The Obama administration is talking tough about terror, and its focus is revealing. President Obama’s State of the Union address proclaimed that terrorists
pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists . . . can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country. Their actions undermine and destabilize our allies. We have to take them out.
Only a few days earlier, an NSC spokesman noted that “the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino this winter underscored the need” to prevent “violent extremists” from radicalizing and mobilizing recruits at home and abroad. Stopping terror’s spread, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes proclaims, requires taking away terrorists’ safe havens and their control of “major swaths of territory and population centers.”
The California and Paris attacks rightly spurred Western anger and action to staunch the radicalization that kills innocents. Yet in these same months there were dozens of other terror attacks that also merit anger and appropriate response.
Starting last October, Palestinians launched a new wave of daily terror against Israelis. We have seen the videos: Palestinians wielding kitchen knives stab unsuspecting Israelis from behind; Palestinian drivers crush Israelis awaiting buses. Israeli women, men over 70, and an Israeli pushing a baby carriage are among the score of dead. Just last week, a pregnant Israeli woman was stabbed, and a mother of six killed in her home. Taken together, Israeli deaths in this period exceed proportionally those suffered in Paris.
A sad but common bond ties Israeli dead to their Parisian and San Bernardino counterparts: Their killers were inspired, applauded, and rewarded by those holding power in sanctuary states. In the Islamic State, black-clad spokesmen publicly behead Westerners. In Palestinian territories, authorities encourage mayhem more subtly, but clearly enough for those they influence.
Palestinian authorities name public places in “honor” of murderers of Israeli civilians. Palestinian media and schools laud this “heroic” martyrdom. Palestinian laws grant monthly salaries to killers in Israeli jails, with greater mayhem earning larger stipends that far exceed many Palestinian officials’ pay. When Western governments finally objected, the Palestinians simply washed payments through the PLO and the practice rolled on.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has called the knife attacks against Israelis a “justified popular uprising.” The Washington Post reports that Palestinian leaders consider them “acts of popular resistance.” The Palestinian Economic Council’s director carefully parsed that “we’re not sending people out to the streets with knives.” Perhaps, but authorities assiduously cultivate the culture that spurs them.
Justifications for targeting unsuspecting civilians are lamentable features of the culture that governs Gaza and the West Bank. Despite Israeli hopes that the Oslo Accords would bring an end to terror, Yasser Arafat and his followers never abandoned hopes of replacing Israel with a Palestinian state. They convinced many Palestinians that advancing Israel’s destruction justified killing Israeli civilians. Slaughter, they knew, would bring Israeli measures for self-protection, provoke sporadic Israeli settler violence, and hence feed Palestinian discontent. This in turn would generate additional Palestinian recruits and support from Arab rulers. After years of such encouragement, pollsters based in Ramallah found that “two-thirds of Palestinians support the knife attacks.” The greater Middle East took note.
The West has yet to address seriously the poisonous culture that feeds such dysfunction. Instead, the tendency persists to condemn rhetorically but tolerate in practice Palestinian support for terror. Some in the West nod knowingly; Israeli policy, they claim, drives everyday Palestinians to kill innocents. Such attacks, they contend, are the regrettable but predictable reaction to a “cycle of violence,” or Israeli roadblocks, or Israeli construction, or even the founding of Israel itself.
History has its ironies. In 2001, during the last Palestinian intifada, Israel set out to kill terrorists before their next attack. Even after 9/11, the U.S. State Department denounced Israel’s “targeted killings,” until President Bush realized that America was similarly targeting al-Qaeda’s leaders.
The Islamic State has its own twisted justifications for slaying civilians, including Americans. Islamists protest: The West supports illegitimate rulers, divides Islam into artificial states, corrupts Muslims, bombs homes, and denigrates Islam, all for oil. Islamists profess a holy mandate, not merely a national or territorial one.
Islamists behead, crucify, incinerate, or execute captives en masse, not only to highlight their claims of Muslim suffering but to inspire, desensitize, and drive fellow Muslims toward complete rejection of the moderate courses on which the West pins hope. On such indoctrination, especially of children under their sway, Islamic State strategists hope to found the region’s future, regardless of near-term advances or setbacks.
President Obama denounces Islamist recruitment and atrocities, but his strategy has long resisted taking the true measure of the radical Islamist threat and exhibits little urgency in defeating it. He resists decrying its Islamist nature. In his SOTU address, he extolled his record of killing Islamic State lieutenants, destroying equipment, and urging others to fight the Islamic State; but it remains unclear if the slowly building damage to our enemies and the incremental contributions of our friends will outpace the rate by which the Islamic State spreads its curse.
The demons the Islamic State breeds in the interim will kill in the evolving present and torment the more distant future. Just ask Israelis.
These are predictable human and geopolitical costs of the “strategic patience” President Obama urges. They may run high. Despite misguided hopes, less-vigorous American efforts after the successful Surge in Iraq and the complete American troop withdrawal in 2011 opened the gateway for terrorist recruitment, the Islamic State’s conquest of vast areas north of Baghdad, and Tehran’s growing domination of southern Iraq. U.S. forbearance in Syria, and in Libya after Qaddafi fell, left additional vacuums with longer-term dangers yet unknown.
Six centuries ago, Machiavelli advised that “wise princes” act before future problems become too great for ready cure. There is no lasting virtue, Machiavelli argued, in delay that predictably allows problems to deepen, “for time sweeps everything before it” and brings “evil as well as good.”
The arc of history, as the president likes to call it, is on our side only if we make the proper use of it.