by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
The Truly Amazing Fact
One wonders not that President Obama tells untruths (e.g. no middle-class tax increase, health-care “reform” will control costs, C-Span’s airing of healthcare debates, listing pending legislation on the internet for five days, closing down Guantanamo within a year, advocacy for all combat forces out of Iraq by March 2008, no lobbyists in government, an end to earmarks, and all the old ones about public campaign financing, the actual relationships with Wright, Ayers, Khalidi, Blago, etc.), since all politicians fib.
Rather the wonder is that he does it so serially, after promising such hope and change from the past political culture — and that his base and the favorable media care so little, the same media that for nearly a decade boasted that their signature was to care so deeply and passionately about presidential veracity. Factor all that in with a weak economy, 10 percent unemployment, astronomical deficits, polarizing appointments, and apologetics abroad, and, again, the amazing thing is not that Obama has fallen faster and further than any first-year president, but that in quite wondrous fashion, he still earns an average approval rating in the polls of 48 percent. Now that is amazing, and either a testament to his political savvy, the obsequiousness of the New York and D.C. media, or the hope by most that they can be included in the growing distribution of entitlements which now draws in nearly 30 percent of the population for substantial or near-complete subsidy.
Yes, Words Do Matter!
One of the defenses used by supporters of the Obama administration against criticism of its anti-terrorism policy is that, despite the partisan hype, it is not doing things all that much differently from the Bush protocols (e.g., continuance of the Patriot Act, renditions, tribunals, the Bush-Petraeus Iraqi withdrawal plan, etc.) or indeed has trumped the Bush administration, as in the radically expanded Predator-drone targeted assassinations and the general escalation in Afghanistan. A few of the more cynical administration supporters, off the record perhaps, would even argue that Obama’s rhetorical outreach (such as his loudly virtually closing Guantanamo and virtually scheduling KSM for trial), his confidence-building in the Muslim world, and his nontraditional name and lineage allow him to do things that the cowboyish Bush could not — as in expanding renditions, or blowing up at an unprecedented rate suspected terrorists and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the general vicinity, all as he soars in Cairo about a Muslim-fostered Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Even if the administration were that cynical, the problem is, to paraphrase the president himself, that “words matter,” and that our enemies are simultaneously also waging a symbolic war in which imagery, vocabulary, and perceptions matter as much as battlefield realities. So when Obama and his team were dreaming up euphemisms like “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters,” and loudly disowning terms like “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremism,” and “jihad,” and magnifying our own past misdemeanors while downplaying the felonies of Islam, and bragging of their intention to give KSM his day in court, or Mirandizing Abdulmutallab, or declaiming about Guantanamo, perhaps a subtle message was delivered to radical Islamists that we either would not or could not any longer wage war against them. As we know, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri put great stock in words as windows on the soul. So while we think we are as tough as before — though now smarter, with less polarizing rhetoric and a postnational commander-in-chief — our terrorist enemies may well sense that we feel culpable and will not be as unpredictably vigilant as in the past — even if actual policies in some cases remain unchanged.
Bottom line: Words matter. While we may think the “reset button”/“I’m not Bush” Obama rhetoric will win hearts and minds abroad, and give us new parameters of operations, our enemies may well look far more to words than to deeds — and see in them a radical loss of our deterrence ability. So the Hasans, Abdulmutallabs, and Shahzads of the world interpret our new philological magnanimity as weakness, regardless of whether it is or not. And that seems to me very dangerous indeed. Maybe the president can drop the “tea-bagger” slurs and forget Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and instead warn radical Islamists to knock it off — or else.
The Terrorism of No Name
There was a disturbing story about home-grown Islamist terrorists on 60 Minutes Sunday evening. It was disturbing in its content, and also in the way the entire narrative was presented by 60 Minutes. One heard of the danger of “radical websites,” “home-grown terrorism,” a “global movement,” “lone wolf” terrorists, “sophisticated” and “magnetic” messages, young expatriate youths “at risk for being recruited,” and the general dangers of “terrorist organizations.” But there was very little discussion of the fact that the one link, the one unifying commonality, among all these recent U.S.-based terrorists is radical Islamic ideology, and its hate-filled doctrine that seeks to blame the self-inflicted miseries of the Middle East on the supposed sins of the West and Israel. There was even less discussion on 60 Minutes of how some mosques and madrassas located in America either wink at such radical Islamism, or have far more knowledge of it than they let on. One did not hear much about why there were more terrorist plots against the U.S. in the last 15 months than at any comparable period since 2001, or why exactly the Islamists in the post-Cairo-speech, post-apology-tour, post-reach-out-to-Syria-and-Iran, and post-snubbing-of-Israel era seem more, not less, prone to kill us here at home.
The one interesting artifact was an interview with Secretary of State Clinton. She conveyed three messages: one, in a tough-talking mode, she announced that we will hold parties abroad responsible for terrorism that they project onto U.S. soil; two, she lamented her weakened diplomatic hand due to the undermining of the U.S. financial position by uncontrollable deficits; and three, she admitted that she was shocked at the invitation to be Obama’s secretary of state, and at first demurred.
Thus, one might conclude that our secretary of state is tougher on Islamist terrorism than the president, is more worried about the strategic consequences of ballooning U.S. debt — and was not initially keen, as of late 2008, on working for the president. Sounds like one member of the administration who polls far higher than the president might be surveying the new political landscape come November with particular interest.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson