This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrated convincingly that the Obama administration does not understand the biggest foreign threat facing America. When asked in Abu Dhabi about Islamist terrorists, Ms. Clinton said “Look we have extremists in my country” and then referenced the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
This was disingenuous on a number of levels but raises a key question: How can a country win a war if its leaders choose not to understand its enemy at all?
Speaking at the town hall event, Secretary Clinton elaborated that: “We have the same kinds of problems. So rather than standing off from each other, we should work to try to prevent the extremists anywhere from being able to commit violence. There will always be a small minority in any country that is loudmouthed and rude and ignorant that will say things that are just not either true or reflective of what we believe.”
Are we to conclude that the deranged individual who killed six people in Tucson is analogous to the far-reaching Islamist political movement and its terrorist vanguard? And are Al Qaeda and scores of other Islamist and terrorist groups just “loudmouthed and rude and ignorant” extremists whom we only need to “work to try to prevent” from committing violence?
This misses the fundamental point. Terrorists who fly into buildings, blow themselves up in markets, wage insurgencies and dream of importing Iranian nuclear material into the U.S. are the product of something much larger. And that something is not an abstract comparative description (“extremism”) but a philosophy of government that unfortunately is highly appealing to millions.
That philosophy is not the religion of Islam, but the ideology of Islamism. Among its goals are the unification of mosque and state and the replacement of the world’s democracies, monarchies and other states with the model of government we have seen most clearly in Iran since the revolution there in 1979. It early roots draw back farther still to the wake of World War I.
It is actually quite possible to be a fundamentalist or “extremist” Muslim and not subscribe to Islamism or pose a threat to America. Millions of Muslims who eschew modernity do not concern themselves with forcing their wills on others or upending established governments. Conversely, it is quite possible to be an outwardly moderate and modern Muslim, and nonetheless support Islamism or outright terrorism. -- Many of Western Europe’s recent terrorists fit this category.
Understanding this is key. Terrorism is only the leading edge and violent manifestation of Islamism in the same way that the Red Army and its partners were only the leading edge of communism during the Cold War. And as with communism, Islamism is the totalitarian ideology we must ultimately undermine in order to prevail. Islamism is the ultimate inspiration of nearly all terrorism the U.S. faces at home and abroad—not generic “extremism.”
For this reason, Ms. Clinton was wrong to assert that this political movement and its terrorist actors are akin to violent individuals such as the one who went on a killing spree in Tucson.
Ms. Clinton would have done better to note that the same people who want to enslave America and take away our freedoms would do the same to her audience. Misrepresenting the threat and using the event for another Obama administration apology for America’s supposed flaws accomplishes nothing. It discourages Muslims who might work against Islamists and conveys weakness that encourages our opponents.
It also signals that well into our battle with the latest ideology to challenge American freedom—it has been nearly ten years since 9/11 and more than three decades since the Iranian Revolution and U.S. embassy hostage-taking—our foreign-policy establishment in Washington still does not understand our enemy, much less how it will be defeated.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).