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Terrorism - Obama statement seriously deficient

By Des Moore - posted Monday, 27 May 2013

The media is naturally focussed on the decapitation of a British soldier outside an army barracks in London by two Muslim extremists. This is important in sending a wake-up call to political leaders (and many others) in the UK. And the additional arrests should help dispose of the nonsense that these two guys are "lone wolves". Even leaving aside the influences coming from imams and mosques, there is now a history of terrorist acts or attempts by Muslims in the UK. The Australian's editorial on 24 May referred to several al Qaeda terrorists having recently being jailed and to an attempt to abduct a British soldier. Also, last year the MI5 Director stated "on the streets of this country there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here".

The reality, which Prime Minister Cameron and Lord Mayor Johnson seem determined to ignore for fear of scaring the community, is that a considerable proportion of British Muslims are either sympathetic to violent action by extremists or prepared to play a role in it. Their response that "we are British and we will just get on with our normal lives" is doing a disservice to the country. It is to be hoped that restrictions on tracking and detaining possible terrorists will now quickly be eased and that protective arrangements around army barracks and the like will be strengthened (although promised here after the" invasion" of Holsworthy, it appears that this has been "deferred" because of the Gillard government's budgetary problems).

Much more important than the dreadful butchery in the UK is the almost coincidental (it was made the day after) nine page statement by President Obama on counter-terrorism. This was supposed to be a statement of policy but, despite its length, there is precious little of that. It should never have been made by the leader of the most powerful nation in the world facing serious threats from violent jihadists.


There are many defects in the statement but the most important is its failure to identify that the underlying causes of terrorism derive from Islamic beliefs and preaching. Although "al Qaeda" is quite frequently mentioned (this fits with Obama's highly misleading thesis that al Qaeda's role is diminishing), the word "Muslim" appears on only three occasions ("Benghazi" gets four mentions). Moreover, these mentions are the opposite of what might be expected in such a statement.

They first informs us that Muslims are the "most frequent victims of terrorist acts"; second that "the death toll from [terrorists] acts ...against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes"; and thirdly Obama makes the absurd suggestion that "the best way to prevent violent extremism is to work with the Muslim American community" and to "recognise that Muslims are a fundamental part of the American family". Additionally, Obama suggests it is wrong to argue that terrorism reflects Islam's response to the West's aggression because "the United States is not at war with Islam" and "the vast majority of Muslims" recognise this. Who is kidding who?

Nor does Obama's statement announce policies that could help minimise the threat of loss of life and property: rather the contrary. There is no suggestion of any expansions in counter-intelligence agencies but many proposals are made in a muddle headed way for a tightening of restrictions on their activities. For example, the use of force against terrorists is now subject to clear guidelines "codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday"; the use of drones is "heavily constrained" ("our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them") to those who "pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people ... when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat"... and "when there is a near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured"; the law of war detention is to be ended after the Afghanistan withdrawal; restrictions on detainee transfers from Guantanamo Bay are to be lifted and, where terrorists cannot be prosecuted (because of deficiencies in evidence), "I am confident the legacy problem can be resolved"; and the authorities of law enforcement will be reviewed by building in "privacy protections to prevent abuse" so that "even after Boston, we do not deport someone or throw someone in prison in the absence of evidence".

If implemented these (and other) proposals are important actual or potential constraints on the handling of terrorism in the USA but also for Australia because we regard the latter as the leader of the Western world. Even if not implemented they indicate a serious imbalance in thinking.

It is not practical here to spell out the defects in detail. I mention a few.

First, no attempt is made to convey a serious Presidential view about why the Boston and Benghazi bombings occurred. In fact they are given only passing references twice. This despite the growing criticisms of explanations made by Administration officials and of Obama's own attempts to brush aside such criticisms as being merely "political". One would have thought that a statement of policy would have provided an opportunity to "clarify" the Administration's position. My conclusion is that Obama's statement is no more than an attempted holding approach to show that "he is doing something".


Meantime, we learn that a friend of the elder Boston bomber was shot in Florida by an FBI agent who was interviewing him about his possible involvement in the murder of three students in Boston on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. That murder is reported as involving the cutting of throats to the point of near decapitation. The implication seems clear: the Koran urges the "smiting the necks of unbelievers".

As to Benghazi, one report claims that more whistle blowers are likely to emerge in the near future and it asserts their evidence will have "damaging implications for Obama and Clinton". Former Chief of Staff to Bush, Karl Rove, is reported as claiming that Obama was "complicit in the Benghazi lie" and as pointing out that he (Obama) knew of the attack on the consulate about an hour after the Administration was advised, that he then met for half an hour with Defense Secretary Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then disappeared for the night (in Washington) while the attack continued.

Second, Obama gives the impression of trying to persuade Americans that, as all wars come to an end, the war against terrorism must be ended too: "America is at a crossroads" and "a perpetual war will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways". But while he accepts the use of force as a component of a counter-terrorism strategy, no indication is given as to either the extent of force required or where and in what circumstances it might be used. Of course, he correctly opines that force "alone cannot make us safe". But it does not follow that "the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism". This seems a quite astonishing approach by Obama that raises more questions than it answers.

Third, Obama is similarly naive in suggesting that a major part of the strategy of the US should involve "patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya" and strengthening "the opposition in Syria while isolating extremist elements". The idea that "the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists" seems astonishing and completely ignores the now widespread belief amongst Muslims that violent action is both necessary and to be supported.

Where to now? Obama is facing serious questions about his attitude and apparent decisions in regard to the Boston and Benghazi bombings and how terrorist threats are to be handled. He faces similar problems on the apparent persecution of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the tapping of journalists' views. It is difficult to see how he can avoid a much more open statement than this one.

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About the Author

Des Moore is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise and a former Deputy Secretary, Treasury. He authored Schooling Victorians, 1992, Institute of Public Affairs as part of the Project Victoria series which contributed to the educational and other reforms instituted by the Kennett Government. The views are his own.

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