Strategy, Not Gaffes

Obama’s Party Line: Radical Islam Denial

After the president called the attack on a Jewish deli in Paris ‘random’ instead of anti-Semitic, a White House spokesman doubled down. Then a State Department spokeswoman tripled down. At that point, it’s not a gaffe. It’s a plan.

02.11.15 2:27 AM ET

According to President Obama and his spokesmen, last month’s slaughter at a kosher supermarket in Paris – in which a radical Islamist terrorist murdered four people, all of them Jews – was not necessarily an act of anti-Semitic terrorism.

The administration could be accused of no more than rhetorical recklessness and semantic foolishness had its members not gone to such a great extent to deny the obvious. That they have gives us further evidence that willful denial of reality forms the core of the Obama administration’s approach to radical Islam. Far from being gaffes, the statements by the president and his spokespeople had a clear synergy on Tuesday – and deep ideological roots.

The administration began digging this unnerving hole when the president gave an interview to Matthew Yglesias of the liberal “explainer journalism” website Vox. Asked whether Americans were overreacting to terrorism, the president observed that, “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”

There was nothing “random” about the attack on “a bunch of folks” at Hyper Cacher—the Jewishness of either the people or the deli. Indeed, this event was the very antithesis of “random.” It was a premeditated, deliberate, planned act of violence whose perpetrators singled out their victims solely because of their Jewishness.

A serious interviewer, one interested in producing something a bit more challenging than the equivalent of a “Scientology recruitment film,” as POLITICO’s Jack Shafer characterized the Vox parley, would have pressed the president on his use of the word “random” to describe the massacre in Paris. Sanguine speculation that the president misspoke – that he really meant to use the word “senseless,” or perhaps a word less indistinct in connotation – were quashed Tuesday, however, in view of two administration press conferences.

At the first, ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest if the president had “any doubt that those terrorists attacked that deli because there would be Jews in that deli."

“The adverb that the president chose was used to indicate that the individuals who were killed in that terrible, tragic incident were killed not because of who they were but because of where they randomly happened to be,” Earnest replied.

“There were people other than just Jews who were in that deli,” Earnest said, as if the presence of non-Jews obviated the fact that the killer was targeting Jews. In fact, the hostage taker specifically told a French television journalist he was singling out Jews to kill at the height of the siege.

Later in the day, asked the same question by AP State Department reporter Matt Lee, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki offered this nonsense: “If I remember the victims specifically, they were not all victims of one background or one nationality so I think what they mean by that is, I don’t know that they spoke to the targeting of the grocery store or that specifically, but the individuals impacted.”

US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki conducts her daily briefing for reporters on June 16, 2014 at the State Department in Washington.   AFP PHOTO/Paul J. Richards

Paul J Richards/AFP/Getty

“I don’t think we’re going to speak on behalf of French authorities and what they believe was the situation here,” Psaki said, adding, “It’s an issue for the French government to address.”

For the record, all four of the people murdered at the Hyper Cacher market were Jews. Their bodies were buried in Israel. Immediately after the attacks, France’s President and Prime Minister both denounced the crime for its specific anti-Semitic nature, with the latter, Manuel Valls, giving a rousing speech decrying “the new anti-Semitism” before the country’s National Assembly. The French government then deployed 4,700 soldiers to guard Jewish institutions. Clearly, the French government was of the belief that the kosher supermarket was targeted because it was kosher, and that other kosher – and not, say, halal – outlets were at risk of being attacked.

These statements by the president and his spokespersons have left many people flabbergasted, but they follow naturally from the administration’s worldview. That they would deny the palpably anti-Semitic nature of the Paris attacks is predictable—it logically follows from the hesitance to admit that we are at war with a radical Islamist ideology. The corollary to denying that we have an enemy is that the enemy has targets. One of those targets—aside, of course, from Americans generally—are Jews.

The president’s refusal to acknowledge the anti-Semitic nature of this crime is of a piece with his administration’s refusal to acknowledge the radical Islamic nature of our enemies. Just as the president absurdly claims that the Islamic State is “not Islamic,” he equally absurdly claims that the radical Islamist murder of Jews has nothing to do with Islam, nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and is entirely “random.”

Now, contrary to the accusations of some of his right-wing Jewish critics, the president is not a “Jew-hater.” Rather, his failure to acknowledge anti-Semitism stems from his foreign policy “realism,” or what he imagines “realism” to be. In his coolly rationalist thinking, the president has made a calculation: he is more concerned with not angering the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims than with reassuring its 18 million Jews. Rather than do what is just or right, Obama would prefer not to get on the Muslim world’s collective bad side.

That explains the Cairo speech that opened his outreach to Muslims around the globe, a fusillade of apologies for alleged American misdeeds. It explains this administration’s strained relationship with Israel, which the president – heeding the advice of Arab potentates and his domestic progressive base, a motley crew indeed – has begun to see as an obstacle to his vision of a grand entente between America and the Muslim world. It explains Obama’s remarks last month to Senate Democrats lobbying them against further sanctions on Iran, that, according to the New York Times, he “understood the pressures that senators face from donors.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Downplaying global anti-Semitism fits in with the president’s broader Middle East strategy, which consists of distancing the United States from its traditional ally in the region, Israel, while opening its doors to historic enemy, Iran.

The history and reasoning behind this policy is explained in a new, magisterial essay in the online magazine Mosaicby Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran, who argues that Obama takes inspiration from the 2006 bipartisan report drafted by former Secretary of State James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, urging American retrenchment from the Middle East and rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. “Baker and Hamilton believed that Bush stood in thrall to Israel and was therefore insufficiently alive to the benefits of cooperating with Iran and Syria,” Doran writes. “Those two regimes, supposedly, shared with Washington the twin goals of stabilizing Iraq and defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadi groups. In turn, this shared interest would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states—a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.”

Both Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough – two of the president’s closest advisors – worked for Hamilton.

In the wake of the uproar – mostly from conservatives – over their performances today, both Earnest and Psaki tried walking back their statements denying the anti-Semitic nature of the Paris attacks on Twitter. It is too late. The mask has slipped, and the face lurking behind it isn’t pretty.