Attorney General Eric Holder says defining the largest terrorist threat to the U.S. and the West as Islamic extremism is insignificant compared to what we’re doing about it. State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf is doubling down on her contention that poverty is the greatest trigger violent extremism, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton says both comments only sow confusion and weaken the effort to destroy our enemies.
On Tuesday, as the Obama administration kicked off a three-day summit on combating violent extremism, Holder spoke at the National Press Club. One of the questions following his speech asked the attorney general to explain why the administration was reluctant to refer to the motivation of ISIS as radical Islam or Islamic extremism.
“I’m not sure an awful lot is gained by saying that. It doesn’t have any impact on our military posture,” said Holder. “I don’t worry an awful lot about what the appropriate terminology ought to be. I think people need to think about that. Really? We’re having this conversation about words as opposed to what our actions ought to be?”
Bolton says that line of thinking comes as no surprise.
“I think it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat that we face but it’s been a misunderstanding that they’ve had for six straight years,” said Bolton. “The president said back in the 2008 campaign that he considered terrorism to be a law enforcement matter, something we could handle by arresting terrorists and trying them in federal court.”
While he believes Holder and Obama think they’re helping their cause by supposedly respecting Muslim sensibilities, Bolton says they’re really just guaranteeing that terrorist threats will get stronger.
“[Obama] doesn’t treat it as a war. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that the threat is much graver than sort of robbing the local drug store, except a little bit more serious,” he said. “I think this whole approach guarantees, in effect, that the terrorist threat will continue to be with us for a long time and even grow. They’re the ones that are waging the war. They know what they are. They think they’re Islamic.”
Furthermore, Bolton says the Obama refusal to get specific hurts non-radical Muslims the most.
“The people who are the most significant victims of this kind of terrorism have been other Muslims. It really is hiding your head in the sand to think that by avoiding calling is Islamist radicalism or whatever term you like, but by simply using euphemisms, that somehow that’s going to make a difference,” said Bolton.
He says last week’s U.S. evacuation of Yemen is a perfect example of the inevitable consequence of weak U.S. action at a time of crisis.
“It’s a symbol of the decline of American influence, of the country spinning out of control, of both the Houthis and [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] now having Yemen as a base of operations. It’s a reflection of the failure of the whole Obama administration terrorist strategy. What he once called an example of the success of his strategy has turned into a debacle,” said Bolton.
But how would clearer terminology make a difference? How would labeling terrorists as Islamic radicals hasten their destruction. Bolton says it would make two big differences. The first is on the international stage.
“I think you can help build international coalitions more readily if people understand what they’re facing. I don’t think in the Arab or the larger Muslim world there’s any misunderstanding of what the nature of this threat is. In a way, it’s patronizing to Muslims to act as though they are somehow completely homogeneous in their thinking that they’ll be insulted by describing this threat for what it is,” said Bolton.
The former UN ambassador also says clarity helps to galvanize Americans toward a common goal.
“I think it’s also important domestically so that Americans understand we’re not opposing an abstraction known as terrorism, nor are we opposing terrorism in every single manifestation. We don’t care about what’s left of Irish Republican Army terrorism. We’re not concerned about the Basque separatists in Spain and France. The terrorist threat that the U.S. and the West as a whole face is very specific and if you can’t describe it , people can’t get their arms around the steps that will be necessary to eliminate that threat,” said Bolton.
Holder’s comments came just one day after State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that addressing poverty was a larger goal than killing terrorists.
“We cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the 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,” said Harf. “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.”
Bolton rips Harf’s assessment as a juvenile perspective on how the world operates.
“This is embarrassing it’s so ridiculous, but it reflects the ideology of the left, what Karl Marx called economic determinism, that everything in the world is caused by economics. Politics, religion, as Marx called it were simply the superstructures of economics. Today’s leftists believe that every problem in the world is caused by poverty. So this child is out there saying if these guys had jobs they wouldn’t pick up AK-47s,” said Bolton.
He says facts and history prove Harf to be very wrong.
“I think that utterly ignores the roles of ideology in politics and world affairs. Osama bin Laden didn’t lack for job opportunities, nor do many of these other terrorists. If poverty were the source of terrorism, Haiti would be one of the most terrorist countries in the world. It’s so simple-minded that you’d think that nobody would pay attention to it. In fact, you’d think nobody would say such foolish things, but so much for our educational system,” said Bolton.
On Tuesday, Harf suggested her comments were too nuanced for her critics to understand. She also offered quotations from former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former President George W. Bush suggesting that reducing poverty also reduces the allure of terrorist activity. Bolton’s still not buying it.
“I haven’t seen the exact quotes she’s using and I don’t doubt that you can take remarks out of context in a way that makes it look like it supports her position. But she could have Mother Teresa on her side and it still wouldn’t reflect reality,” he said.
As for actually solving the ISIS problem, Bolton says the solution is pretty clear.
“The way you eliminate the threat is to go after is to go after the territory they control, not just by sporadic, pinprick bombing raids but by forging a coalition and using effective military force. I think we’re blinking at reality if we don’t see that that’s ultimately what we need to do,” said Bolton.
Last week, Obama submitted his request for Congress to approve a three-year authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). Bolton says that request is not serious but a robust AUMF would be very helpful.
“I would vote against his text. I think you’ve got authority under the Constitution and under the 2002 resolution that granted President Bush authority to use military force. The only thing that is required is a one-sentence resolution that says the president is authorized to use all necessary means to destroy ISIS and all its affiliates. If you went with that, that would be perfectly satisfactory,” said Bolton.