Conservatives Can't Trust Talk Radio to Cover Foreign Policy

A warning to rank-and-file Republicans in advance of the 2016 primaries


In 2016, the Republican primary will include a debate about the best approach to foreign policy. The rank-and-file can choose to ally with the neoconservative faction that urged the Iraq War, a Tea Partier who opposes lavish spending on wars of choice, or a compromise candidate who draws supporters from both camps. But conservatives accustomed to getting their information from talk radio should beware. The medium is at its most unreliable on the subjects of war and peace.

Once the primaries begin, examples will abound. For now, to illustrate how foreign policy topics are distorted on talk radio, I offer a specific example from this week.

I refer to the widespread mockery of Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the State Department, for an interview that she gave MSNBC's Chris Mathews on how to defeat ISIS. As someone who has written dozens of articles criticizing President Obama's foreign policy, I am always open to critiques of anyone in his administration. But the particular critique offered on talk radio this week is nonsense. To understand why, begin with a transcript of the remarks in question.

I've emphasized some relevant passages:

​Marie Harf: Right now, what we're doing is trying to take their leaders and their fighters off the battlefield in Iraq and in Syria. That's really where they flourish.

Chris Matthews: Are we killing enough of them?

Harf: We're killing a lot of them, and we're going to keep killing more of them. So are the Egyptians. So are the Jordanians. They're in this fight with us. But we cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our
way out of this war. We need, in the longer term, medium and longer term, to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it's lack of opportunity for jobs, whether--

Matthews: We're not going to be able to stop that in our lifetime, or 50
lifetimes! There's always going to be poor people. There's always going
to be poor Muslims. And as long as there are poor Muslims, the trumpet's
blowing! They'll join. We can't stop that, can we?

Harf: Well, we can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.

You're right, there is no easy solution in the long term to preventing and combatting violent extremism, but if we can help countries work at the root causes of this—what makes these 17-year-old kids pick up an AK-47
instead of trying to start a business? Maybe we can try to chip away at
this problem, while at the same time going after the threat, taking on ISIL
in Iraq, in Syria, and helping our partners around the world. I mean—

Matthews: This sounds like we're going to get rid of juvenile delinquency
in America over time by erasing poverty, improving education. Sure, over
time. But the American people, I think, are getting humiliated morally by
this. We are seeing these pictures—what are you supposed to say, I'm
going to think about something else?

Harf: Not at all.

Matthews: What are the American people supposed to do about this right

Harf: I think, I think—

Matthews: They're watching right now.

Harf: Yes.

Matthews: What are they supposed to do to stop these indecent killing of
people, these—this—the burning alive of the good pilot, the—
whatever they did to the American woman over there, whatever they did,
whatever they're doing to all these people, beheading them, beheading them
—what are we doing to stop this? It sounds like we can't stop it.

Harf: Well, I think they should know that the United States military is taking direct action in Iraq and in Syria. We're taking their leaders out. We're taking out their financing. We're talking out their training camps. This is a long fight, Chris. But I also think—not to take it to
politics for a second—they should tell their elected leaders to support the AUMF that we sent to Congress--

Matthews: Yes, OK.

Harf:—to speak to the world that we are behind this effort.

Matthews: I'm with you on that. I'm with you on that, Marie, because I
think that there's a lot of politicians left, right, and center hiding in
the bushes right now. They don't want their fingers on this war because
they're afraid it might not be pleasant. Thank you.

To summarize the position that this State Department spokeswoman is defending: She is an advocate of the U.S. military killing ISIS leaders and fighters. Indeed, she explicitly calls on Congress to pass an AUMF, otherwise known as a declaration of war, against ISIS. In addition, she believes that the U.S. government should pursue a longer-term strategy, whereby it tries to reduce the number of people that ISIS successfully recruits. How does she propose to do this? By improving the conditions under which potential recruits live—that is to say, the quality of their political systems and the jobs available in their economies.

I am somewhat skeptical of her position. Would marginally fewer people be tempted to join ISIS if every country on earth had healthy political institutions and thriving economies? Of course. If I were an ISIS recruiter and I had to focus my efforts on Muslim youth in a country with a dictator and 25 percent unemployment or 5 percent unemployment, I know where I'd do my outreach. I doubt, however, that the U.S. can reliably improve foreign governance or economies quickly enough to affect the fight against ISIS in particular. I may be wrong.

My doubts are informed by the fact that George W. Bush and his neoconservative supporters pursued a War on Terror strategy of trying to improve governance and create new economic opportunities in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They mostly failed.

Bush was explicit in his belief that fighting poverty elsewhere in the world would help in the War on Terrorism. "Many here today have devoted their lives to the fight against global poverty, and you know the stakes," he told an international audience 6 months after 9/11. "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror." Later in the same speech, he declared, "We will challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize and try to turn to their advantage."

Here is President Bush speaking in 2005 at the U.N.:

Confronting our enemies is essential, and so civilized nations will continue to take the fight to the terrorists. Yet we know that this war will not be won by force of arms alone.

We must defeat the terrorists on the battlefield and we must also defeat them in the battle of ideas. We must change the conditions that allow terrorists to flourish and recruit by spreading the hope of freedom to millions who've never known it. We must help raise up the failing states and stagnant societies that provide fertile ground for the terrorists. We must defend and extend a vision of human dignity and opportunity and prosperity, a vision far stronger than the dark appeal of resentment and murder. To spread the vision of hope the United States is determined to help nations that are struggling with poverty.

If we presume that Bush's notion of fighting poverty and expanding opportunity involved jobs, his position is almost identical to the one taken by the State Department's spokeswoman: We need to keep fighting terrorists, but must also improve the failing states and stagnant economies that allow them to recruit successfully. I can recall no conservative mockery when Bush employed this language.

Here he is again in the 2006 State of the Union address:

We're on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory. First, we are helping Iraqis build an inclusive government, so that old resentments will be eased and the insurgency will be marginalized. Second, we are continuing reconstruction efforts and helping the Iraqi government to fight corruption and build a modern economy, so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of freedom. Third, we are striking terrorist targets while we train Iraqi forces that are increasingly capable of defeating the enemy.

Strike terrorists, improve governance, build the economy.

Sound familiar?

Yet talk radio has greeted the same priorities from a low-level spokeswoman in the Obama Administration as if it signifies an absurd foreign-policy departure that is worthy of ridicule. Jeb Bush purports to have great respect for his brother's performance in office. Last week, on Hugh Hewitt's radio show, the former Florida governor and presidential hopeful faced the following question from the host:

Where do you see the source of the radicalism, the Islamist violence? What’s the root source? We heard Marie Harf say it’s joblessness, in part. What does Jeb Bush think?

Jeb Bush's answer: "I just cannot believe that a spokesman for our government would say that." Really, Jeb? Your own brother repeatedly made the same point as president: One root source that helps terrorist recruitment is lack of economic opportunity.

Jeb Bush goes on:

It is deeply disturbing to me that this is the language that’s used in the Obama administration, that it’s an isolated act if it was in Paris, or that joblessness creates despair that creates this radical behavior, that it’s a law-enforcement incident and all these things. It really makes it harder to garner the necessary support in our own country and around the world for what this is. This is radical Islam. And these are barbarians. And they want to destroy Western civilization. I don’t think that’s a gross exaggeration, and that’s what, if you believe, if you start with that premise, you have a completely different strategy.

Notice that Jeb accuses Obama of treating ISIS as "a law-enforcement incident and all these things" based on words from a State Department spokeswoman who explicitly endorsed air strikes against ISIS that are already happening and explicitly lobbied for a formal declaration of war against ISIS. That is not a law enforcement approach! Jeb Bush is arguing against a straw man of his own creation.

The next exchange:

Hewitt: True. What do you think is the tap root of the recent radicalization, though?

Bush: Well, it’s easier, these new asymmetric threats are easier as you see a breakdown of the old order. These voids are filled. It’s easier now though, because of the internet to garner support from places that you could never imagine just 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. So I think there’s a belief that in the case of certainly not in the United States as much, but in the case of Europe, there’s a lot of the Muslim populations are isolated and marginalized, and can easily be radicalized, because this multiculturalism kind of approach to immigration, you get second-class status. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons for it, but the simple fact is this is the present danger.

So, according to Jeb Bush, Muslims disaffected by their experience as second-class citizens in European countries are a root cause of terrorism, but it's discrediting to so much as suggest that the joblessness of these Muslims is also a factor? Hewitt doesn't call Jeb on his questionable analysis, but at least the talk radio host's question accurately represented what Marie Harf said on MSNBC, which is more than can be said for Rush Limbaugh, whose listeners were fed a blatant lie.

Limbaugh's Web site presents the story as follows:

Notice the brazenness of the mendacity. Limbaugh begins by telling his audience that he won't play them audio due to "a ban" on content from liberal MSNBC. Then, freed to make anything up, he proceeds to quote Harf saying something that she did not say. Consult the video or transcript for yourself. Though Limbaugh puts the words in quotation marks, she did not say, "We need to get to the root cause of terrorism, and that is poverty and lack of opportunity in the terrorist community."

And while Limbaugh's headline and remarks make it seem as though Harf was calling on the United States to find jobs for members of ISIS (as if fighters might leave the group to go work at Chipotle), her actual position is that—in addition to waging a literal war in which existing members of ISIS are killed by the U.S. military—America should help improve economic opportunities for people who have not yet joined ISIS but would be more likely to do so absent those economic opportunities. Disagree with that position if you will. But Limbaugh blatantly distorts it.

What else do I mean when I say that talk radio cannot be trusted on the subject of foreign policy? The State Department spokeswoman said all of the following during her interview:

  • "We're killing a lot of them."
  • "We're going to keep killing more of them."
  • "We're taking their leaders out. We're taking out their financing. We're taking out their training camps."

Still, they manage to portray her like a naive pacifist who believes that lack of jobs for ISIS terrorists is the single cause of terrorism, when actually she believes lack of economic opportunity is one of many factors that makes not-yet-terrorists more vulnerable to radicalization, the same position taken repeatedly by George W. Bush.

And what does Mark Steyn, who also mocks the supposed naiveté of the State Department spokeswoman, posit as the root cause of young people flocking to ISIS?

Let's go to a transcript from a subsequent Hugh Hewitt show:

Mark Steyn: We are losing to an explicitly genocidal and apocalyptic movement that controls substantial amounts of territory, and as we discussed last week, is incredibly attractive to educated citizens in the Western world ... These guys use evil as their calling card. They use evil in their campaign ads. They use evil in their movie promotions. And it’s very, and it’s horribly seductive to all these thousands of people who are supposed to be nominally citizens of Western nations, not just this Jihad John guy from London, but there’s Americans from Minnesota and elsewhere, there’s Canadians, Australians. There’s all kinds of people for whom the evil, the evil of ISIS, is its principle selling point.

Hugh Hewitt: Let me ask you about this, because I asked Jeb Bush this yesterday in an interview with him. What’s the tap root? And he had dismissed Marie Harf’s joblessness claim, as we all do. It’s just absurd and silly and moronic. And I asked him about it, and he fumbled around, and he came up with sort of civilizational alienation. What do you think it is, Mark Steyn?

Mark Steyn: Yeah, I think there’s a measure of truth in that. I think at the heart of the, at the heart of most modern Western societies is a big hole where young people’s sense of identity is. And some of it, you know, you saw a lot of that at the Oscars. They fill it with sexual politics, with all this LGBTQWERTY. I mean, I don’t even know what the last 17 initials. I know, I haven’t a clue what it is they’re meant to be, these evermore recherché sexual identity politics. Or they said it was climate change. They want to feel they’re saving the planet. And maybe that’s enough for some people. But for other people, it isn’t. And it’s not first-generation Muslims. It’s not second-generation Muslims. It’s the young third-generation Muslims in the Western world who have no attachment to the societies they owe their nominal allegiance to. This gives them an identity that the modern, Western, multicultural state, in its late civilizational decline, does not give them that identity.

Yes, you read that right.

On Hewitt's show, positing a dearth of economic opportunities as one root cause for the tiny percentage of young Muslim men who take up arms for ISIS is regarded as unserious. Whereas attributing their radicalization to "civilizational alienation" triggered by phenomena such as the Oscars, environmental activists, and the increasingly absurd acronyms put forth by the queer rights community? That explanation isn't questioned. It just passes into the ether as conservative wisdom. And the man who offered it will be invited back for his foreign-affairs commentary.

If rank-and-file conservatives are skeptical about the prospects of some sort of new Marshall Plan as a viable strategy against ISIS in the Middle East, I can't say that I blame them. But they should understand that as recently as the last administration, establishment conservatives like Jack Kemp were literally calling for a new Marshall Plan in the Middle East, and its most vocal critics were libertarians at places like The Cato Institute, not the Iraq hawks of the talk radio right. These same talk-radio hawks will present themselves as fair arbiters of debate when Rand Paul uses the 2016 primary to challenge the foreign policy of GOP neoconservatives. Republicans who hope to understand that debate must look beyond talk radio, where foreign-policy coverage is neither accurate nor logical nor consistent.