fight ideological battles. At best, our Department of State is dysfunctional; and even if you believed the CIA was functioning on all cylinders it is the last place you want coordinating an ideological debate that touches religion. Plenty of people have intelligently discussed this in detail, yet we only ever speak of the issue in terms of hawkish or dovish policies. The United States was founded on ideas of universal freedom like free speech and separation of church and state--in other words, the exact opposite of the ideology espoused by Islamic radicals. So why then can't we win a war of ideas without resorting to UAVs?
We used to do this pretty well and past efforts to undermine hostile ideologies like fascism and communism had bipartisan support. We had the U.S. Information Agency. The UK had the Political Warfare Executive that made enormous contributions to winning WWII. Past ideological efforts like (CIA-backed) Radio Free Europe might not apply perfectly to today's struggle, but could at least serve as inspirations.
We can't bomb ourselves out of an ideological fight, yet both parties seem unable to move beyond policies that simply escalate the 14 year old drone war. When the bombing campaign against ISIS began had they had a force of 20,000-30,000 people. In October, the Pentagon revealed that we had killed 20,000 ISIS in Syria. However, the Pentagon still assessed ISIS' fighting strength to be 20,000. That's not progress and it is not making us safer. It is time we focus on the ideology.