Monday 7 December 2015 – President Obama speech on Islamaic State and San Bernardino attacks

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When it became clear that Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California was a terrorist attack President Obama announced that he would make a national address on the subject and on the continuing fight against Islamic State in Syria. He gave the speech yesterday from the Oval Office at the White House – only the third time he’s given a speech from the Oval Office, reinforcing the gravity of the issue.

Talking of the Muslim couple, Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who killed 14 people in San Bernardino on Wednesday he said: “So this was an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people. […] It is clear that the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalisation.”

The attack in California was the first terrorist attack in the United States to have been inspired by Islamic State. The attackers were self-radicalised and were not thought to have been acting directly on the orders of Islamic State. In the States the attack has woken the fear of homegrown, self-radicalised individuals with no direction or communication with foreign jihadists. Lack of foreign contacts make them very difficult to detect and this is worrying for many Americans – as it is in Britain, France and other countries that have suffered at the hands by just such individuals. 

As part of its reporting this week on the shootings in San Bernardino, the New York Times highlighted research from the Washington-based New America research organisation. It showed that since the 11 September 2001 attacks 45 people have been killed in the States by homegrown jihadist terrorism (including Wednesday’s shootings)  while 48 people have been killed by right-wing extremists and white supremacists. These figures are put into context when compared to the 200,000 plus who have been murdered in the United States since 2001.

This fact didn’t stop Florida Senator Marco Rubio, candidate for the Republican presidential candidate next year, from stoking up the fear rhetoric: “People are really scared and worried […] a growing sense that we have a president who is completely overwhelmed. [by ISIS] Nothing happened in the speech tonight is going to assuage people’s fear.”

The fear of Islamic extremist terrorism is in danger of turning Americans on each other and, to some extent already is. Some Republican politicians are already calling for controls and discrimination against Muslims in America – suggesting that all American Muslims should be treated with suspicion. Some Republicans are encouraging American citizens, who have the same constitutional rights as any other American, to be regarded as second-class citizens.  President Obama addressed  the issue in his speech:

“We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight [against Islamic State] be defined as a war between America and Islam […] That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.”

He recognised the fear and frustration at Islamic extremism: “And I know that after so much war [referring to attacks at home and abroad], many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure. […] The threat from terrorism is real, but we can overcome.”

Yet Republican politicians continue to stigmatise Muslims and encourage discrimination, suspicion and hostility to all Muslims. Some have called for databases recording all Muslims in America. Others have demanded an end to immigration from Syria and other countries affected by Islamic State’s influence, or even to only accept Christians into the country. Obama rebuked such calls:

“It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit to the country. […] It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim-Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of ISIL. […] Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes, and yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defence of our country. […] Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”

President Obama also spoke on the issue of gun control, though he offered no answers for the continuing impasse on gun control measures in the  United States:

“I know there are some who reject any gun safety measures […] But the fact is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies – no matter how effective they are – cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual is motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology. What we can do – and must do – is make it harder for them to kill.”

Any mention of gun control brings out the crazies, not to suggest that the good Senator Paul Rand of Kentucky is crazy, but… “Let me be clear: disarming more law-abiding citizens will not stop mass shootings and terrorists […] We should be advocating for more concealed carry ability for law-abiding Americans and an end to unconstitutional gun-free zones”

This statement by Rubio comes after calls for controls over selling guns to people on the so-called no-fly lists – people who are of interest to intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the States –  failed to get anywhere this past week.

The main focus of the speech, however, was the fight against Islamic State. Since 2014 President Obama has relied in the fight against Islamic State on a combination of a airstrikes, financial sanctions and the use of special operations against specific targets. Yet, despite thousands of airstrikes, the spread of Islamic State has yet to be halted, let alone reversed.  Despite the seeming inability of air strikes to get the job done, President Obama reaffirmed that there would be no boots on the ground in the war against Islamic State:  “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. […] That’s what groups like ISIL want” He explained further:

“But they [Islamic State] know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain  insurgence for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits”

President Obama came into office with the promise of ending America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and, undoubtedly, is horrified at the prospect of another such intervention at the end of his presidency – which ends in January 2017. Juan Zarate, a former counterterrorism official in George W Bush’s Administrations, spoke of President Obama’s dilemma: “If you’re making progress, terrorist threats shouldn’t be appearing on your shores. This threat seems to call for war, but that’s exactly what Mr Obama does not want to do. It’s a real dilemma.”

Another Bush counterterrorism official, Rick Nelson, reflected on the dilemma: “We all want the President to do more and all feel he should do more, but the nasty truth is that doing more will further embed us in that region.”

President Obama spoke of the so-called coalition of nations, including France, Denmark and the United Kingdom who are now involved in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Democratic Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders – who is running for the presidential nomination for next year’s election – supported the President’s belief that the coalition will have an effect:

“ISIS will be defeated with an international coalition in which Muslim troops on the ground are supported by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and other leading powers. […] Further, as we are destroying ISIS, it is essential that we do not allow fear and division to undermine the constitutional rights that make us a free people”

Senator Sanders’s expression of support was one of the few that followed President Obama’s speech. Republican politicians, especially those hoping to secure the GOP presidential nomination, were queuing up to attack Obama and stoke up the hawkish rhetoric. Some were on social media as the President delivered his speech, ready to post an attack as it came to  mind. Such off-the-cuff and instant commentary cannot be good  and is from the rational and intelligent debate that President Obama would hope his speech would provoke.

Senator Marco Rubio dismissed the coalition against Islamic State and said that President Obama “honestly believes that there is a coalition fighting against ISIS. This is absurd. There is no such coalition. A list of countries on a piece of paper” Governor John R Kasich (Rep., Ohio) called for “bolder action” and said: “We must stop delaying and do it … We delayed in helping the Syrian rebels, and look where it got us. And when we decided to act, it was too late.”

Many were criticising the Obama Administration’s approach to the threat from  Islamic State. They also took the opportunity to attack Obama’s former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton – whom one of them will most likely be opposing for the presidency next year. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee who is not running for President, said: “We will defeat ISIS, but we cannot do so by continuing the current approach … The path laid out by President Obama and supported by Hillary Clinton has not worked, and ISIS has only gained in strength. The attacks in San Bernardino should serve as a wake-up call for Obama and Clinton that the way to victory is not through the status quo but refocusing our efforts to defeat ISIS.”

The Republican Speaker of the House, Paul D Ryan described the speech as “disappointing. […] No new plan, just a halfhearted attempt to defend and distract from a failing policy.” This belief was agreed upon by Senator John McCain, the Republican Senator for Arizona and Republican candidate in the 2008 election – which he lost to Obama. McCain said the speech: “offered no changes to his headline, indirect, and incremental strategy.”

Donald Trump, the frontrunner to be the Republican candidate in 2016, was on Twitter to attack the president: “That all there is? We need a new President – FAST!” The man who might have been frontrunner if Trump had not joined in the presidential race, Jeb Bush – former Governor of Florida and brother of George W Bush  – joined in the attacks on the speech and in spreading the we’re at war message:

“This is the war of our time. It should not be business as usual. We need a wartime commander-in-chief who is ready lead the country and the free world to victory.”

President Obama delivers a good speech but it was just that, a speech. There was nothing of substance to suggest how the war against Islamic State is going to be won. The failure of US airstrikes and other methods of attacking Islamic State to make a significant dent was predictable from the start. Airstrikes cannot defeat terrorism as I’ve said elsewhere in my blog.  I detest the Republican party and its politicians who are running for the presidency and I find their apparent rush to  send ground troops into the Middle East truly disturbing. In their attempt to look stronger than Obama and each other is going to get the United States and the West into another disastrous Middle East war.

I dislike the term evil, as it is too often used to mitigate any responsibility for the actions of someone else — they’re just dismissed as evil. Many have described Islamic State as evil but I find it hard to disagree. Their horrific crimes and interpretation of Islam and their desire to return to a medieval Islamic caliphate is truly repugnant. Yet the West has some responsibility in the rise of Islamic State – in undertaking their military interventions in the Middle East since the 11 September attacks in 2001. I’m not suggesting Islamic State have formed directly as a response to those interventions, but they have been able to take advantage of the chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. President Assad and his civil war is also a huge factor in the rise of Islamic State within Syria. As the West attacked the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Islamic State developed and  has benefited from the subsequent decrease in the influence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda – they have faded in significance and threat while Islamic State increased.

I didn’t support the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq  – both countries are still in chaos despite our freeing them. In Afghanistan, I found the Taliban horrific, but the invasion of Afghanistan hasn’t got rid of them and the average person in the country is no better off now than they were in 2002.  I considered the invasion of Iraq appalling – coming as it did based on the lies by Bush and his administration  that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the attacks of 11 September 2001 and that he had any weapons of mass destruction in 2003. Britain’s involvement in Iraq in particular was disgraceful. Blair’s support for Bush and his creation of the “dodgy dossier” that claimed Hussein could launch chemical attacks was a blatant lie that scared many Britons into supporting the invasion.

I also don’t support ANY military intervention in Syria or elsewhere against the Islamic State. As some have said today and before, it is for the people in Syria and Iraq to fight Islamic State on the ground. This is what a lot of Syrians repeatedly telling and asking the West: seek a political solution, give them support, supply arms, train them, give them intelligence, impose financial sanctions, attack Islamic State’s cyber presence and economic sources – but stay out of their countries.  America, Britain and France should know from their long histories of military interventions in the Middle East that intervention only creates more terror, more radicalisation and more hostility and hatred of the West. Above all it does nothing to help the people of those countries and, as in Iraq, tens of thousands of civilians die proving the point.

President Obama, and indeed David Cameron here in Britain, have alluded to forces of Muslims in the region ready and willing to take on the Islamic State without the need for the West to intervene on the ground. In the case of Cameron, the figure he suggested was 70,000. This claim by Cameron was more to do with justifying his call to extend airstrikes by Britain against Islamic State in Syria – as he knew airstrikes could not defeat Islamic State. It is debatable whether these forces exist in the numbers Cameron would have us believe. It is certain that they would unlikely ever be united enough or effective enough to defeat Islamic State. Just look at the incompetence and ineffectiveness of the Iraqi army from defending their country. All done and said, however, they are their countries and their responsibility to defend.

The way forward is uncertain. I’d be the first to admit that I don’t know how to defeat the Islamic State. But I firmly believe that airstrikes will not work and – as seen in a stabbing in a London tube station over the weekend, they will simply radicalise more people to carry out attacks in the name of Islamic State.  I also believe that sending Western forces into the region to attack Islamic State will not only result in the deaths of thousands of those forces, but will ratchet up conflict in the Middle East. We will go in without an exit strategy and get bogged down for years as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq. When we finally do get out, Islamic State will still be there or will have been superseded by an even more extreme group – in the same way that Islamic State is more extreme than al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The future for the Middle East, as always, is bleak. Answers are needed. Sadly nothing I’ve heard from Mr Cameron, Mr Obama, or those running to be his successor give me any hope that they will be forthcoming. Al-Salam and peace be with us all.

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LINKS

President Obama’s Oval Office speech (New York Times)

End the gun violence in America editorial (New York Times)

California attack has US rethinking strategy on homegrown terror (New York Times)

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