Out on a Limb

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on November 17, 2015

Out on a Limb

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.

Out on a Limb
“Attacks Call Obama’s Strategy Into Question”—headline, Politico, Nov. 14

‘Shut Up,’ He Reminded Himself
Democrat Dan Kimmel is quitting his campaign for the Minnesota House over a tweet, reports WCCO, Minneapolis’s CBS-owned broadcaster:

The controversial tweet said: “ISIS isn’t necessarily evil. It is made up of people doing what they think is best for their community. Violence is not the answer, though.”

The tweet has since been deleted.

In a statement on his campaign website Sunday, Kimmel said that the tweet wasn’t in response to the terror attacks in Paris but to the Democratic presidential debate. . . .

“I will do everything I can to help resolve the issue: most likely the best thing for me to do is shut up,” he said. “The tweet was stupid. I’m sorry.”

It was dumb all right, but he almost made up for it with that wonderfully candid apology.

Non-Islamic Jihadis?
“Believe it or not, I just defended President Obama to a gathering of foreign nationals,” Ed Rogers, a Republican political consultant who writes for the Washington Post’s Insiders blog, reported on Friday:

Even though I’m no fan of his, it still stings when non-Americans run down our president. To be fair, I also got a lot of heat about President George W. Bush in his final year in office when I traveled abroad, and I defended him as well. But trying to defend your president from angry charges that he is too tough is easier than defending your president to foreigners who are worried and anxious about him being too weak. Actually, I travel a lot, and these days, no one in any foreign capitals I visit will defend Obama’s foreign policy. Based on what I see, when it comes to the president’s foreign policy, the Democratic national security elite don’t defend him, his former advisers don’t defend him and even current U.S. ambassadors don’t really know what to say. There are a lot of awkward pauses and attempts to change the subject.

Rogers’s post carries no time stamp but appears to have preceded Friday night’s Islamic State attacks in Paris, as it makes no mention of them. The next day Breitbart.com noted a similar, post-Paris criticism coming by way of the left:

MSNBC Contributor and Washington Editor-at-Large for the Atlantic, Steve Clemons stated that French officials he had talked with criticized lack of US support against fighting terrorism, with one arguing that, “ISIS has been incubated for two years with an absence of US leadership, and that the United States needs to take the security of its allies more seriously” during MSNBC’s coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Saturday.

Clemons was at pains to note “that I have a different view of that, that that’s not my view.” Yet can anyone deny that the Obama administration’s response to the Islamic State has been fatuous and incoherent?

In a January 2014 interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the president famously disparaged ISIS as “the jayvee team.” He elaborated: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

Eight months later Islamic State terrorists were beheading American hostages, and Obama was talking tough. “You can’t contain an organization that is running roughshod through that much territory, causing that much havoc, displacing that many people, killing that many innocents, enslaving that many women,” he said during a press conference at a NATO summit in Wales. “The goal has to be to dismantle them.”

Later, he contradicted that: “From the start, our goal has been first to contain and we have contained them,” the Daily Caller quotes him telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. In the same interview, he said: “I don’t think they’re gaining strength.”

Oops. That interview aired on “Good Morning America” last Friday, just hours before the Paris attacks. “If this is what ISIS looked like contained, I shudder to think what ISIS looks like uncontained,” CNN’s Jake Tapper quipped Sunday while interviewing Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. The same day Stephanopoulos asked Rhodes to defend the president against Republican criticism. “Well, look, George,” he said, “the president was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.”

Rhodes went on to acknowledge “that there is a threat posed by ISIL . . . in their aspirations to project power overseas.” You don’t say. Of course in January 2014 Obama was dismissing the ISIS threat precisely on the ground that it wasn’t, in his words, “a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland.”

“Well, we’ll have to be nimble, George,” Rhodes told Stephanapoulos Sunday. Good luck with that. Reuters reports that at a press conference today in Turkey, Obama declared: “We are going to continue the strategy that has the best chance of working. . . . There will be an intensification of the strategy that we put forward but the strategy that we put forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work.”

If anything, the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee inspires even less confidence. On Saturday night Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and an unidentified man met in an Iowa debate moderated by CBS’s John Dickerson, who asked surprisingly good questions and got appallingly bad answers.

Dickerson began by quoting Obama’s Friday remarks and asking Mrs. Clinton, who was secretary of state during the president’s first term: “Won’t the legacy of this administration . . . be that it underestimated the threats from ISIS?” She began with some generalities about the need for effective leadership, then made clear she would be reluctant to provide it:

But it cannot be an American fight. And I think what the president has consistently said, which I agree with, is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS. That is why we have troops in Iraq that are helping to train and build back up the Iraqi military, why we have special operators in Syria working with the Kurds and Arabs so that we can be supportive. But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.

If American troops are risking their lives in Iraq, what in the world does Mrs. Clinton mean when she says “this cannot be an American fight”? Mrs. Clinton offered a clue when Dickerson pressed her on the administration’s underestimation of the Islamic State:

Well, John, look, I think that what happened when we abided by the agreement that George W. Bush made with the Iraqis to leave by 2011 is that an Iraqi army was left that had been trained and that was prepared to defend Iraq. Unfortunately, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, set about decimating it.

And then with the revolution against [Bashar] Assad—and I did early on say we needed to try to find a way to train and equip moderates very early so that we would have a better idea of how to deal with Assad because I thought there would be extremist groups filling the vacuum.

So, yes, this has developed. I think that there are many other reasons why it has in addition to what’s happened in the region. But I don’t think that the United States has the bulk of the responsibility. I really put that on Assad and on the Iraqis and on the region itself.

Try to follow that. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which Obama touted as one of his great first-term accomplishments, turns out to have been forced upon him by George W. Bush. Everything would have been fine anyway except that the Iraqis screwed it up. But now it’s up to the Iraqis to make things right, along with Assad, to overthrow whom Mrs. Clinton wanted “to train and equip moderates.” And who stopped her from carrying out that plan, George W. Bush?

Later came this revealing exchange:

Dickerson: Secretary Clinton, you mentioned radical jihadists.

Mrs. Clinton: Yes.

Dickerson: Marco Rubio, also running for president, said that this attack showed—in—the attack in Paris showed that we are at war with radical Islam. Do you agree with that characterization, radical Islam?

Mrs. Clinton: I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists who have—

Dickerson: Just to interrupt, he didn’t say all Muslims. He just said radical Islam. Is that a phrase you don’t—

Mrs. Clinton: I think that you can talk about Islamists who—clearly are also jihadists. But I think it’s not particularly helpful to make the case that—Sen. Sanders was just making that I agree with that we’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries. We’ve got to have them be part of our coalition.

If they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam—that was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, “We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.” And yes, we are at war with those people that I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.

George W. Bush again? Mrs. Clinton relies awfully heavily on what we hereby name the argumentum ad dubyam. Though we should note that Bush tended to refer to “terrorism”; “violent extremism” is an Obama administration euphemism.

Dickerson followed up by quoting a speech in which Mrs. Clinton emphasized the importance of knowing one’s enemy. “Can you explain what that means in the context of this kind of barbarism?” The short answer was no: “It’s very difficult when you deal with ISIS and organizations like that whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power.”

Mrs. Clinton is quite right to emphasize that we’re “not at war with Islam” or “with all Muslims.” Perhaps it even overstates the case to say we’re at war with “radical Islam.” But it is an act of willful ignorance to deny that the enemy’s ideology is Islamic, or even (as per Mrs. Clinton) that the enemy has an intelligible ideology at all.

Yet Mrs. Clinton isn’t even consistent in her denial. It appears she doesn’t know enough to be politically correct. Note that the exchange began with Dickerson quoting her describing ISIS as “radical jihadists,” a term she used earlier in the debate. What exactly does she think jihad is a pillar of? She might as well say she loves Christians but can’t abide trinitarians.

Given all this, it’s hard to deny that Ed Rogers’s and Steve Clemons’s foreign interlocutors had a point in faulting the U.S. for its lack of leadership. Then again, when the U.S. was leading, 12 to 14 years ago, one suspects they were not among those who eagerly followed.

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