I know this is the president's ambition. But the thought that he has already forged it is pretension of the highest order. In fact, it can be his ambition only if he believes the task is, in some actual sense, easy and actually doable. He capsulizes this in his address at West Point thus: "a new beginning ... that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity." Yes, indeed, yes, we can.
I don't know about you. But whenever I hear the phrase "cycle of violence" or "cycle of conflict," I reach for my book of cliches of which, believe it or not, there are plenty. I assume on the evidence that there are several in the West Wing of the White House.
The conceit in Obama's speech is that we are fighting only Al Qaeda and the Taliban and fighting them only in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (He has conveniently put Iraq out of mind, except for its uses as a reproach to George Bush.) The president does admit that the peril probably already extends to Yemen and Somalia. This is not a surprise. It is already almost a decade since the Islamists' deadly attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden. And it is more than a decade and a half since the American army's Operation Restore Hope in Somalia was blown to shreds with the killing of dozens of our soldiers and the withdrawal of virtually all U.S. personnel from the country. He says that where "Al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold ... they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships." It is hard to imagine the jihadists seeing this as a credible threat.
I am not an expert in Islamic politics. Of course, I studied it, formally and informally, with eminent scholars, starting out with the greatest of them all, Elie Kedourie. I half suspect that I know more about Islam and the Arabs than President Obama. Nothing he has said leads me to think otherwise. You can judge me by what you know. But don't credit the president with knowing more than he has shown. What he has not shown may be prejudices that even he understands are really leftist ideological blinders.
Let's hold Obama only to what he himself has said. In fact, let's hold him to what he said at West Point last week. His audience was, of course, respectful. He is, after all, their commander-in-chief, as he reminded them twice. But they did not brim with enthusiasm. (Read the elegant TNR piece by Professor Elizabeth D. Samet of the U.S. Military Academy, written just after the president delivered the speech.) They applauded him only when he, so to speak, applauded them and bowed not to the emperor of Japan or the monarch of Saudi Arabia but to the soldiers' American inheritance in fighting for the freedom of others.
I suspect that the assembled men and a few women thought that Obama's definition of the adversary--here, I myself trim; isn't it really "enemy?"--was rather thin. "A group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam, one of the world's great religions, to justify the slaughter of innocents." If only the men of Al Qaeda were only a group of extremists. And the Taliban, the same.
In the last few days alone, these "extremists" have blown up a train (and maybe even a nightclub with over 100 dead) in Russia, massacred fifty-odd civilians in the Philippines, bombed a Somali medical school graduation and killed some 22 students with their instructors (this is the country's second medical school class in 20 years), executed a suicide attack on a mosque in Pakistan with at least 40 gone to the creator and, in the guise of a government, continued the persecution of democrats and moderate Muslims in Iran.
I believe that there is an epidemic of extremism in Islam. Not all extremists become jihadists, of course. But many do. And they do so quietly and surreptitiously. We already know that the security agencies simply ignored the terrorist education of Dr. Hasan. We know that a Palestinian agitator--a Jerusalemite, no less--infiltrated the Obamas' first White House state dinner. But we are also assured that he was a flake, with dozens of civil suits against him. OK, leave him off the list. But do remember that a resentful Palestinian nationalist, also a native Jerusalemite, assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in a kitchen of Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel. He, however, was a Christian. OK, leave him off the list, too. At your peril.
The fact is, as Barack Obama refuses to grasp, Islam needs to shoulder responsibility for what is done in its name. For what is not rejected--in most cases, not at all rejected--by the sages of present-day Islam. Since the president has taken to lecture Americans about "one of the world's great religions," which I believe it to be, he might also take to studying why so many of its elders in schools of theology and other authoritative men have embraced, publicly embraced, the gangsters in their midst.