The morning after U.S. President Barack Obama told the world he has “no strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State, the United Kingdom raised its terror threat level to “severe,” which means the authorities believe an attack is “highly likely.” The next highest level, “critical,” would mean a specific attack was considered imminent. If you’re going to have verbal descriptions for threat levels, I don’t know why you wouldn’t simply call them “Attack Likely” and “Attack Imminent.” Then again, we went with an even more inscrutable color-coding system in the United States. I sometimes wonder if all of these systems aren’t designed to give bureaucrats some degree of butt coverage without being clear enough to unduly alarm the populace, or get the bureaucrats criticized for issuing specific warnings that didn’t pan out.
At any rate, the U.K. doesn’t raise its threat level very often – this is the first time in three years it has been elevated to “severe” – so this is a big deal. Prime Minister David Cameron did not seem inclined to drop a quick statement full of poll-tested talking points and knock off for the rest of the afternoon by playing golf with his buddies. Cameron made it clear the new alert posture is related to the continuing adventures of what Western leaders have apparently agreed to refer to as “ISIL,” although I still find that name unbearably clunky, so I stubbornly insist on using “ISIS.” I get the impression the head-choppers prefer ISIL, which is another reason not to use it. If the leaders of the West switch over to the more descriptive name “Team Evil,” I could get on board with that.
Cameron’s speech is an interesting contrast with Obama’s Mad Lib “wrong side of history” boilerplate. He’s saying the same things the U.S. defense complex is saying, even though the White House is still mostly interested in changing the subject. For example, Cameron echoed U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel almost verbatim by saying, “What we’re facing in Iraq now, with ISIL, is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.”
Cameron didn’t just leave it at that. He spent some time explaining just how big the threat of the Islamic State is, from its regional territorial ambitions, to its recruiting successes in Western nations. ISIS isn’t just a cave-dwelling terrorist gang dependent on the protection of foreign hosts; they have their own nation, and they’re planning expansion into Jordan and Lebanon, leaving the world saddled with “a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member.” Sounds like those guys do have a strategy, huh?
They’ve also got tactics, and one of them is likely to involve terrorist attacks inside Western borders. Painfully aware that the man who sawed off American hostage James Foley’s head on camera was likely a British citizen, Cameron said Foley’s murder was “clear evidence – not that any more was needed – that this is not some foreign conflict thousands of miles from home that we can hope to ignore.” Which makes it odd that Britain seems to be more imminently alarmed about an attack than the United States, seeing as how the anniversary of 9/11 – Terrorist Fourth of July – is upon us.
“We’ve all been shocked and sickened by the barbaric murder of American journalist James Foley, and by the voice of what increasingly seems to have been a British terrorist on that video,” said Cameron, who canceled his own vacation plans and went into crisis mode after that horrid event, while Barack Obama was back in a golf cart less than 15 minutes after addressing it. In case you’ve forgotten, before he rushed off to keep his afternoon tee time, Obama did not call Foley’s murder sickening or barbaric. He said he was “appalled” and “heartbroken,” passive and moderate language that fit perfectly into a speech about how the Islamic State is so backwards and horrible that it will spontaneously cease to exist any day now.
And while Obama and his spin doctors have taken pains to pretend ISIS is something fundamentally different from al-Qaeda (which, as you’ll recall, Obama claimed was “decimated” and “on the run” during his horsefeather-encrusted 2012 re-election campaign) Cameron was blunt about how this is just a new mutation of an old enemy. “Let’s be clear about the source of the threat we face,” he said. “The terrorist threat was not created by the Iraq War ten years ago. It existed even before the horrific attacks on 9/11 – themselves some time before the Iraq War. This threat cannot be solved simply by dealing with the perceived grievances over Western foreign policy, nor can it be dealt with by addressing poverty, dictatorship, or instability in the region, as important as these things are.”
That’s just about a point-by-point refutation of the entire Obama platform on terrorism and the Middle East, isn’t it?
“The root cause of this threat to our security is quite clear,” Cameron continued. “It is a poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism that is condemned by all faiths, and all faith leaders. It believes in using the most brutal forms of terrorism to force people to accept a warped worldview, and to live in an almost medieval state – a state in which its own citizens would suffer unimaginable brutality, including barbaric beheadings of those who wish to convert to their warped version of Islam, the enslavement and rape of women, and the widespread slaughter of Muslims by fellow Muslims. And, of course, the exporting of terrorism abroad.”
This is a delicate moment for multi-culturalist sensitive in the United Kingdom. The mind-blowing horror of the Rotherham rape rings and the politically-correct ideological blindness of officials loom large over Cameron’s remarks. The British establishment still isn’t quite ready to face the role Islamic theology played in those “grooming” gangs, but part of Cameron’s purpose on Friday is doubtless to assure Britons that their government is now awake and mobilized, its eyes no longer unwilling to focus on threats because officials are worried they’ll be criticized for insensitivity. What he’s saying in this speech still sounds as mannered and nitpicky as the usual War on Terror rhetoric – no matter how many Muslims embrace the Islamic State with their Korans held high, rest assured we have officially determined that those jerks are not true Muslims in any sense whatsoever! But it’s tougher and clearer than what we usually hear. Cameron is admitting that his country has an internal problem.
It’s both reasonable and strategically wise to deny that ISIS is interpreting the Koran correctly, of course, or to insinuate that the majority of Muslims might be inclined to see things their way. The problem is that only the rest of Islam has the power to read these creeps out of their religion. It always sounds smarmy when non-Muslim politicians do it. The rest of the world should be encouraging an Islamic reformation – which will not be a gentle process – and openly siding with the good guys, rather than pretending the reformation already happened and people like ISIS, al-Qaeda, the mullahs of Iran, and Hamas just didn’t get the memo.
In any event, the goal of all leaders in a pluralistic republic which respects religious freedom should be firmly communicating the absolute demands of civilized society, not posing as the arbiters of theological authenticity in various faith traditions. What constitutes the proper practice of Islam is wholly and entirely up to Muslims, who should be cheerfully unconcerned with what anyone else thinks about the Koran. But what constitutes good British or American citizenship is the business of the British and American governments. It is not necessary to understand a word of sharia law to firmly communicate that the American principles of free speech will not in any way be compromised to accommodate it, for example. The way Western governments approach Islam is intended to be respectful, but it usually comes off as condescending and timid.
Cameron went on to say it is “absolutely vital” to make a distinction between “religion and political ideology.” The problem is that he’s talking about a religion that inherently includes political ideology. All of them can be invoked in political contexts, of course, but Islam has specific political ideas written right into its holy book. That can be overcome by Muslims of good will who wish to be good citizens of pluralistic democracies, but we really ought to stop pretending that it’s easily overcome, or that the Islamists who insist on applying Koranic political ideology to the modern world don’t know what they’re talking about. The boys from ISIS will be very happy to show you exactly which verses support everything they’re doing. We should give all possible friendship and support to other Muslims who challenge their ideology, but that’s different than pretending the beheadings, conquests, enslavements, grooming gangs, etc. are being pulled from thin air. It is possible to energetically support constructive Koranic scholars without pretending to be one yourself. Again, that attitude always seems condescending and querulous to me, much as it does when secular politicians lecture Catholics on what their Bible verses really mean.
It’s also a mistake to underestimate how thoroughly intimidated the “act of kindness” Muslims (to borrow Cameron’s phrase) can feel, when confronted with the bloody willpower of the Islamists. Throw in the confusion caused by opportunistic activists and the enforcers of political correctness, and it becomes impossible for Western leaders to speak plainly, when their good Muslim citizens desire plain talk as much as anyone else. At some point, the constant ritual assurance that we’re not talking about you, peace-loving Muslims grow annoying to the peace-loving Muslims, and make them worry about the constitutional fortitude of the Western governments they live under. Can we not take it as a given that everyone who isn’t into throat-cutting knows their Presidents and Prime Ministers aren’t talking about them when denouncing throat-cutters?
Cameron’s strong statement falters a bit at the end, when he says the vicious ideology of ISIS cannot be appeased, but comes up short on concrete proposals for doing anything else. “We need a tough, intelligent, patient, and comprehensive approach to defeat the terrorist threat at its source,” he declared, without getting into specifics about what sort of tough, intelligent, patient, comprehensive things we might be doing, or how they’d be different that what we have been doing since mid-September of 2001. He did, however, make it clear the British military would be part of the strategy, emphasizing that they were “vital in driving al-Qaeda from Afghanistan,” and expressing support for American air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq.
But it’s a little melancholy to hear Cameron talk about how we must support the “building blocks” of sturdy democracy to clean up the political disasters that terrorists thrive upon – the rule of law, independent judiciary, the rights of minorities, free media, free association, “a proper place in society for the army” – because it’s hard to see any sign of those things taking deeper root in the rougher neighborhoods of the Middle East. Not even the nations most agreeable to the West display all of the qualities Cameron listed at healthy levels. The battle against ISIS is probably going to strengthen the likes of Iran and the Assad regime in Syria, which are not at all interested in any of those republican virtues. Turning the entire Middle East into cosmopolitan London would probably do wonders to drain away the toxins of terrorism, but frankly the most sustained effort to do that on a national scale was the operation in Iraq, and that’s exactly the sort of operation the electorates of the West have no further appetite for.
Still, the overall tone of Prime Minister Cameron’s speech was serious, engaged, and reassuring. He’s clocked in and on the job.
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