Monday, December 07, 2015

Obama's Speech: Neither he nor his Republican Critics Offer a way Forward

American politics-- like Israeli politics—too often offers citizens choices rooted in false premises. 

Any side that throws uncomplicated Trump-like solutions at a problem has the advantage in appealing to the masses. And thanks to social media – we've all become  "the masses that are asses." 

Long before we allow ourselves time to contemplate an issue, friends – real & virtual— "share" the thoughts of one or another ideological pundit and we're seduced into our designated amen corner.

President Obama refuses to reference 'radical Islam.'
That, too, is how President Barack Obama's speech to the American people has been received. 



I am no admirer of Obama's handling of the Arab-Israel conflict. 

By signaling almost from day one of his administration that little would be expected from the Palestinians, and by breaking a commitment made in writing by president George W. Bush on the contours of any future peace deal, namely, that Israel would not be expected to pull back to the 1949 Armistice Lines, Obama torpedoed all prospects for serious bargaining between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.

On the war against the Islamist menace, the president has sought to find the elusive good Islamist camp. He's looked for it in, among other places, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood -- just as Europeans have looked for good Islamists inside Hezbollah and Hamas.

But in connection with the war on the so-called Islamic State, Obama has it more right than wrong.

Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook didn't need to be card-carrying ISIS members to embrace its agenda, suicidal tactics, and call to action.

It would have been right for Obama to say that what the San Bernardino couple did was an act of Islamist terrorism – but, regrettably, the president is loath to put the words "Islam" (in any conjugation) and "terrorism" in one sentence.

Hawks believe that the US and European bombing campaign against ISIS targets is too cautious out of fear that innocents will be killed. Perhaps this is true.

But one can hardly accuse Syria's Bashar Assad, Russia's Vladimir Putin or former-Lebanon's Hasan Nasrallah with fighting ISIS with an eye to concern for innocent Sunni civilians. 

In other words, air bombing has its inherent limitations.

The president said the US will provide training and equipment to Sunni Arabs willing to fight ISIS. Obviously, most of these forces are themselves dodgy, but you play with the cards you're dealt. He spoke of his "accelerated" use of US special forces. Is he employing them efficiently and effectively?  I do not know.

Instead of condemning Turkey for aiding and abetting ISIS and, seemingly, deliberately flooding Europe with millions of Sunni Muslim refugees, Obama said lamely that his administration was "working with Turkey to seal its border with Syria." 

For Obama, Turkey's rulers represent the "good" Muslim brothers.

It used to be that if you didn't want to act or didn't know what to do you'd form a committee. These days national leaders form coalitions like the 65 countries "fighting" ISIS.

But the president is constrained by hard realities. There is no draft in America. The country has no appetite to go on a mobilized war-footing. It lost thousands of soldiers and squandered billions of dollars on a misguided war in Iraq that helped unleash ISIS and paved the way to Iran's suzerainty over parts of the former Iraq.

It sold billions of dollars worth of the most advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states yet they are helpless to battle ISIS and their populations are probably conflicted over whether they even should. The Saudis are focused on fighting against the Shiites in Yemen.

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Conservatives in the US have made a strange fetish out of gun rights. Many US states make semi-automatic weapons practically as accessible as milk and cheese. Obama isn't wrong to suggest that Congress should make it a tad harder for US-based terrorists and garden variety thugs to get Big guns. 

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On Sunday night Obama said, "We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want."

This is precisely what I mean by false choices.   

What he could have said is: "This is a war between America and radical Islam." And then added, "We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam."

Why? Because it is a Western strategic interest to dissociate Muslims from Islamists.

And it is not easy to do.

But Obama is wrong not to make the nature of the conflict far more explicit. Yet he's right that setting up the conflict as a war of civilizations won't help Western civilization win. Europe, for one, doesn't seem to feel it has a civilization worth fighting for.  

Of course there is a war of civilizations, but it is a one-way war with Western civilization in denial.
   
In all likelihood the president intentionally downplayed the attractiveness of radical Islam to "more than a billion Muslims around the world" including millions in the US.

He's right that "the vast majority of terrorist victims around the world are Muslim."

If this is what Muslims do to Muslims... But just imagine a scenario in which the ISIS types prevail and turn their full attentions against the West. 

It would have been proper had Obama said that the war right now is mostly within Islamic civilization for the soul and direction of Islam. It would also have been accurate for him to acknowledge that Islamist forces are ascendant.

Instead, he could only say that "an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities." That Muslims must confront "the crisis."

Actually, what Muslims need to confront is the prevailing, mobilizing, expanding Islamist menace. 

The president, sadly, refuses to be explicit.

He keeps claiming, as do many in Europe, that violence is a perversion of Islam. 
What utter nonsense.

Anyway, all religious dogma is malleable depending on the epoch and prevailing mores.

What he should have said is that the Muslim clergy and theological formulators need to find interpretations of Islam that are compatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.

In other words, in Islam's battle against modernity he should side openly with the tiny moderate minority that wants the civilization to adapt and evolve. 

He asked Americans "to reject discrimination." But when Americans say, now isn't the time to welcome en masse tens of thousands of Muslims, this stance is not bigotry, it is prudence. 

He should have said that 65-member coalition -- with the US and Russia in the lead -- ought to provide safe areas within Syria and Iraq rather than transfer the Sunni Arab population of the Middle East to the US Middle West or to Western Europe.

But if Obama's framing of The Long War disappointed there was little his Republican critics offered that suggested any of them would be more adept at dealing with the challenges posed by the long-term and complex Islamist threat.

To talk of "defeating" or "absolute victory" over the mobilizing strain in a religion of a billion people makes little sense. But that's the mantra you hear from some hawks.

"People are really scared and worried," Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said accurately. He claimed Obama appeared to be "completely overwhelmed" by ISIS. "He honestly believes that there is a coalition fighting against ISIS. This is absurd. There is no such coalition. A lot of countries that have put their names on a piece of paper."

OK. That's transparently obvious. But what in concrete terms would Rubio do? 

The Donald's strategy is encapsulated in his Tweet: "We need a new President — FAST!"  

God help America if the best it can offer to succeed Obama is The Donald.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was right that the president needs to start to use the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism."  You do need to define the enemy. He said Obama didn't lay out "a plan for decisive action for victory over evil." 

But here is the Cruz Doctrine: As president he would "direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS."

Well, why didn't anyone else think of that?

Jeb Bush said that the US had put "self-imposed restraints" on its intelligence and military. "This is the war of our time. It should not be business as usual. We need a wartime commander-in-chief who is ready to lead this country and the free world to victory."

This is a nice bunch of words strung together. It would have been nice to hear what his secret plan for "defeating" ISIS is. Why wait?

Injecting some unintended humor, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's solution is: "We should be advocating for more concealed carry ability for law-abiding Americans and an end to unconstitutional gun-free zones." 

Obama ended his speech with the traditional "God bless America."

I hope He starts by blessing it with 2016 presidential candidates who can do more than offer false choices and empty platitudes to what is the major crisis facing Western Civilization.



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