Saturday night’s Democratic presidential debate offered the country a moment of clarity that exposes just how brittle and discredited the worldview of America’s elites has become—and it showed that critiques of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s approach to policy are an exposed nerve which will absolutely present a challenge to her in future debates next fall.
Early on in the debate, moderator John Dickerson put a direct question to Clinton on the subject of radical Islam. Quoting Sen. Marco Rubio’s opinion that the Paris attack showed clearly that “we are at war with radical Islam,” he asked whether Clinton agreed with that characterization.
“I don’t think we’re at war with Islam,” she responded. “I don’t think we are at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists who have…”
At which point Dickerson politely interrupted to point out that Rubio “didn’t say all Muslims. He just said radical Islam.”
Clinton continued, stumbling a bit, that she did not want to paint “with t0o broad a brush” and cited George W. Bush’s assertion that we are at war with “violent extremism” and “people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.” Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov. Martin O’Malley joined Clinton in rejecting the term “radical Islam,” citing much the same rationale.
The irony of those unwilling to call the threat of radical Islam by its name is that in endeavoring to be intelligent and understanding, in trying to avoid painting with “too broad a brush,” they are in reality betraying their ignorance or inability to grapple with the true nature of today’s foe.
Our leaders do us no service when they fail to recognize that the threat the so-called Islamic State and its allied terrorists represent is a civilizational not a geopolitical conflict, and can only be understood through that lens. The radicals who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo attack were not motivated by Western Imperialism, but by members of a free society violating Islamic law.
This is not about a traditional conflict between nation-state actors. It is not about a violent expression of a tiny element responding to economic incentives. And it is most definitely not about climate change. The unwillingness of any candidate for the nomination of the incumbent ruling party in America to grasp this fact is about more than a nod to political correctness: It betrays a very real lack of understanding and an inability to learn any lessons from the past decade and a half.
It also demonstrates an inability to learn from the Islamic world itself. American policymaking in the Islamic world must begin with a foundation of respect for Muslims, especially when they tell us about their faith. In an era in which wealthy white Methodist senior citizens like Hillary Clinton define a faith that is not theirs, we need to allow the faithful the respect they deserve in defining it themselves.
That means listening to the many Muslims who regard ISIS, al Qaeda, and violent jihadism as a mortal threat to themselves and their families. It also means listening to the far fewer but still too-numerous Muslims who assert that Islam as they understand it demands precisely this sort of violence. We can name radical Islam because Muslims themselves have named it, and we have a duty both to listen and respond.
So why is it that all these years after the advent of radical Islamic terrorism, the Democratic presidential candidates are so lockstep in rejecting this term? Why is it that former Secretary Clinton cannot bring herself to admit that Barack Obama and his administration underestimated the threat of ISIS? Why do they accept the White House’s framing so far past the point where it is believable? Why can’t they grapple with the world as it is, as opposed to the way they wish it was?
Few commentators note that the administrations of George W. Bush and Obama share one great underlying premise in their approach to the Muslim world, which profoundly shaped their policies: that the people of that world genuinely wanted and would benefit from liberal democracy, which in turn would render them friendly to us.
The practical difference between the approaches of these two administrations, of course, was that the Bush team believed in a primary role for American military power in fostering that outcome. The supreme test case was Iraq, where Bush bungled the aftermath. Obama, by contrast, defaulted to an incoherent and inconsistent approach which bungled things from the start.
The American public, eager for a narrative of optimism, was willing to accept a great deal of rhetoric and policy toward this end for many years. But no one particularly believes it any longer. The “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush’s second inaugural was a noble concept—but in practice, it offered ignoble results. Within the policy community, there are clear differences today between those who are fighting past wars and clinging to the old discredited assumptions, and those who are guided by empirical outcomes. You might call the latter the “reality-based community.”
So give the Republicans this: They can hardly manage a coherent foreign-policy approach themselves, but at least they are aware of events and change their policies in reaction to them. They’ve seen the persistence and growth of Islamic terrorism over the years, they’ve seen the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’ve seen the disaster of the Arab Spring. They have responded by modifying their opinions on just who wishes to make war on us: not an extremist fringe, but a real and indeed somewhat popular strain of “radical Islam,” as Dickerson put it, with significant mass support in places like Paris.
The Republicans have watched, and many of them have learned. They are able to do this partly because they have been out of the executive branch for nearly seven years, and there is liberation in exile; and partly because the Republican Party, although afflicted with its own elites, remains to a remarkable extent a mass organization reflective of the popular will on issues of war and peace. That popular will is historically remarkably consistent: it amounts to a Jacksonian belief that America ought to engage its military to destroy those who threaten us. Americans want a military that is strong, used rarely but effectively against those who are clearly enemies of the nation and threats to our people.
The Democratic Party is by contrast sclerotic and brittle. After seven years in executive power, they are wedded to the policy premises of the Obama White House, but unaffected by their empirical outcomes. Only 21 percent of Americans maintain that the fight against ISIS is going well—and yet all three of the Democratic candidates doggedly stick to that increasingly discredited view. The talking points of the remaining Democratic contenders ring hollow with the 72 percent who see the president’s claims of terrorist containment, just like his claims of foreign policy success against Vladimir Putin, as consistently at odds with the headlines.
The reason for this is that Democrats are no longer a popular entity in the true sense of the term. As their Obama-era collapse at the state and local levels illustrates, they simply don’t possess an organic mechanism for detecting and reflecting popular sentiment. The Democratic coalition today is instead a collection of discrete interest groups, possessed of strong convictions about their priorities, yes, but devoid of the ability to aggregate and assess diverse experience that ordinary people call “common sense.”
An American citizen of any political stripe with even a cursory awareness of world events can look at an orchestrated jihadi attack, one that included the systematic execution of French concertgoers, and understand that we are at war with radical Islam. A Democratic candidate for the presidency cannot.
Or, at least, she cannot say that she shares that understanding. In order to fully comprehend the dynamic on stage at Saturday evening’s Democratic president debate, understand that every one of the aspirants on stage is wholly dependent upon an activist class that has spent most of the past year eradicating thoughtcrime and historical monuments in the summer, and then concocting moral crises to destroy academic institutions in the fall.
If your political prospects rested upon not antagonizing this roiling mass of poorly educated but deeply fanatical cohorts of middle-class radical youths, what else can you do when posed a direct question like Dickerson’s challenge to call something by its right name? You can’t say the obvious thing that everyone knows: Speaking the truth is what gets elites dethroned these days. Instead, you profess allegiance to the lie. You do exactly what the country saw these candidates do onstage Saturday: you dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge.
No wonder we are witnessing a total collapse of Americans’ trust in the elites at a time when the elites’ beliefs are so consistently and glaringly at odds with reality, when they fail to learn from experience, and when those beliefs have resulted in a very real body count.
The Democrats cannot say we are at war with radical Islam for two reasons. First, because the ones who don’t know it will never know it, and second, because the ones who do know it are afraid of the ones who don’t.
In this, we arrive at a curious historical moment: In the entire 2016 presidential field, when it comes to radical Islam, the candidate who most closely advocates the mistaken premises and bad ideas of George W. Bush is none other than Hillary Clinton. Bush, at least, had the virtue of believing what he was saying, hoping his approach would be proven right. Hillary Clinton has no such excuse.