Posts Tagged ‘Peter Beinart’

Violent Extremism

February 26, 2015

Peter Beinart defends President Obama’s use of the term violent extremism rather than Islamic terrorism in an article in The Atlantic. I think he makes a few good points but missed the reason there is a problem with Obama’s refusal to name the source of the problem.

Sometimes we overlook the obvious. For weeks now, pundits and politicians have been raging over President Obama’s insistence that America is fighting “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam.” Rudy Giuliani calls the president’s refusal to utter the ‘I’ word “cowardice.” The president’s backers defend it as a savvy refusal to give ISIS the religious war it desperately wants. But, for the most part, both sides agree that when Obama says “violent extremists” he actually means “violent Muslim extremists.” After all, my Atlantic colleague David Frum argues, “The Obama people, not being idiots, understand very well that international terrorism possesses an overwhelmingly Muslim character.”

For Obama’s critics, and even some of his defenders, this is the president being “politically correct,” straining to prove that terrorists, and their victims, hail from every group and creed in order to avoid stigmatizing Muslims. But the president’s survey is fairly representative. Peruse the FBI’s database of terrorist attacks in the United States between 1980 and 2005 and you’ll see that radical Muslims account for a small percentage of them. Many more were committed by radical environmentalists, right-wing extremists, and Puerto Rican nationalists. To be sure, Muslims account for some of the most deadly incidents: the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayat’s shooting spree at the El Al counter at LAX in 2002, and of course 9/11. But non-Muslims account (or at least appear to account) for some biggies too: the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, the explosions at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the 2001 anthrax attacks.

If you look more recently, the story is much the same. Between 2006 and 2013, the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) logged 14 terrorist incidents in the United States in which at least one person died. Of these, Muslims committed four: a 2006 attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, a 2009 assault on a Little Rock recruiting station, the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, and the 2013 Boston Marathon attack (which the GTD counts as four separate incidents but I count as only one). Non-Muslims committed 10, including an attack on a Unitarian church in Knoxville in 2008, the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller in Wichita in 2009, the flying of a private plane into an IRS building in Austin in 2010, and the attack on the Sikh temple that same year.

Not all European terrorists are Muslim either. According to the Center for American Progress’s analysis of data from Europol, the European Union’s equivalent of the FBI, less than 2 percent of terrorist attacks in the EU between 2009 and 2013 were religiously inspired. Separatist or ultra-nationalist groups committed the majority of the violent acts. Of course, jihadists have perpetrated some of the most horrific attacks in Europe in recent memory: the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2005 attacks in the London subway, and, of course, last month’s murders at Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher. But there have been gruesome attacks by non-Muslims too. Right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 assault on a summer camp near Oslo, for instance, killed far more people than the recent, awful attacks in France.

Why does this matter? Because the U.S. government has finite resources. If you assume, as conservatives tend to, that the only significant terrorist threat America faces comes from people with names like Mohammed and Ibrahim, then that’s where you’ll devote your time and money. If, on the other hand, you recognize that environmental lunatics and right-wing militia types kill Americans for political reasons too, you’ll spread the money around.

We’ve already seen the consequences of a disproportionate focus on jihadist terrorism. After 9/11, the Bush administration so dramatically shifted homeland-security resources toward stopping al-Qaeda that it left FEMA hideously unprepared to deal with an attack from Mother Nature, in the form of Hurricane Katrina. The Obama administration is wise to avoid that kind of overly narrow focus today. Of course it’s important to stop the next Nidal Malik Hasan or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But it’s also important to stop the next Timothy McVeigh or Wade Michael Page. And by calling the threat “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam,” Obama tells the bureaucracy to work on that too.

Instead of assuming that these threats are the same, we should be debating the relative danger of each. By using “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam,” Obama is staking out a position in that argument. It’s a position with which reasonable people can disagree. But cowardice has nothing to do with it.

I think that Mr. Beinart is correct in saying that it would be unwise to concentrate on the threat from Islamic radicals to the exclusion of any other potential threat.There are many sources of danger in the world, both natural and man-made and it is prudent to maintain at least some vigilance in as many ways as possible. I think that he does not understand that the terrorist threat from  radical Islam is greater than from any other source, either foreign or domestic. Beinart concedes that the attacks from Islamic terrorists, while fewer in overall numbers, have been more deadly, but the greater danger is not because attacks by violent Muslims tend to kill more people.

Timothy McVeigh, Anders Brevick, the Unibomber, and others like them were demented loners. While their actions were dangerous and deadly they acted alone or with one or two accomplices. They had no large network of supporters to give them aid and no one applauded their actions. The environmentalist and right-wing terrorists Beinart mentioned are very much isolated and marginalized, even among supporters of the causes they espouse. While there may be some few people who approve of their violent actions, the number of people willing to give any sort of material support is very low. These sorts of demented loners and extremist splinter cells can be handled by law enforcement.

Islamic terrorists such as the late and unlamented Osama bin Laden and the Islamic State are not demented loners or small groups of isolated extremists and we practice a dangerous self delusion if we believe that they play as insignificant role in in the Islamic world as Earth First! does in the West. These militants are not a small group of extremist who have perverted a peaceful religion. Their actions and ideology are far closer to the mainstream of Islam than our political leaders are willing to admit.

Consider the numbers. There is something like 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If only one percent are willing to give at least moral support to terrorists, that is 16 million supporters. If only one percent of that number is willing to support the cause materially, than there are 160,000 people in the world willing to help with acts of terrorism against the West. There are not hundreds of thousands or people willing to actually commit acts of terrorism, even most Muslims who think that such acts are justified would rather live their lives in peace, but this should suggest the size of any potential base of support an Islamic terrorist group might be able to exploit. This is a base far greater than any other cause that a terrorist might support. Law enforcement is not enough to handle this problem. We must be willing to admit that we are at war. They certainly believe that they are at war with us and unlike us, they are fighting to win, while we do not even want to name the enemy.

I do not want to suggest that military action is the only, or even the best, option for dealing with the problem of radical Islam. I do not know what the best option is, but I have a feeling that it will require a variety of approaches including military action, law enforcement, diplomacy and others,just as we used a wide variety of tactics to bring down the Soviet Union. But first we have to admit to ourselves the nature of the threat we face. We cannot defeat an enemy we make no effort to understand.

 

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A Different Take on the Shutdown

October 20, 2013

The conventional wisdom regarding the recent government shutdown is that it has been an unmitigated disaster for the Republicans. Peter Beinart has a completely different take  on the matter at the Daily Beast. He states that if this is a Republican defeat, he hopes never to see a Republican victory. If Beinart was a conservative, his column could be dismissed as an attempt to put a good face on a bad situation. Beinart is a liberal, however, so I have to wonder what he is seeing that others are missing.

The news from Washington is all about President Obama’s impending triumph in the government shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. “Boehner Blinks,” declared a recent headline in The Washington Post. “Republicans,” explained ABC’s Jonathan Karl, “are working out the terms of their surrender.”

If this is Republican surrender, I hope I never see Republican victory.

His reasons have to do with the nature of the Republican defeat. If I understand Beinart correctly, what constitutes a defeat for the Republicans in 2013 would have been seen as a victory in 2012, or earlier.

To understand how upside down the current media analysis is, you need to go back a couple of years. In 2011, with Republicans threatening to provoke a debt default, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cut government spending by $917 billion over 10 years. The agreement also created a congressional “supercommittee” charged with finding additional cuts. If the committee failed to do so, cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over ten years would kick in automatically at the end of 2012, via a process called “sequestration.”

Traditionally in Washington, budget compromises had meant Democrats agreeing to cut domestic spending and Republicans agreeing to raise taxes. But by raising the specter of default, Republicans had changed the equation. In the Budget Control Act, taxes weren’t raised a dime. Democrats compromised by cutting spending and Republicans “compromised” by agreeing not to let America default on its debt and provoke a global financial crisis.

The rest of the column is mostly a discussion of budget negotiations over the past few years so I will skip to the bottom for his main point.

Most of the press is missing this because most of the press is covering the current standoff more as politics than policy. If your basic question is “which party is winning?” then it’s easy to see the Republicans as losing, since they’re the ones suffering in the polls. But the partisan balance of power and the ideological balance of power are two completely different things. The Nixon years were terrible for the Democratic Party but quite good for progressive domestic policy. The Clinton years were, in important ways, the reverse. The promise of the Obama presidency was not merely that he’d bring Democrats back to power. It was that he’d usher in the first era of truly progressive public policy in decades. But the survival of Obamacare notwithstanding, Obama’s impending “victory” in the current standoff moves us further away from, not closer to, that goal.

It’s not just that Obama looks likely to accept the sequester cuts as the basis for future budget negotiations. It’s that while he’s been trying to reopen the government and prevent a debt default, his chances of passing any significant progressive legislation have receded. Despite overwhelming public support, gun control is dead. Comprehensive immigration reform, once considered the politically easy part of Obama’s second term agenda, looks unlikely. And the other items Obama trumpeted in this year’s state of the union address—climate change legislation, infrastructure investment, universal preschool, voting rights protections, a boost to the minimum wage—have been largely forgotten.

Democrats keep holding out hope that losing yet more public support will break the ideological “fever” that grips the Republican Party and help GOP moderates regain power. The problem, as the last few weeks have shown, is that the GOP keeps defining moderation down.

 

I think that Peter Beinart is partly right. It isn’t the GOP that is moving the goalposts. They are having trouble even though the goalposts are moving. It is more a case of the political consensus of many of the American people has been becoming, I hesitate to say conservative, perhaps libertarian is a better description. Whatever label is used, Americans today seem to trust big government and big institutions generally lees than in previous decades and to believe that they should make the choices in their lives, as individuals, not as members of a group. Perhaps this is an aspect of the collapse of the blue social model that Walter Russel Mead talks about.

Consider gun control. Despite what Peter Beinart said, Obama’s gun control proposals were not popular. What is interesting is that his proposals were not nearly as radical as the NRA and others kept stating. About forty years ago, they really would have been seen as common sense legislature. Back then, proposals to outlaw handguns altogether were not unheard of and I don’t believe any state allowed concealed carry. Now, outlawing any gun that civilians are likely to possess is politically difficult and all fifty states now permit concealed carry. A great many Americans believe that Obamacare is an unacceptable step towards Socialism. Yet, the inspiration for the individual mandate and other features came from the conservative Heritage Foundation. They probably were trying to create a free market alternative to a single player plan or out right government control and ownership of the entire healthcare industry. Now the individual mandate is radical and few in Washington are proposing anything like a single player plan.

Seen this way, President Obama is something of an anachronism, proposing policies that might have been accepted years ago but are now out of date. He favors blue model, top down, one size fits all solutions that were a feature of American domestic policy in the industrial age but ill suit our post industrial information age. It is just too bad the Republicans are so bad at taking advantage of this weakness.

To understand how upside down the current media analysis is, you need to go back a couple of years. In 2011, with Republicans threatening to provoke a debt default, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cut government spending by $917 billion over 10 years. The agreement also created a congressional “supercommittee” charged with finding additional cuts. If the committee failed to do so, cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over ten years would kick in automatically at the end of 2012, via a process called “sequestration.”

Traditionally in Washington, budget compromises had meant Democrats agreeing to cut domestic spending and Republicans agreeing to raise taxes. But by raising the specter of default, Republicans had changed the equation. In the Budget Control Act, taxes weren’t raised a dime. Democrats compromised by cutting spending and Republicans “compromised” by agreeing not to let America default on its debt and provoke a global financial crisis.

Not surprisingly, conservatives liked the deal more than liberals. In the House, Republicans backed it by a margin of almost three to one while Democrats split evenly. “Is this the deal I would have preferred? No,” Obama admitted. By contrast, House Speaker John Boehner boasted, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted.”

Fast forward to the beginning of this year. Despite months of negotiations, the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement, and so this March, automatic sequester cuts kicked in. (In between, Congress did raise some revenue by not extending the Bush tax cuts for individuals making over $400,000 a year). If Democrats disliked the 2011 Budget Control Act, they disliked its bastard stepchild, the sequester, even more. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama calls the sequester cuts: “harsh” and “arbitrary” and warned that they would “devastate priorities like education, energy and medical research” and “cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

 


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