President Barack Obama promised in June 2011 that “the tide of war is receding.” In the wake of Orlando, it is clearer than ever that Obama substituted wishful thinking for counterterrorism policy.
The tide is not receding. It is coming in, and America’s political leaders are too busy with recriminations and political posturing to notice we risk drowning.
Obama led the way with a grand strategy of restraint. He precipitously withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, refused to do anything to prevent the collapse of Syria, and allowed the Islamic State group to rise from the ashes and conquer a swath of the Middle East. In Afghanistan, he undermined his own surge by pre-announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops on an arbitrary deadline. His recent decision to re-authorize combat operations by the few remaining U.S. troops there is proof of the failure of his earlier strategy.
Obama’s foreign policy legacy is that jihadist groups around the world are stronger, larger and more popular than ever. They have more operational space and safe havens, and they are capable of carrying out terrorist attacks from Boston to Paris to Brussels to Orlando with impunity.
Unfortunately, neither of this year’s candidates for president is likely to prove more effective at waging war against jihadists.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, promised to murder terrorists’ wives and children, reinstitute waterboarding and worse tactics, and ban all Muslims from immigrating to the United States.
Trump does not understand that many of the U.S.’s most important allies in the fight against jihadism are Muslims — in part because he seems incapable of distinguishing between the two groups. If the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims were waging war on America, we would know. In fact, jihadists borrow the language and symbolism of Islam and claim to be the only true representatives of the religion, but they are a miniscule fraction of the world’s Muslims.
Afghans, for example, have suffered more from the Taliban and al-Qaida than the United States ever has — and they have fought longer and harder against them.
The Afghans I met and worked with while serving in the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency were among the most courageous warriors and citizens I have ever met. They have a greater stake in the fight against jihadists and a greater ability to glean useful intelligence about the enemy. Trump’s policies would alienate Muslims worldwide, driving our most important allies into the arms of the enemy.
In contrast to Trump, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had more opportunities to take real action against jihadists. Unfortunately, she has demonstrably failed.
As a member of Obama’s team, she shares blame for its counterproductive policies in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. She oversaw the United States’ failures to rebuild a functioning state in Libya, allowing that country to descend into chaos and become a jihadist safe haven. And like the rest of her party, she seems more concerned with getting rid of guns than the terrorists who use them.
Clinton illustrates her poor judgment in other ways too, such as her support for the Iran nuclear deal. The deal depends for its success on the trustworthiness and rationality of the theocratic regime in Tehran — an astonishingly high-risk gamble. Obama and Clinton want to tout the nuclear deal as proof that diplomacy works. In truth, the deal constitutes the articles of surrender codifying America’s defeat in the Iraq war, recognizing Iran’s de facto regional hegemony in the aftermath of our withdrawal.
This year Americans face a choice between two candidates, and two political movements, that are incompetent, unserious and dangerously ill-prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century. Unfortunately, no third alternative has presented itself.
Americans should steel themselves for rough years ahead. In the longer run, we urgently need to begin cultivating a new political movement of seriousness and integrity. If we don’t get that, attacks such as the one in Orlando will only continue and escalate.
Paul D. Miller teaches public policy and is the associate director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
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