Obama and Radical Islam


The President in winter



Privately, Obama expresses the deepest loathing for ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. ISIS, he has noted, stands for—quite literally—everything he opposes.

Jeffery Goldberg has, somewhat surprisingly, become the great chronicler of Barack Obama’s foreign policy thinking. Goldberg, who has a reputation of being pretty staunchly pro-Israel (a reputation which often unfairly paints him as unthinkingly Likudnik), doesn’t seem like a go-to source for a President who is often painted as anti-Israeli, or at least not reflexively pro-Israeli enough. It makes sense, though: Obama has a far great love of engaging with thoughtful people with whom he has some disagreements than with people automatically on his side. Goldberg fits this, as he’s fair enough to try to understand someone’s thought process even if he isn’t a fan of the final result.

It’s this sort of thoughtfulness on behalf of the President that is a reflection of his relationship with radical Islam. Obama’s critics see him as ruthlessly partisan and completely insulated, which is far from the truth, as his working friendship with Goldberg demonstrates (also, his attempts throughout the entire first term and some of the second to work with Republicans). They also see him as indifferent to radical Islam, as at best uncaring about it, and at worst hoping that it wins. Trump saying this explicitly this week was seen as a scandal; in fact, it was little different than what Republicans have been saying since he took office.

Goldberg’s Atlantic article yesterday, “What Obama Actually Thinks About Radical Islam”, is a deep dive into the President’s relationship with one of the animating forces in global politics, and an area that has consumed much of his Presidency, in a way he was desperately hoping to avoid. He thought that through persuasion and better intentions he could reset the relationship that the US had with the Middle East, and maybe even move toward peace with Israel.

This sounds naive, and maybe it is, but it is worth noting that literally every President in the last 50 years has thought the same thing, albeit with different courses of action. But, much like reaching out to recalcitrant Republicans, this also failed. Goldberg’s discussion of what happened next sort of sums up, for me, Obama’s policy motivations.

He gave the Cairo speech in 2009. By 2012—as the revolutions of the Arab Spring were curdling, and as Libya drifted toward chaos, despite a partial U.S. intervention—Obama developed strong antibodies to what I call the Carly Simon Syndrome, which is an affliction affecting American policymakers so vain that they probably think Islamist extremism, and everything else, is about them. Obama, unlike many American analysts, does not suffer from this delusion. He sees the problems affecting parts of the Muslim world as largely outside American control. At its best, this belief keeps him from rushing into disasters not of America’s making; at its worst, it keeps him from taking steps that stand a chance of making things better.

 This is, and always had been, the dichotomy of the Obama Presidency, one rooted in a sort of vicious thoughtfulness: the idea that you can try, and if it doesn’t work, don’t beat your head against the wall. It is one that recognizes the better angels in people, and tries to engage them, but also the worst demons, and tries to step away. It is one that recognizes not just the limitations of American power, but of American influence.
In response to Goldberg’s enormous “The Obama Doctrine”, I labeled it “tragic radicalism“, because it understood that the worst in humans couldn’t really be resolved, at least not easily, and so it was better to step away. Because, while there is no doubt that many problems in the Middle East and broader Muslim world are a reaction to wesern humiliations, especially at the hands of America, it is also true that there is far more going on than that, and that there is little America can do to fix it.
While I fundamentally agree with that, there are also policy missteps that come from such a view. Because while Obama has antibodies to Carly Simon, he also is somewhat vulnerable to it, although not in such a virulent manner. He does recognize that American influence is still a force for good and ill in the world, but in trying to mitigate the ill while still balancing our interests, we do things like intervene in the wrong limited way in Yemen: drones but little political support. There is a certain hand-washing that both downplays the real influence America has, and works to obfuscate the unhelpful foot-stomping going on below.
The more I think about it, the more I think “tragic radicalism” is the wrong phrase, since it seems to place emphasis on the latter, and doesn’t make it clear that “tragic” here is in the dramatic sense of the word.  Although not as pithy, “radical sense of the tragic” might be more accurate. It’s an understanding of human motivations that has led to some great things, but also to a sort of sighing away when the worst in us burbles madly to the surface. I do think he is impacted deeply by the horrors on his watch, especially Syria, but that just confirms his view of human nature.
All that said, I’m going to quote a couple paragraphs in full. As you listen to Trump talk about, well, anything, I think it is good to reflect on what a remarkable human being we’ve had in office for the last eight years.


In one conversation, parts of which I’ve previously recounted, Obama talked about the decades-long confrontation between the U.S. and communism, and compared it to the current crisis. “You have some on the Republican side who will insist that what we need is the same moral clarity with respect to radical Islam” that Ronald Reagan had with communism, he said. “Except, of course, communism was not embedded in a whole bunch of cultures, communism wasn’t a millennium-old religion that was embraced by a whole host of good, decent, hard-working people who are our allies. Communism for the most part was a foreign, abstract ideology that had been adopted by some nationalist figures, or those who were concerned about poverty and inequality in their countries but wasn’t organic to these cultures.”

He went on to say, “Establishing some moral clarity about what communism was and wasn’t, and being able to say to the people of Latin America or the people of Eastern Europe, ‘There’s a better way for you to achieve your goals,’ that was something that could be useful to do.” But, he said, “to analogize it to one of the world’s foremost religions that is the center of people’s lives all around the world, and to potentially paint that as a broad brush, isn’t providing moral clarity. What it’s doing is alienating a whole host of people who we need to work with us in order to succeed.”

Obama’s Drone Legacy


An outstanding editorial in the New York Times today about President Obama’s drone legacy by the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer and Brett Max Kaufman. The gist of the editorial is that Obama has greatly expanded the use of drones while creating a sketchy and mostly-hidden legal regime that justifies their use. Jaffer and Kaufman argue that the President should publish the Presidential Policy Guidance, release the justifying legal memos, acknowledge the all drone strikes “not just those carried out on conventional battlefields”, and “establish a policy of investigating and publicly explaining strikes that kill innocent civilians, and of compensating those victims’ families.”  All of these seem to me to be reasonable, and entirely compatible with living in a democracy.

(Disclosure? Brett is one of my best friends, the kind of stand-up fellow that everyone should know. That’s not why I like this article of course, but it’s goddamn exciting to see your friend’s name in the Times.)

The heart of the article is a stark reminder of what Presidential power does, and how it is nearly impossible to restrain once unleashed. Even if you think that Obama is justified to use drones (in which a case can be strongly made) or he has used them judiciously and wisely (a much harder case to make overall), anyone should be scared of what happens when someone neither as wise nor judicious takes over.

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Live blogging Obama speech

1:59 There is a lot I fault this Admin with regarding terrorism, but I also find the other side completely irrational and self-defeating and willing to do anything to destroy the POTUS.   But these stirring words, even though I agree with them, just ring so hollow after 12 years of this increasingly desperate nonsense.   If something can change now, it will be positive, but so late.  So many wasted lives around the world.  There was a chance after 9/11 to remake the world into something better.  But it was trashed, burnt away by gleeful pyromaniacs and sneering playground bullies.   Its cold and stupid logic persisted, and in some ways was heightened.  I think this Admin is doing a better job, but it is relatively worse, given expectations.  The idea that now, 12 years on, we’re trying to formulate a strategy to met the challenge, and, even worse, that no one really thinks we’ll be able to, is the whole rot of our political and moral culture in one depressing run-on sentence.

More thoughts later, perhaps.  Comments are always open.

1:53 “I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because this is worth being passionate about.”  That is excessively well-done.

1:52 I was worried he was going to quote Daniel Tosh.  Phew!

1:50  I love seeing the President be heckled.  It reminds me that we’re all right.  He handled it well.  I also did not expect all the applause.  I couldn’t really understand her, so I don’t know who they were applauding, but it is clear that everyone is on the same page.

1:50 People are going to say this is really partisan, and it is, but absolutely right.  It is crazy that it is suddenly dangerous to try people in courts.

1:47 I like when they point out that we actually have been able to try terrorists with relative ease over the years.

1:45 “I look forward to working with a collection of kill-crazy destructive vandals to help them paint me as a secret Muslim who wants to institute Sharia law”

1:44 It is true that they want to shield for journalism, but just because the law doesn’t exist isn’t a reason not to obey its spirit.   That was just a huge bit of cognitive dissonance, on a level we don’t usually see from this Admin.

1:41 Despite my carping, I’ve liked about 65% of the speech.  Maybe 75%.  But much of this is what I liked in 2007 and hasn’t translated into smarter action.   He came really close to the John Kerry line about how terrorism can be a law enforcement issue.   But not close enough.

1:40 Greg sums it up over on the twitter, which is where the cool kids hang out.

On diplomacy – yes, US has to be active. But US practices risk avoidance not risk management.

1:36 OK, so he got the people who hate the drone strikes and think they are a huge immoral and illegal over-reach angry in the first half-hour.  Now he is talking about foreign aid as a much better investment than military strikes.  Feeding people in Yemen and building wells.   So now everyone else will be angry.

1:35 “We cannot take action everywhere these radical ideologies take root”.   Yes, and yes again!  Too bad that is seen as wimpy.  Hell, we had people want to storm into Chechnya and Dagestan a few weeks ago (and frankly, I would have bought their plane tickets).

1:31 OK, I agree with the idea that in extreme cases citizenship doesn’t really matter.  That has been true in other wars.   I don’t even disagree that al-Awlaki was plotting against the US.  But the huge issue for me, at least, is that we crossed this incredible pass for someone who really wasn’t a major threat.  He was a little more dangerous than John Walker Lindh, perhaps (and doesn’t that seem like such a distant name from a far-off time), but he was not the impossible danger that made it worth taking these steps.

1:30 Nixes any drone strikes on US soil, brings up legal twister of due process.   Not judicial process.

1:28 Congress is briefed on every strike.  Might be over-estimating the popularity of Congress, here.  “Oh, Congress says it is ok?  Well, then I’m on board!”

1:26 As many people have pointed out, the idea that these drone strikes result in less civilian deaths (despite the Franciscan flagellation, which seemed honest, about these deaths) is partly a result of a morally obtuse concept that military-aged males near drone strikes are by definition non-civilian.

1:22 State sovereignty is great, but the question has always been: who is the state?  We deal with governments like Salih’s, whose “the state is me” ideas didn’t really pan out beyond the Yemen version of the Beltway.  (The Jambiya?)

1:20 This is true- America is at war with AQ and others.  It is “affiliated” that is the tricky thing.  We still don’t know who everyone is.  Oh wow- that was the heart of this speech.  “Legal doesn’t make it moral”.   This is what many of us who voted for Obama want to hear- be strong, but don’t over-reach.  We haven’t seen much evidence of this, and that is a disappointment, but maybe this is a turning point.

1:17 That’s great we aren’t triggering firefights with tribesmen with whom we have no beef.   But we sometimes drone the living death out of these self-same tribesmen.   This is saying all the things that I want to hear, but there is a certain dissonance with action.

1:13 Define it not as a boundless war on terror, but specific actors.  This, right here, is what people have been saying for 12 years.   But while this sounds great, working with Pakistanis, Yemenis, the AU to get rid of al-Shabab, it elides the fact that many of these actions are wildly unpopular in the countries that we are acting in.  I believe in partnerships, of course, but working with the wrong actors is almost as bad as going solo, and sometimes worse.

1:12 Bringing up all the other terrorist attacks before him.   Two things here: one, saying that we don’t have to have a national freakout every time something bad happens, and two, saying: really?  You want to impeach me over Benghazi?   Come on!

1:10  McVeigh wasn’t a Muslim!

1:09 I like this analysis of the difference between local operatives, regional affiliates, etc.  Some groups are just collections of names and guns.  We can’t use a blanket approach, and lump everything under the “islamist” umbrella.   But while the rhetoric is there, it still needs to translate to action.

1:07  Brings up James Madison.  Charlie Pierce just sat up straight.   It is also amazing that, in 2013, saying that we need to define the scope of this battle against extremism makes for a big speech.   12 years on.

1:06  I never really liked the “we spent abroad and not here” tactic, but it is undeniable.   It just smacks of isolationism.

1:04 Osama is dead.  If you had that on Speech Bingo, you aren’t terribly creative, are you?   There was nice talk about stopping torture, but that just serves to remind that we did torture people, and no one has been punished.  Just more rhetorical rug-sweeping.

1:03 Brings up Iraq.  Saying that it shifted focus shouldn’t be controversial, but somehow always is.

1:01 Doing the Obama thing where he links our history into the issues of the day- our character, our shared experiences, our “commitment to constitutional principles”.    This is a common trope for him, and for others, of course, but he seems to do it with a special intensity, perhaps because he has always had to try to prove he is “American”.   It sets a tone for a “this isn’t radical what I am about to say”.

OK, so we’re going to be live-blogging the Obama speech.  Haven’t done this in a while.  I know it is more of a twitter thing, but I’m old-fashioned.   The important things to look at in terms of Guantanamo are if they are planning to release anyone, or just shift detainees to federal supermax prisons stateside.