The language of Barack Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Address contained passages that were distinctly Churchillian: “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” President Obama, nevertheless, promised victory against the dark forces:
And to those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken—you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you. [Applause]
The promise of victory has long vanished from Barack Obama’s agenda. Still, earlier this year, President Obama made a case for the success of the Obama Doctrine in a series of lengthy interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic magazine. Although the world had turned out to be a “complicated, messy, mean place”, the President reasoned, he had mostly got the balance right between “big-hearted” and “hard-headed”—mission, of a sort, accomplished.
According to Goldberg’s White House interview and background briefings, Barack Obama has always had reservations about Islamic revivalism and the deleterious effect of exported Saudi-style Salafism (Wahhabism):
In a meeting during APEC with Malcolm Turnbull, the [then] new prime minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering.
As Obama tells it, Turnbull then asked why this might be the case, and Obama explained that since the 1990s “the Saudis and the other Gulf Arabs have funnelled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country”, causing the extensive adoption in Indonesia of “the fundamentalist version of Islam favoured by the Saudi ruling family”. When the apparently uninformed Turnbull appeared confused by this revelation—“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?”—Obama responded with a knowing smile: “It’s complicated.”
Barack Obama, then, is cognisant of the fact that a growing number of Islam’s 1.2 or 1.4 billion adherents have undergone a transformation during recent times. For instance, the “syncretistic”—that is, reconciliatory and blending—Islam he experienced first-hand during his childhood in Indonesia has been challenged by “political Islam”, a strain of Islam that is both separatist and supremacist and, almost by definition, less amenable to Western-style notions of secular democracy. Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine”, (Atlantic, April 2016), makes it clear—or, at any rate, Barack Obama wishes to make it clear—that Islamic illiberalism is problematic.
The President insists that precisely because of such problematic developments the Obama Doctrine works better than any alternative strategy for handling a complex, chaotic and callous world. This is despite his regrettable embrace of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, his rash endorsement of the Arab Spring in its early stages, his epic setbacks in Afghanistan, his discreditable alliance with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his disastrous interference in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, his negligent relationship with Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki and now Haider al-Abadi, his inattention during the genesis and emergence of the Islamic State and, no less ruinous, his futile attempt at rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The latter includes the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which provides the wherewithal for Iran to obtain nuclear-weapons capability within the next ten to fifteen years.
This essay appears in the October edition of Quadrant.
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That said, no disaster or scandal has been too big for President Obama and his apologists to shrug off. In August came the revelation that the United States paid Iran $400 million to secure the release of American hostages held in Iran. Andrew C. McCarthy, writing in the National Review, argued that the US government had violated the law in numerous ways by its action. President Obama, with the compliance of the mainstream media, casually dismissed the payment as “old news” which was, in any case, unrelated to the release of the hostages. Subsequent disclosures, however, revealed that the airliner containing the US prisoners was not permitted to make its departure from Iran until an unmarked American cargo plane carrying the $400 million landed on the runway. The State Department explained that while the money did not constitute a “ransom payment”, the prisoner release was “contingent” on it.
The $400 million “contingent” payment to Tehran typifies so much about the Obama administration’s penchant for dissembling, not the least example being the Bowe Bergdahl exchange. Why did Obama’s national security adviser, back in 2014, go on Sunday morning television programs to dishonestly declare that Sergeant Bergdahl had served the United States with “honour and distinction”? Why would the White House press secretary at the time claim that the release of the Taliban’s five-man Dream Team from Guantanamo—as a trade for Bergdahl—was “not a security threat to the United States”? Moreover, why was it that in a speech to the United Nations, a full two weeks after the Benghazi embassy attack of September 11, 2012, President Obama stated, “There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.” Why the endless obfuscation?
We must begin with the fact that the Obama Doctrine configures the world through the prism of the President’s supposedly transcendent identity. Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan anti-colonial socialist and stepson of a syncretistic Muslim, originally set himself the messianic mission of “ushering in a new era of peace”. Although his transcendent identity—“It is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism”—has not, alas, been the stimulus for world peace, it nevertheless allows him to reflect, from a great height, on the narrow-mindedness and perennial prejudices of those who thwart his vision splendid. The intolerance of the tribal instinct, in the opinion of Obama, provides “the larger ecosystem” in which politics of violence thrives, no more so than in the Middle East. While President Obama acknowledges the apocalyptic dimension of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, he refuses to recognise that Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood exist in tandem with them as “brothers in doctrine”.
Barack Obama’s fundamental misconception of the problem has resulted in one mistake after another, and yet none of this seems to engender a mea culpa. He attributes the “disaster”—the word he uses in Goldberg’s report—of post-Gaddafi Libya to David Cameron taking his eyes off the ball; Vladimir Putin is “not completely stupid” but a small man ruling a large country; Recep Tayyip Erdogan he condemns as “a failure and an authoritarian”; the Saudis export their narrow-minded interpretation of Islam; King Abdullah II behaves duplicitously and so on.
President Obama’s Gulliver-like condescension can be observed in an anecdote that recounts a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister, in the midst of an exposition on the dangerous and brutal entities threatening his country, is cut short by the President:
I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.
Here we see the fatal flaw of modern-day leftist theory, of which President Obama must be the most prominent disseminator. The driving force of global politics is not the push-and-pull of arbitrarily defined tolerance and intolerance: it is ideological and global as much as it is clannish and local.
Thus, Israeli and European Jews—similar to the Jewish population of the Third Reich—are threatened by something more alarming than prejudice and tribal intolerance. Bigotry was not the actuating mechanism of the Holocaust but a totalitarian ideology with exterminationist anti-Semitism at its core. Likewise, intolerance does not begin to explain the attitude of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the Islamic Jihad Movement, or the Islamic State and virtually every other Salafist entity on the planet, to the “Jewish problem”. For Barack Obama to conflate any of this with the discrimination he experienced as an African-American—so discriminatory that the American people twice elected him to the presidency—approaches narcissism and a chronic failure of imagination.
In the case of Islamic revivalism, then, we are not confronting a minor change from somewhat tolerant to somewhat intolerant but the evolution of Islamic jihadist ideology as outlined in Sebastian Gorka’s Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War (2016). The threat to the freedom-loving peoples of the world is a supremacist belief system that has its genesis in Saudi-style Wahhabism and the analogous innovations of Muslim Brotherhood forerunners such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. A parallel—albeit Shi’a—form of radicalism has been the official dogma of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979. It is in this context that President Obama’s attempted reconciliation with the powers-that-be in Iran, as per the July 2015 nuclear deal, needs to be evaluated. As if to make the point, Tehran recently permitted a state-sponsored television channel to run a program mocking President Obama’s $400 million ransom—apologies, contingent—payment. Furthermore, in September 2015 Iran’s Supreme Leader announced that the “Zionist Entity” would cease to exist within twenty-five years. Benjamin Netanyahu was entirely correct to characterise the ruling ideology of the Islamic Republic—in the manner of his 2015 United Nations address—as an existential threat to Israel.
In his official memoirs, doubtless, President Obama will lambast Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for spending the vast influx of cash arising from the nuclear deal (estimated to be as much as $150 billion) on pursuing Iranian hegemony in the neighbourhood. Instead of using the windfall and attendant US munificence to lessen tension with its regional rivals, as envisioned by Obama, Iran continues to flood Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere with its weapons and irregular forces. Khamenei’s radical creed is both opportunistic and millennialist: Washington’s largesse, as Netanyahu warned, did not produce a give-and-take conciliatory posture on the part of Tehran but, instead, amplified an already belligerent and triumphalist foreign policy. In August, as one instance, we witnessed the increased harassment of the US navy in the Strait of Hormuz by high-speed vessels belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In the eyes of the Iranian theocracy, the United States remains, as ever, the Great Satan.
The one indisputably positive aspect about America’s intervention in the Middle East has been its support of the Kurdish militia in northern Iraq (the Peshmerga) and in northern Syria (Syrian Democratic Forces). In the case of the latter, liberating Kobanî (January 2015), Tel Abyad (June 2015) and Manbij (August 2016) from IS control had as much to do with SDF military proficiency on the ground backed by US airpower as it did with the power of anti-Islamist ideology. The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab secularists, is Enemy Number One for IS because of its rejection of Salafism and sharia law. Relevantly, the SDF—especially its anarcho-libertarian Kurdish contingent—is also Enemy Number One for President Erdogan, a devotee of Turkey’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood. The fall of Manbij left Erdogan fearful that IS-held Jarabulus might be next on the SDF’s list, and so ensued Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in concert with various Salafi-jihadist militias. The occupation of Jarabulus by the Turkish Armed Forces coincided—to the surprise of few—with the peaceable relocation of the IS group’s militia out of harm’s way.
President Obama’s ready accession to Operation Euphrates Shield is yet another indication of his failure to confront the reality that our world is threatened not by “intolerance” and petty tribalism but by a global Islamic jihad. Sultan Erdogan is not “a failure and an authoritarian” but something far more disturbing, a fact many liberal-minded Turks, not to mention Kurds in the south-east of the country, understand only too well. Instead of defending the interests of Syrian Kurds (or Rojavans) and their secularist and non-sectarian allies in northern Syria, President Obama has yielded to the bullying of the Islamist despot in Ankara; a fellow who would betray Nato with anyone from Vladimir Putin to Iran and IS if it suited his neo-Ottoman fantasies. As the security analyst Michael Horowitz has noted, for America to acquiesce with Operation Euphrates Shield risks losing “the faith and trust of the only partner it has not let down … yet.”
Michael Ruben cautions in Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes (2014) that accommodating the “declared grievances” of rogues and fanatics is a proven a recipe for disaster. Barack Obama, as disclosed in the Goldberg article this year, claimed that he saw through Erdogan’s masquerade as “some kind of moderate Muslim”—and that was before the Tribune of Anatolia’s bloody crackdown in the wake of the would-be July coup d’état. Yet Obama has persisted with the belief that it is in America’s—and the world’s—long-term interests to appease a regime ruled by a paranoid zealot. Can anyone honestly say that the Obama Doctrine has left the world a better and safer place than it was in January 2009? The networks of violence and hatred have only grown, and it is high time for a new plan.
President Obama, according to Goldberg, once soothed a White House staffer alarmed by the Islamic State with this assurance: “They’re not coming here to chop off our heads.” A promise delivered, of course, before the June 12, 2016, Orlando nightclub massacre. To overplay—or, let’s face it, even define—the challenge of Islamic terrorism would, in the considered opinion of Barack Obama, trigger bigotry and hysteria in the homeland for the sake of something that “takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do”.
Obama’s war, in essence, is not mission accomplished so much as mission aborted. Endorsement of Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, the Bowe Bergdahl exchange, the Iran deal, planeloads of cash to Tehran, compliance with Operation Euphrates Shield and on and on are not the price of appeasement. They are a down payment on surrender.
Daryl McCann contributed “Obama the Great Divider” in the September issue. He has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au