That title is a quote from former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, quoted in Peter Baker’s fine piece in Friday’s New York Times’ on the president’s decision to sort-of, kind-of, maybe strike against ISIS.
Baker’s quote of Crocker, who served as President George W. Bush’s Ambassador to Iraq and President Obama’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, is worth reading in its entirety:
“This is about America’s national security,” said Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador to Iraq under Mr. Bush and to Afghanistan under Mr. Obama. “We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the ISIS leader, “have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”
This is the chilling reality of the war in which we continue to find ourselves, a reality that the American left –of which the president is the condensed, 100% concentrated version– refuses to believe: that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Hamas, or any Islamist not named bin Laden is a threat to the United States. The president and his ideological allies especially refuse to consider any facts that are inconsistent with their conclusions, even facts that line up as direct threats to America, because they’d rather live in ignorance and danger than validate in any way W’s view of the world and of the crucial necessity of staying involved in the Islamic world, helping our genuine allies and fighting our genuine enemies there.
That was the terribly difficult”middle ground” that Bush and Vice President Cheney knew the U.S. had to occupy, possessing as they did (and still do) a perspective that understood that we and the rest of the West are not at war with Islam but with a virulent, radicalized and very violent strain of Sunni Islamist extremism, every bit the match of the Khomeinism that gripped Iran in the late 1970s and holds on to it still. This latter terror was not opposed by Jimmy Carter and nearly 40 years later still threatens the West in new and more menacing ways. The Sunni equivalent nested first in Afghanistan, was beaten back there, in western Iraq in the person of Zarqawi, and across the globe until, after the election of President Obama, it was granted a reprieve and regrouped and reorganized, and is growing fast and very strong now in western Iraq and other places around the globe.
The left will want to argue that Bush created ISIS, an absurd but predictable last ditch effort to build a weak wall against the reality that people like Lawrence Wright and Bernard Lewis have been arguing against for more than a decade. Indeed, Baker found the pitch perfect representative of the school of pretend-it-doesn’t-exist to quote for his piece:
“This is a slippery slope if I ever saw one,” said Phyllis Bennis, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a research organization for peace activists. “Whatever else we may have learned from the president’s ‘dumb war,’ it should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.”
This point of view is sadly the dominant one within the White House, and the president’s very minimalist response last night should not confuse people about the crucial fact that he is one with Bennis in worldview. I quoted on my show yesterday but requote here to emphasize its importance, President Obama’s very revealing, very candid assessment of ISIS, made to the New Yorker’s David Remnick in a much overlooked but crucial piece from January:
At the core of Obama’s thinking is that American military involvement cannot be the primary instrument to achieve the new equilibrium that the region so desperately needs. And yet thoughts of a pacific equilibrium are far from anyone’s mind in the real, existing Middle East. In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
He went on, “You have a schism between Sunni and Shia throughout the region that is profound. Some of it is directed or abetted by states who are in contests for power there. You have failed states that are just dysfunctional, and various warlords and thugs and criminals are trying to gain leverage or a foothold so that they can control resources, populations, territory. . . . And failed states, conflict, refugees, displacement—all that stuff has an impact on our long-term security. But how we approach those problems and the resources that we direct toward those problems is not going to be exactly the same as how we think about a transnational network of operatives who want to blow up the World Trade Center. We have to be able to distinguish between these problems analytically, so that we’re not using a pliers where we need a hammer, or we’re not using a battalion when what we should be doing is partnering with the local government to train their police force more effectively, improve their intelligence capacities.”
This point of view cannot be reconciled with the facts on the ground in western Iraq, or Nigeria, or Mali, or Somalia or indeed in Gaza. It must oblige the president to almost double over with the pains of cognitive dissonance when confronted with the rampage and slaughters of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As Remnick pointed out, this worldview is “the core” of the president’s understanding of the world, the equivalent of Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” It is the Rosetta Stone to understanding everything President Obama has done –and mostly not done– since becoming president in 2009. He departs from it only when the televised pictures he and his advisors see –whether from Libya as Qaddafi marched towards Benghazi with the intention of slaughtering his opponents or of ISIS trapping children on mountains– persuade him that, if only because the poor, emotional American people won’t put up with such pictures, he has to pretend to do something.
It isn’t really “appeasement” which at least recognized evil and tried to buy it off, though it issues in policies that look like those that were produced by appeasement. It is rather a child-like anti-intellectualism, an academic’s withdrawal from reality into endless faculty meetings where debates about parking spaces and tenure displace the reality of the world outside of the 90-minute meeting committee process.
Because this worldview is fully in control of the American military, national security and diplomatic powers, we will do nothing about al-Baghdadi for at least two more years when, hopefully, an heir to Reagan arrives to reintroduce American power and influence in the world. American power does not always and everywhere mean military power, but it does include it and it ought to be used, especially when a long standing ally like the Kurds are threatened by barbarians at their gates, and not in a haphazard, half-gesture of concern from the skies. A reflexive horror of “boots on the ground” gripped Carter as it grips Obama, and the president who follows Obama will have to reintroduce the world to the prospect of dealing with American military might.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi understands he is up against a paper mache president right now, and is acting accordingly, as are his arch enemies –the mullahs in Iran– and their half-brothers in Hamas and their generous uncle in Moscow. As do the Chinese. The good news is that there are Abbotts and Harpers about, and especially Netanyahu. They have their counterparts within the GOP and those men and women are finding their voices. Even this pretend-to-be-president president may be obliged to act if the ISIS fanatics go too far and too fast. They lack brakes because they believe God is on their side. What they might do that might wake even this president is pretty horrible to consider but if you have seen what they are doing in Iraq, you must understand they’d gladly do whatever they could to deeply injure America again.
It is an ongoing, never-ending-in-our-lifetimes global conflict and it isn’t going away, no matter how many iPads we produce or where LeBron plays or how Johnny Football does. I like most Americans treasure my diversions from the reality of this awful situation, but presidents don’t get to live a life disconnected from them and deeply connected to fairways and greens.
It is hard to imagine how far ISIS will have spread its evil by the time January 2017 brings a new resolve to the White House. Hopefully the seriousness of this situation adds to the repudiation of the president and his party of go-along yes men and women at the polls in November, and a rebuilding of the Department of Defense can begin in earnest in January 2015.
It didn’t have to be this way. W’s generals and their troops won the war in Iraq. President Obama booted away the peace and the intricate coalition that held it in place when he abruptly pulled a residual American force from Iraq in 2011. This is a sequel to what happened in Vietnam in 1975. This time there are no boat people because there is no ocean and there are no boats. Just slaughter. And this time the enemy isn’t going to stop with conquering their country and incursions into a few local countries.
“This is evil incarnate,” as Ambassador Crocker put it so succinctly and well. Evil incarnate doesn’t fill out brackets, or rest or grow weary. It marches on and sneers at the delusions of its enemies who don’t even know they are the target.