On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with the new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo and declared, “It’s clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting into place a democratic government.” If so, neither “democratic” nor “clear” mean what they once did. Since taking power Morsi has ignored the violation of women’s and Christians’ rights, and his Muslim Brotherhood comrades have been drafting a constitution meant to elevate Islamists above all other Egyptians.
Critics of the Iraq War liked to say that ballots don’t equal democracy. Today a Muslim Brotherhood leader speaks the word “democracy” and its existence is taken as self-evident. The incredulity of the Bush years and the hypno-suggestibility of the moment are manifestations of the same popular wish: to extricate America from ideological battles in foreign lands.
This is an understandable sentiment that long predates our confrontation with political Islam. John Quincy Adams said that the United States should be the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all . . . , the champion and vindicator only of her own.” That formulation prefigured the human-rights approach of Barack Obama, who Lawrence Haas describes aptly in his new book, Sound the Trumpet, as “a rhetorical idealist but an operational realist.”
The paradox has served him poorly. Obama the rhetorical idealist wished Iranians well (just barely) in the summer of 2009, while Obama the operational realist pursued a diplomatic relationship with Tehran. Basij forces soon crushed protestors in the streets. Tunisia was wished well and today the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, has filed a bill to criminalize blasphemy. Obama saluted Egyptians before the Muslim Brotherhood took control of their country. And the rhetorical idealist praised Syrian rebels for a year and a half while the operational realist tried to outsource matters to the UN and Moscow. The result? A recent New York Times Headline declares, “As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role.”
Only in Libya, where our European allies dragged us into action, is there (for now) no Islamist party in charge. The extent to which that’s a function of the prevailing chaos remains to be seen.
Most problematic is the bon voyage wished Iraq last December. In 2009, the rhetorical idealist praised Iraq’s democracy and described the American effort there as an “extraordinary achievement.” He was right. Troops in Iraq not only gave their lives fighting for the creation of the sole functioning Arab democracy; they fought al-Qaeda into irrelevance and near total defeat. But the operational realist left no American presence behind to secure our accomplishments. Today, the Henry Jackson Society’s Robin Simcox accurately calls the land of al-Qaeda’s undoing a “new front” in the War on Terror. Since the U.S. left, the al-Qaeda connected group Islamic State of Iraq has launched a bombing campaign so intense that officials are preemptively surrendering by stepping down.
In Afghanistan, a more managed reversal is underway. The rhetorical idealist bragged, “we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum.” But the operational realist sends envoys to treat with them in hopes of a peace deal before the United States leaves the country. When the U.S. exits Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban will be free to do as they please. This is fortuitous timing for their old friends the Arab jihadists. As Islamist parties take political power in the Middle East, their terrorist branches can resume residence on the staging grounds of 9/11.
Let us acknowledge the enormity now unfolding and also pay heed to historical context. This is not merely a regional rise in Islamist power. It is the dawn of a great Islamist comeback. The ten years since 9/11 were spent problematically but successfully dousing the flames of jihad. The past four have seen an inrush of oxygen.
It’s hard to overestimate how emboldened Islamists must feel. In propitious events they see divine endorsement. What are increased drone strikes and the death of Osama bin laden compared to a new historical epoch? A recent State Department report touts a “12% decline in [terrorist] attacks from 2010 [to 2011]” and claims the killing of bin Laden and other terrorists “puts the [Al Qaeda] network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.” The State Department has faith in statistics; Islamists think in terms of history. It’s why we’re shortsighted and they’re patient. The oxygen has been granted. The fire will grow.
Our options for countering the Islamist comeback were limited, yes, but not nonexistent. The U.S. could have robustly supported the Iranian democrats who asked for American help; allied with Arab liberals instead of courting Arab dictators; funneled weapons and money to parties that we’d have come to know; and tied foreign aid and trade to regimes’ human rights policies. If you think such things would have made no difference consider that even with the Muslim Brotherhood’s monopoly on organization Morsi won less than 52% of the runoff vote.
Obama could have used our leverage in Iraq to keep the country on course with a relatively small number of American troops stationed there after the war. And he could have made good on his campaign promise to win in Afghanistan. A comeback is accomplished by one side but always facilitated by the other. In the gap between American rhetoric and American action Islamists staged a revival.
The Great Islamist Comeback
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What Trump supporters heard on Tuesday.
When the president of the United States passed on his third opportunity to condemn unequivocally and without caveats Nazi sympathizers marching in his name, John Podhoretz dubbed it “one of the most disheartening facts of my lifetime.” This gut wrenching display of wounded, bitter petulance turned the stomachs of observers on all sides of the political aisle, and it has catalyzed the most concerted backlash to Trump among Republican lawmakers since the “Access Hollywood” tape. For cynical Trump critics, though, this is all posturing. They await deliverance from the age of Trump. They know that hinges on GOP lawmakers turning on their own president—an extraordinary prospect—and that won’t happen until Republican voters have had enough. The cynics are right. This will not break Trump’s base.
It turns out Trump felt compelled to revisit the comments he made on Monday because they were delivered under duress. Trump ignited a controversy on Saturday when, in the aftermath of murderous violence in Charlottesville, he went off script and condemned violence “on many sides.” According to White House officials who spoke with the New York Times, Trump was frustrated by having to clean up that mess with a canned statement. On Tuesday, he went against their advice by articulating sentiments he had “long expressed in private.”
What the political class on both sides of the aisle heard him say from that podium in Trump Tower was appalling. They watched a visibly agitated Trump fail to make a distinction between a march in which both neo-Nazi demonstrators and counter-demonstrators clashed and a white supremacist attacked peaceful protesters blocks away from the skirmishes. They saw him invest emotionally in the notion that “the alt-left”—a term that, unlike the “alt-right,” no group embraces and has no universally understood meaning—was as guilty as anyone. They heard him defend the people who attended a torch-lit march in which demonstrators rallied around a statue of Robert E. Lee throwing Hitler salutes and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
For those observers, the spectacle was nauseating. Bound up in ego and without any appreciation for posterity or comity, Trump had taken a sledgehammer to the fragile racial consensus ironed out in America over centuries of conflict. But that’s not what the president’s supporters heard. Even some who have little love for Trump but resent his liberal and media opponents heard something entirely different.
“The night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump insisted. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
Who is to say whether that’s true or not? Sure, it seems unlikely that someone who is not a white supremacist would find him or herself in the middle of a crowd of neo-Nazis and go with the flow. But that sentiment is certainly true of America at large. Millions of Americans who are not neo-Confederate sympathizers are nevertheless alarmed by the tearing down of landmarks they’ve known all their lives, especially when that’s not the result of political consensus but the work of frenzied swarms of revisionist youth. They might not have even seen the torch-lit rally because it wasn’t featured in media they consume. They are not racist and they reject violence, but they do resent the pace of cultural change. Trump might as well have been talking about them. So, to them, Trump was right.
Trump later insisted that those protesting the removal of the statue—a pretext only later embraced by alt-right protesters but not the impetus for the “Unite the Right” gathering—had a point. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down,” Trump noticed. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Trump supporters didn’t hear the president equate a traitorous religious zealot who fought in defense of slavery with both the nation’s first patrician president and the author of the most powerful classically liberal document the world had ever seen. They heard an old argument, one that has been articulated by Republicans since Democrats began purging Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their collective histories—that there is no limiting principle to the idea that antebellum slaveholders must be expunged from our public squares. So, to them, Trump was right.
“You are changing history, you’re changing culture,” Trump insisted. “You had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” There! Trump condemned the Nazis. What more do you want? And there were counter-demonstrators in “black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats” who were amendable to being provoked into a fight with their racist counterparts. Even the New York Times reporter on the scene admitted to witnessing “club-wielding ‘Antifa beating white nationalists.” So, on that point, Trump was right.
Perhaps in their hearts, these Trump supporters know that the president has given succor to the worst fringes of American society and likely swollen their ranks as a result. But the collective response to Trump’s press conference yesterday on the part of the political class will likely only render the impulse to rally around the president more justified and urgent.
Writing in Business Insider, Josh Barro postulated that Trump’s “many sides” comment on Saturday amounted to a Hillary Clinton-like “deplorables” moment. He speculated that, by evincing caution when faced with the prospect of denouncing his most racist supporters, Trump lumped the more respectable members of his base in with an ugly crowd and they wouldn’t appreciate it. But people possess an infinite capacity for rationalization. In this case, it isn’t even a compromising task; if Trump is all that stands between them and the forces of violence, un-American revisionism, and socialism, a little sloppy messaging on white supremacy is a tolerable compromise.
Republican base voters are not budging and so, no matter their personal sentiments, their elected representatives are obliged to stay put as well.
What Trump could have said.
Completely lost in yesterday’s journalistic typhoon of virtue signaling after President Trump’s highly impolitic, but, as Powerline pointed out, basically accurate statement about the tragedy in Charlottesville, was his statement on infrastructure. It is well worth looking at.
One of the main reasons American bridges, roads, tunnels and other government-owned infrastructure are so often in poor shape is the crazy-quilt federal permitting process that has grown up over the last fifty years and desperately needs to be regularized.
It takes, on average, seven years for a complex highway project to get all the needed federal permits. A single agency can take up to five years to make up its mind. Environmental impact statements run to thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of pages, and the delays cost the American economy trillions in lost GDP. As so often happens in government, the permitting process, which was meant to assure that projects are safe, economically rational, and environmentally sound has been transformed into a means of maximizing bureaucratic paper-shuffling.
In his executive order, Trump requires a single federal agency to be the lead agency for each project and it will ride herd on all the others involved. A single “record of decision” would be signed by all the relevant agencies and permits will be issued 90 days later. The Council on Environmental Quality will mediate environmental disputes between different agencies. The goal is to reduce the time needed for the process from seven to two years.
More reforms will be needed. Environmental groups, such as The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, instinctively oppose any project that would expand the American economy, even ones that would have a net positive impact on the environment. They fought the Keystone XL pipeline tooth and nail, even though it will greatly reduce the threat of oil spills by moving oil transport from railroads to the pipeline.
And these groups have become highly expert at gaming the legal system to tie up projects, sometimes for decades, in court.
But Trump’s executive order yesterday was a good step in the right direction. It would have received more attention if the president could just learn not to step on his own story.
Waiting for a mature Trump.
It took fewer than 12 hours for Donald Trump to effectively retract his condemnation of the white nationalists behind the weekend bloodshed in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Amid intense criticism over his initial equivocation and refusal to name the Hitlerite goons who had instigated the violence, the president corrected course Monday afternoon. At a White House news conference, he railed against the “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” It was a scripted moment, and it came two days later than it should have. Still, you could almost hear the sighs of relief from Trump’s conservative-media defenders.
The president reversed himself – again – in classic Trumpian fashion. Late Monday evening, he tweeted: “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied… truly bad people!” Which made the afternoon statement look like a begrudging concession to an ungrateful press corps rather than a genuine expression. As if to validate the impression, Trump retweeted an alt-right figure a few hours later.
Set aside the inane whataboutism of the tweet itself: “39 shootings in Chicago this weekend, 9 deaths. No national media outrage. Why is that?” Chicago’s crime epidemic deserves media coverage, to be sure, but so does a white-nationalist rally that ends with a motor-vehicle rampage, the death of one innocent and the maiming of at least 19 others.
More notable was the author of the tweet, Jack Posobiec. The activist and “reporter” is a creature of the alt-right fever swamps. He wouldn’t deserve a minute’s attention but for the fact that he has now been thrust into global prominence by the leader of the Free World.
Posobiec has described Richard Spencer, the organizer of the Charlottesville night of the long torches, as “indispensable.” He has peddled the conspiracy theory that Democrats ran a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza parlor. Most bizarre, by my lights, is his claim that globalist forces have drugged French President Emmanuel Macron since his earliest days and are now using him as a puppet.
“It may be a way that they found this guy [Macron] very, very young,” he told the conspiracy network Infowars in May, “and they were using that to essentially turn him into a puppet, turn him into a marionette, and now they’re plying him with drugs, keeping him drugged up and getting him to do whatever they want.”
The expression that comes to mind is double discourse. The president offers one set of messages when he is scripted and facing media pressure while telegraphing something else–sometimes the diametric opposite–when addressing his nutsy online base. As for his defenders in the conservative media, the ones who are convinced that a responsible, presidential Trump is just around the corner: He will always disappoint you. And with each disappointment comes a fresh dose of humiliation.
Controversies come and go so fast in the Trump administration that it’s all too easy to lose sight of individual issues. It is, therefore, worth remembering that before the events in Charlottesville grabbed public attention on Saturday, the president had been making news with his bellicose statements against North Korea and Venezuela.
Unlike many of the other victims of Trump’s invective, Kim Jong-un and Nicolas Maduro both deserve to be vilified. They are vicious dictators who show no regard for human life or the basic norms of civilized society. Kim’s villainy is of a higher order than Maduro’s—North Korea is the most repressive place on Earth—and he poses a much greater threat to the United States. Maduro isn’t developing nuclear weapons or threatening to attack U.S. territory. He does, however, deserve considerable calumny for destroying the last remnants of Venezuela’s democracy, whereas Kim Jong-un has simply continued the totalitarianism that he inherited from his father and grandfather.
It is entirely fit and proper for a president of the United States to denounce both Kim and Maduro. But that doesn’t mean that the way Trump went about is smart. He is, in fact, playing right into the dictators’ hands with his over-the-top threats.
He warned Kim Jong-un: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Far from backing down after these comments were criticized, he doubled down, saying that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” for war. If taken seriously, Trump’s comments suggest that he is prepared to wage war not in response to North Korean actions but simply North Korean words.
There is, in fact, no sign that the U.S. is getting ready for conflict. If that were the case, the U.S. armed forces would be evacuating 200,000 American civilians from South Korea and rushing in the additional forces called for under the Pentagon’s war plan—Oplan 5027. That’s not happening, and senior officials—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford—all say that conflict is not “imminent.”
Trump’s saber-rattling is unlikely to cause North Korea to stop its nuclear program. If anything, Kim will only redouble his efforts in the face of this American threat, while basking in further confirmation that the U.S. really is, as his propaganda claims, a warmonger intent on destroying North Korea. With Kim already on the verge of acquiring the capability to hit the U.S. with nuclear-tipped ICBMs, either the North Korean despot will call Trump’s bluff, leading to a loss of American credibility, or he will invite a catastrophic conflict. Neither option, needless to say, is a good one.
Trump’s threat of a “military option” against Venezuela is even more misguided. The U.S. is not going to invade Venezuela no matter how many human-rights abuses Maduro commits because we don’t have any national-security interest in doing so. Normally Trump himself is the first one to argue against humanitarian interventions, but, in this case, he allowed his rhetoric to run away with him.
Whatever his motivation, the Defense Department is even less prepared and willing to attack Venezuela than it is North Korea. The only concrete consequences of Trump’s wild threat is to force America’s Latin American allies to distance themselves from Washington and to hand Maduro a propaganda victory. Like Kim Jong-un, he, too, justifies his dictatorship as a defense against Yanqui colonialism and militarism, and Trump’s words seem to provide support for his propaganda. Moreover, assuming that Trump’s words don’t lead Maduro to change his repressive policies, the failure to back up this threat will further dent American credibility.
Trump found hyperbole to be a useful tool in the real estate business and his pursuit of the White House. But a president in control of the world’s mightiest military cannot afford so much loose talk without doing grave damage to American security and running the risk of needless conflict. Many hoped that the arrival of Gen. John Kelly as White House chief of staff would lead to a more moderate tone from the president. So far it hasn’t happened, but it’s never too late for Trump to adopt Theodore Roosevelt’s motto: “speak softly and carry a big stick.”