One might have gleaned from the past election an impression that Islamist terrorism had vanished forever after President Barack Obama personally killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands, but apparently this is not the case. The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the Canadian government’s thwarting of an al-Qaeda plot to commit mass murder on a train heading to the United States are only the most recent events indicating that Islamist terrorism remains a problem.
Thus far the reaction to these events has been largely apolitical, as most of the country remains in one of those moments of post-terrorism unity that punish any attempts at partisan point-scoring, but the necessary arguments about how to proceed will soon commence. Already the well-rehearsed rationalizations are being trotted out in the liberal media, along with the usual hand-wringing about the great Islamophobic backlash that is ever feared but never realized, and the conservative press has begun easing into a full-throated critique of administration policies. All of the familiar points will be reprised, but the debate will be complicated this time around by the shrewdly political nature of Obama’s policies.
Obama has presented himself as a hard-nosed hawk who has continued such Bush-era protocols as indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, ordered a surge in Afghanistan and prolonged the withdrawal from Iraq along the Bush timetable, prosecuted a terrorist-killing drone war with a ruthlessness that even Bush didn’t dare, and endlessly reminded the public of bin Laden’s death. At the same time he has cultivated a reputation as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning antidote to that awful cowboy Bush, and the impresario of conflict resolution who ordered a decrease in troop strength in Afghanistan and got us out of Iraq, won over Muslim hearts with his exotic background and eloquent apologias to Islamic culture, and banned such nastiness as the enhanced interrogation techniques that led to bin Laden’s death. As political strategy it has been a stunning success, with critics on both the left and right muted and the non-ideological center well satisfied so long as nothing was blowing up. A radical Islamist shouting “Allahu Akbar” killed 12 people at Fort Hood, Texas, but that was easily dismissed as just another instance of workplace violence, and an Islamist terror group killed an ambassador and three other Americans, but that was in some far-away place called Benghazi, Libya, and the Islamist governments being welcomed into power by the administration were reportedly an “Arab Spring,” so it seemed to be working.
Now things are blowing up, and too close to home for the media to ignore, and the policies don’t seem to be working to anywhere near the extent that the president and his supporters have promised. Specific questions will now be asked about the immigration rules that allowed the suspects into the country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s aborted inquiries into one of the suspect’s increasing radicalization, the legal procedures being used to try the surviving suspect, and other matters arising from the Boston bombing, but there will also be a broader debate about the totality of the administration’s policies. Some will blame the hard-nosed protocols carried over and expanded from the Bush administration, while others will blame the tendencies to legalism, appeasement, and accommodation, but it will be most interesting to hear Obama defend his combination of the two.
— Bud Norman