No, President Obama Isn't Trying to 'Wish Away' Islamist Terrorism

Some conservatives are still clinging to the idea, but it's a foreign-policy critique that can't succeed.



Attacks on President Obama's foreign policy have never resonated with Americans. Conservatives have long denounced Obama for going on an "apology tour," for supposedly rejecting American exceptionalism, and for an alleged failure to confront the terrorist enemy that threatens us. Yet a majority of both registered voters and swing voters told pollsters that they trusted Obama more than Mitt Romney to guide American foreign policy and to protect national security.

The opposition's failure to win enough converts is explained partly by its reliance on weak critiques like the one combat journalist Matthew Continetti offers in The Washington Free Beacon. Though pegged to the Boston marathon attack and the Benghazi investigation, Continetti's piece characterizes Team Obama's foreign policy with a longstanding, dubious criticism: Obama is trying to "wish away" rather than confront Islamic terrorism. "The villains in each case considered themselves soldiers of Allah fighting a holy war against America," he writes. "In both instances the political correctness of government officials prevented discovery of the truth. Benghazi and Boston are symptoms of the same disorder. They are twin studies in evasion."

He goes on:

The consequences for foreign policy are plain. A superpower cannot target a mob, it cannot declare war on a spontaneous protest, and it cannot align its grand strategy toward containing and securing the homeland against "an awful Internet video that we have nothing to do with." The best it can do in such circumstances, or so the upper echelons of the State Department would seem to believe, is take events as they come. Encourage cross-cultural understanding. Avoid inflammatory or divisive rhetoric.

But the implications would be far different if a global terrorist movement with the strategic aims of ejecting America from the Middle East and imposing sharia law across the region were behind the attack. In that case, 9/11/12 might underscore the persistence of al Qaeda despite administration pronouncements that it had been decimated*, and despite the vice president's insistence, less than a week before the attack, that the president deserved reelection because Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive. It might spark fear. It might suggest that the decision to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power and then keep only a light footprint--more like a toe-print--in Libya may not have been the best idea. It might cause American voters to wonder whether drone strikes and annual Eid and Nowruz greetings from the White House are really the best ways to deal with the Muslim world.

This is analytically incoherent.

First of all: "political correctness" did not prevent "discovery of truth" in Boston or Benghazi. In Boston, we know the truth, and in Benghazi, the Obama Administration stands accused of lying about what it knew to be true, not an inability to reach an informed conclusion about what happened.

Second, I certainly wonder whether drone strikes are "the best way to deal with the Muslim world," but even a staunch opponent of our targeted killing program, like myself, can see that it is precisely an effort to target Islamist terrorists, not an effort aimed at a mob or spontaneous protests. The drone war, which I believe to be immoral and counterproductive, shows that Obama is obsessed with targeting Islamist terrorists, not that he's ignoring them or wishing them away.

Why don't conservatives understand that this line of attack makes it impossible to take the people making it seriously? Continetti is well aware that Obama surged troops into Afghanistan, that he radically increased the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, that he presided over the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound, that he expanded the drone war in Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps elsewhere, that he's approved killing perhaps 3,000 people with Hellfire missiles, that he relied on Bush holdover John Brennan as his top counterterrorism adviser, and that he has adopted many Bush era counterterrorism policies about which he was once critical.

Yet Continetti and others would have us believe, not that the Obama Administration's counterterrorism policies are misguided, but that Obama refuses even to confront the reality of Islamist terrorism.There are trenchant critiques to be made about flaws in Obama's foreign policy.

An unwillingness to confront terrorism isn't one of them.

*An al Qaeda attack does not disprove the notion that the group has been "decimated," which does not mean "to wipe out completely."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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