Predictably, the 2016 presidential field didn’t exactly give a rousing endorsement of President Barack Obama’s prime time speech on fighting terrorism. The reactions ranged from the superficial – Donald’s correct but irrelevant observation that Obama’s use of the presidential podium in the oval office was "odd" – to the downright scary: Chris Christie’s retro solution of turning the U.S. government’s surveillance machine loose again, even in the wake of George W. Bush’s ineffectual usurpation of cherished American civil liberties.
Surprisingly, Rand Paul and Ted "Carnival" Cruz, supposedly the most libertarian candidates in the race, called for restrictions on immigration, undermining one of the most iconic aspects of the American identity as a melting pot. Finally, Hillary Clinton distanced herself from Obama, by referring to her previous more hawkish position and also urged greater control of firearms at home.
Of course, these Democratic and Republican candidates can be as tough as they want rhetorically, because they do not yet have to sit in the president’s seat and make the tough decisions. Although I have been critical of Obama’s approach to other problems and do not totally agree with his approach to terrorism, his speech resisted the neo-conservative George W. Bush-style post-9/11 hysteria, when the president should have adopted a cool-headed approach to dampen public panic but instead stoked it to carry out his own counterproductive agenda of invading yet another Muslim country.
Instead, Obama at least seems to realize that taking the bait of the hawks – that is, Hillary and the Republicans – and being sucked into another large-scale ground quagmire in Iraq, and also in Syria, would merely further inflame anti-U.S. terrorism. Obama should be given credit for implying to the American people what few politicians have ever told them: their own government’s actions are contributing to the terrorism problem.
Instead, Ted Cruz, always pandering to the nativist right, focused on getting President Obama to use the conservative buzzword "radical Islamic terrorism." Ironically, Cruz runs against Washington while being a sitting US Senator and practices the uniquely Washington art of parsing phrases, believing that rhetoric will help solve problems. His only other solutions were to stop taking refugees from countries such as Syria and having the Pentagon smash ISIS.
Of course, Cruz’s first solution is to a problem that doesn’t exist and the
second solution is doing exactly what the terrorists want, which is what the
US government has done since 9/11 with its counterproductive over-the-top military
responses. The very visible "war on terror" has made the problem worse
by acting as recruitment poster for extremist groups to get all the volunteer
fighters and money imaginable to take on the superpower.
And if we are going to fine tune rhetoric, it is undeniable that Muslims, who had been somehow radicalized, committed the attacks in San Bernardino. However, radicalized Islam has been around for centuries, and in fact was encouraged by the US government during the Cold War to fight communism and by US allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for their own purposes.
In fact, the US government has helped create all of the threats it now has to deal with – the original al Qaeda by aiding the fundamental Islamist Mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s (of which conservatives seem to be very proud, simply because Ronald Reagan gets credit for the misadventure that Jimmy Carter actually started), the ISIS precursor al Qaeda in Iraq by George W. Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq, and ISIS itself, which originated in American prisons in Iraq during the US occupation.
Perhaps many causes for "radical Islamist terrorism" exist, most of which are irrelevant to the centrally important question: Why do such terrorists attack the United States and the West?
After the recent Paris attacks, the French president, a socialist, mimicked George W. Bush, a socialist with a conservative veneer (after all he did nationalize the AIG insurance company and finished nationalizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage lenders during the Great Recession), after 9/11 by essentially saying that the evildoers were attacking the country’s way of life – its freedoms, multiculturalism, etc.
ISIS members are undoubtedly evil doers, but they attacked France because France helped the United States attack them first. Lost in ISIS chopping the heads off of Western hostages was the fact that the US government had already started bombing ISIS prior to that.
It would probably be more accurate to call these evildoers "radical Islamist anti-colonialist terrorists." The root of the problem is really not Islam or the radical fringe of the faith, which has existed for centuries. Other religions have radical factions too. Furthermore, terrorism is usually a poor person’s way of retaliating against more powerful forces of foreign intervention or occupation. The problem started after World War I when the colonial powers, France and Britain, grabbed the Ottoman caliphate’s lands. The United States took over as the neo-colonial overlord in the Middle East after these nations became too overextended and couldn’t police their empires anymore.
One of the primary purposes of the US government, in addition to safeguarding Americans’ freedoms, is to protect the population and the territory of the United States. Because such terrorism is ultimately blowback from informal US Empire in the Middle East, doing more of the same – what Hillary and the Republicans want – is likely to make the problem worse. Perhaps we are too far down the road with al Qaeda and ISIS, but if US military action is needed, the United States should demand that local and regional forces undertake most of the heavy lifting, as Obama is doing.
Obama, a self-described realist, is attempting to follow the restrained policy of the great Dwight D. Eisenhower, who usually tried to avoid pressure for counterproductive overseas military action by declaring that no crisis existed. Obama has periodically tried to do the same thing, but has less prestige to avoid military action because he’s not a titanic war hero, as was Ike. Obama has been drug by the security bureaucracies and opposition politicians into a troop surge in Afghanistan, reentry of US forces into Iraq (and now Syria), and the idiotic overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (the country is now in civil war and has an ISIS safe haven).
Of course, in his speech, Obama could have been even more courageous and declared that the ISIS threat to the United States is still limited. Such a statement might have seemed delusional in the wake of the San Bernardino attack. However, he could have explained to the public that ISIS’s recruitment of Americans to go to Syria to get military training – what the terrorist cell in Paris exhibited – has been so abysmal that the group has had to resort to the exhortation of untrained, incompetent home grown (lone wolf) attacks, such as the hapless shooters in San Bernardino.
The San Bernardino attacks were tragic but they were hardly as severe as the 9/11 or Paris attacks, which were perpetrated by skilled individuals and killed an order of magnitude more people. The American public should not panic, just because of the saturation media coverage of a home grown terrorist attack. The San Bernardino attacks were more on the scale of a school shooting, which should be handled by law enforcement – not more feckless US bombing in Syria and Iraq.
The chances of the average American ever being killed by an international terrorist is still less than being struck by lightning, and the chances of his or her being killed by an Islamist terrorist is less than being killed by a domestic right wing extremist (both very low). Often times, in contrast to action movies, which unfortunately seem to be Americans’ template for a response to terrorism, less is more for a more effective solution.