There are two ways of dealing with difficult problems: ignore them, in the hope that they’ll go away, or deal with them. Politicians often opt for the “bury your head in the sand” option, in the hope that the problem will only erupt into a full-fledged crisis on their successors’ watch. This is especially true when the tough decisions involve taking actions that run counter to your stated doctrine.
Islamic State is a classic example of a problem that the White House has avoided at all cost, because the obvious solution runs counter to its “no boots on the ground” and “there’s no such thing as radical Islam” doctrines. The Obama administration sees no evil and hears no evil, even when evil is making its presence felt around the world and even when its own people are sounding the alarm.
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was forced out of his post in February, recently revealed that he became persona non grata at the White House when he warned that the danger of Islamic State “was beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”
Instead of sparking an open, honest policy debate at the highest levels, Hagel was viewed as a nuisance. He was resented for trying to lower the blinders and help the administration see reality as it is, not as it would like it to be.
“I got accused of trying to hype something, overstate something, and make something more than it was,” Hagel told Foreign Policy. “I didn’t know all of it, but I knew we were up against something here that we had never seen before. And in many ways, we were not prepared for it.”
But the administration did more than refuse to entertain the possibility of Islamic State and radical Islam posing a threat to the free world, including the United States. It actually erased evidence that its own agencies had gathered proving the extent of the threat.
Philip Haney, who worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for 13 years, says the Obama administration placed restrictions on federal law-enforcement agencies that prevented them from stopping “terrorists in our midst.”
“I was a firsthand witness to how these policies deliberately prevented scrutiny of Islamist groups. The two San Bernardino jihadists, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, may have benefited from the administration’s closure of an investigation I initiated on numerous groups infiltrating radicalized individuals into this country,” Haney wrote recently in The Hill, an influential publication in Washington, D.C.
Haney played a major role in “connecting the dots” of individuals and organizations throughout the United States with ties to a trans-national Islamist network. “We created records of individuals, mosques, Islamic centers and schools across the United States that were involved in this radicalization effort,” he writes.
“But after more than six months of research and tracking, over 1,200 law-enforcement actions and more than 300 terrorists identified, and a commendation for our efforts, the Department of Homeland Security shut down the investigation at the request of the Department of State and DHS’s own Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Division. They claimed that since the Islamist groups in question were not Specially Designated Terrorist Organizations (SDTOs), tracking individuals related to these groups was a violation of the travelers’ civil liberties. These were almost exclusively foreign nationals: When were they granted the civil rights and liberties of American citizens?”
Haney’s conclusion? “The Obama administration is more concerned with the rights of non-citizens in known Islamist groups than with the safety and security of the American people.”
President Obama is on the defensive. A national survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 37 percent of respondents approved of his handling of terrorism, while 57 percent disapprove, his lowest rating ever on the issue.
The poll numbers have forced him to concede that he has come under some “legitimate criticism” for failing to adequately explain his strategy to counter Islamic State. But he blames his low ratings on the saturation of Islamic State terror attacks in the media after the Paris attacks that killed 130, and argues that the Republican presidential candidates are good at attacking him but not at offering an alternative.
He’s mistaken on both counts. People are disappointed, not because of Paris and San Bernardino, but because they feel their commander-in-chief is out of touch with reality. They feel he has withdrawn from the world stage, especially the volatile Middle East, due to a simplistic, dangerous commitment not to put American boots on the ground, even though defense experts everywhere agree that this is the only way to defeat Islamic State (and that there is a very good chance of doing so, unlike in Vietnam).
As for his opponents not offering an alternative, the president needs to be reminded of something he himself said after he was elected the first time, but before he took office. At the time, Israel was fighting a war in Gaza and he was asked his opinion of it. His answer was something like, “There’s only one president at a time, and he needs to make the call.”
There’s only one president now and it’s his job to make the tough decisions, even if it requires taking off the blinders and seeing reality for what it is.