by Robert E. Hunter
In his televised address from the Oval Office on Sunday night, the eve of Pearl Harbor Day, President Barack Obama did what he had to do in the wake of the terrorist slaughter in San Bernardino, California. What follows is not meant as criticism of what he said, but is rather an exegesis of what he left unsaid, mostly because of either raison d’état or seemingly insurmountable domestic politics.
In addition to trying to calm fears, the president had to do four things: pledge the destruction of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and similar terrorist groups, though of necessity without a time-line; urge the American people not to overreact, especially in attitudes toward and treatment of Muslims in our country; call on others, especially leaders in the Muslim world, also to meet their responsibilities; and return to the ever-present issue of the insanity of the free availability to virtually anyone in the US of weapons of all types, calibers, and power, including weapons with no legitimate purpose other than war-fighting. He most dramatized the last point by noting that people on the federal “no-fly” list, a legacy of 9/11, can still purchase weapons legally.
All this was right, proper, and sensible. But there were many things that the president either couldn’t say or chose not to bring into the open.
Fear of Fear Itself
First, the president didn’t mention how the fear of terror is promulgated, especially in this country. He did point out, correctly, that the goal of the current breed of terrorists is, not just here but also in Europe, to magnify their acts many-fold in order to lure the United States and the West into military acts in the Middle East. Such “boots on the ground,” as they are known euphemistically, can help recruitment for IS and other Islamist jihadists.
There is not much the president can do about this phenomenon, other than to say what he did on Sunday night and to follow up with appropriate actions. The terrorists have a powerful enabler—the Western (and especially American) media—which, in “doing their job,” blow the actual terrorist acts far out of proportion. (Most bizarre was the sight of media people rummaging through the apartment of the two San Bernardino terrorists, like excited tourists seeking souvenirs or the lady who in 1934 dipped her handkerchief in the blood of gangster John Dillinger, slain by the FBI).
In fact, all the terrorist acts in the history of the United States are dwarfed by the casualties of individual battles in the American Civil War—Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chancellorsville. Except by allusion, the president also did not say that far more Americans have been killed by other Americans with legally purchased guns since 9/11 than in all the terrorist acts ever committed against us. The media do not egg us on to see people who “go postal” as particularly threatening to society at large (that includes even the Oklahoma City bombing, Blacksburg, Sandy Hook, and so on), in distinction to anyone who is inspired by some foreign organization. Note, for example, how the rhetoric ramped up once the FBI said that, yes, this was a terrorist incident.
To be fair to the media—and to reaffirm the importance of the First Amendment, despite the excesses sometimes committed in its name—journalists are aided by our domestic anti-terrorist industry. The majority of these “talking heads” don’t have a clue about which they are pontificating, in particular in regard to the Middle East. But they get their 15 minutes of fame none-the-less.
This commentary is not meant as an effort to minimize the problem of terrorism, just to try injecting a bit of perspective. Indeed, Obama is probably right that IS spreading terrorism here-and-there in minor operations in Europe and the United States is a sign that it has passed the peak of its success in the Middle East and that its strength isn’t what it was only a few months ago.
The president could not say any of this, true as it is, without looking like he was just trying to ignore the problem and “not doing his job.” In proposing a set of mostly military steps to counter IS (and other terrorist groups) in the Middle East, he also had a problem in trying to thread a needle. He needed to promise enough military action by the US and others—with a strong emphasis on the others—without leading the United States, in particular, into actions that will just play into the hands of IS recruiters, especially when Islamist propagandists seize upon each accidental civilian casualty. He knows that, whatever the heat of the moment, there would be no eagerness among Americans for another open-ended ground war in the Middle East. Obama has to try to strike a balance. This is not easy to do. The strategy also entails a high degree of risk that the more successful the efforts in the region against IS, the more it will run mom-and-pop operations here and elsewhere in the West to regain media attention and thus to spread (baseless) society-wide fear.
Obama correctly called on leaders and peoples in the Muslim world to shoulder their own responsibilities in countering the poisonous philosophies of IS and others that are at variance with the Muslim religion. But there was one thing the president should have done and that he needs to do, which is to call out the Muslim supporters of IS, who provide both the inspiration for terrorism and much of the money. The principal culprits are in Saudi Arabia, not sponsored by the government but for years tolerated by it, as a sop to its conservative, obscurantist, and medieval religious leadership. These spiritual and financial sponsors are allowed to practice their black arts of spreading Wahhabism as long as they only act “out there” and do not turn their beliefs into action “at home.”
For decades, the United States has pussyfooted around this problem. We’ve labored under the illusion that if we “call out” the Saudis, they might not sell their oil (nonsense: they can’t drink it) or buy Western weapons (the Western military-industrial complex and national balances-of-payments economists be damned when genuine Western security is concerned). There has also been the bugaboo of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, which the Sunni Arab states and Israel have blown far out of proportion in order to realize their own regional geopolitical ambitions or to get U.S. help to compete with the Shias (in the case of the Sunni Arabs).
The president may not be the person to do the necessary work of putting Saudi Arabia and some other Persian Gulf Arabs on notice, work made easier now that there is an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. But somebody at the top levels of the US government has to send the message. From outside the administration, Hillary Clinton and a few others have been doing so, but the message needs to come from the US government. The warning to Saudi Arabia should be unmistakable: “Make your people cut it out or we are finished with you. We will no longer tolerate behavior on your part that leads unmistakably to the killing of Americans, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, 19 of the 20 hijackers were Saudis. And one of the San Bernardino terrorists was radicalized in Saudi Arabia.”
(Let us also remember that the CIA trained Osama bin Laden and many of his cohorts to act against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but, like the historically ill considered and self-destructive US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, US fostering of jihadists played a leading role in spawning the threats we face now. As the saying goes, “what goes around, comes around.” Control needs to be exercised within the US government by the commander-in-chief.)
The president could also have taken on other themes in his Oval Office address, but there would have been little point since nothing can or will be done about them at the moment. Notable is the need for the United States to understand that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a cancer that affects all US engagements in the Muslim world. Of course, so too have Israelis and Palestinians suffered from the continuing occupation of Palestinian territory and continued lack of peace and security for Israel during almost half a century of “finding excuses” not to act on the part of one side or the other and often both.
The president and his top people need to deliver some key messages, even though anything further on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will need to wait until well into the next administration (at some point, the new president will realize that no matter what was said in the presidential campaign, this issue cannot be avoided). One message to all the Sunni Arabs would be for them to lean on the Palestinian Authority to rein in attacks on Israelis and to stop using this issue for political purposes beyond the immediate matters in the occupied territories. The other message is to Israel to halt all settlement construction—all of it—immediately, if Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to convince anyone that he is serious about a two-state solution, about which there is legitimate and virtually universal doubt.
America’s current challenge to do what can be done about the Middle East, in our interests and those of the people who live there, is made far worse by the timing of recent events. The current crisis is taking place in the midst of our quadrennial circus called the presidential election campaign. The Republican candidates are falling all over one another in magnifying the domestic terrorist threat—attacking the visa waiver program, calling for strengthened controls on the normal activities of our citizens, and, in the case of Donald Trump, calling for the creation of a national registry of Muslims. Each time any one of these people opens his or her mouth on this subject, it seems that we need to add one more name to the list of people who are disqualified to be commander-in-chief. There is also a rush to reassure Israel and Netanyahu, who is unabashed in asking his US supporters to put Israel’s interests ahead of America’s, that all will be well for him as soon as Obama leaves the White House. Here, Hillary Clinton has been in the lead, and her comments this past weekend at the Saban Center conference were in contrast to (and drowned out) the warnings by Secretary of State John Kerry that the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority would be a catastrophe for all concerned, including Israel.
Unfortunately, there can be no “time out” in American presidential politics (and media hype). But candidates need to think very carefully about what their comments now would do to their capacity to lead US foreign policy, in the nation’s interests, if they were to win.
Awash in Guns
Then there is the matter of the virtually unrestricted access to guns in this country, a critical factor in the widespread, violent slaughter of Americans. Almost all politicians have to cater to the gun lobby, which refuses to distinguish between weapons for hunting or self-defense and military-style weaponry that has no place in civilian hands, save at a licensed shooting range. As a society, we have tolerated and even championed the illiteracy of five members of the Supreme Court, who have refused to understand the import of the Second Amendment’s qualifying phrase: “A well–regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State…” The simple meaning is that to have the right to “bear arms,” as opposed to a privilege that Congress and legislatures may confer, means joining the National Guard or reserves.
In March 1965, I was working at the White House and watched as President Lyndon B. Johnson used the killings at Selma, Alabama, to demand that Congress pass the Voting Rights Act. It did so. President Obama could have used the San Bernardino terrorism to demand that Congress take action on serious gun control—not just the limited plea he made Sunday night. He could promise to keep Congress in session until it acts and “name and shame” every member of Congress who takes money from the gun lobby. Of course, he couldn’t (or at least wouldn’t) do that. He does not have the majority in Congress that LBJ had. And the insanity—for that is what it is—of opposing all gun control is too powerful a psychosis among too many of our people, rivaled in no other civilized nation.
What President Obama needs to do is called leadership. Or what is it worth being president of the United States and commander-in-chief in the first place?