Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Taking the Blame Game Too Far

To what extent did President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's approach to the Islamic State contribute to the horrific Orlando terrorist attack?

MANCHESTER, NH - JUNE 13: Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Saint Anselm College June 13, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Trump commented on the shooting in Orlando, condemning the violence he called radical Islam. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - JUNE 13: Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Saint Anselm College June 13, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Trump commented on the shooting in Orlando, condemning the violence he called radical Islam. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - JUNE 13: Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Saint Anselm College June 13, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Trump commented on the shooting in Orlando, condemning the violence he called radical Islam. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

To what extent did President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's approach to the Islamic State threat contribute to the horrific Orlando terrorist attack? Judging from Donald Trump's speech on Monday, the link between Obama/Clinton policies and the Orlando attack is the primary lens through which the presumptive Republican nominee would like the public to view this horrible tragedy.

It is not beyond the pale to ask such questions in the midst of a presidential campaign, though it would have been more seemly to wait a bit longer before politicizing the event. To be fair, Trump waited as long as Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did before they rushed to link the tragedy to their own partisan wedge issue: gun control.

Both linkages are equally plausible, according to what we know so far. On one hand, the killer claimed allegiance to the Islamic State and had shown signs of radicalization, fitting well the profile of homegrown terrorists that the Islamic State has inspired around the world. It is reasonable to ask whether more effective policies against the Islamic State might have forestalled this attack. On the other hand, despite all of these warning signs, the terrorist was evidently able to purchase the kinds of weapons and ammunition that made him especially lethal. It is reasonable to ask whether a different approach to gun control might have blocked him from pulling off the worst gun attack on U.S. soil in modern times.

To what extent did President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s approach to the Islamic State threat contribute to the horrific Orlando terrorist attack? Judging from Donald Trump’s speech on Monday, the link between Obama/Clinton policies and the Orlando attack is the primary lens through which the presumptive Republican nominee would like the public to view this horrible tragedy.

It is not beyond the pale to ask such questions in the midst of a presidential campaign, though it would have been more seemly to wait a bit longer before politicizing the event. To be fair, Trump waited as long as Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did before they rushed to link the tragedy to their own partisan wedge issue: gun control.

Both linkages are equally plausible, according to what we know so far. On one hand, the killer claimed allegiance to the Islamic State and had shown signs of radicalization, fitting well the profile of homegrown terrorists that the Islamic State has inspired around the world. It is reasonable to ask whether more effective policies against the Islamic State might have forestalled this attack. On the other hand, despite all of these warning signs, the terrorist was evidently able to purchase the kinds of weapons and ammunition that made him especially lethal. It is reasonable to ask whether a different approach to gun control might have blocked him from pulling off the worst gun attack on U.S. soil in modern times.

The questions are reasonable, but they have been raised with a speed that is unseemly.

In campaign settings, Republicans usually face greater downsides and risks whenever politics and unfolding tragedies mix. The media is primed to see Republican policy talking points as more partisan and political than Democratic policy talking points.  Compare the media’s treatment of the Mitt Romney campaign in 2012, in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi terrorist attack, to its treatment of the Obama campaign (a point I made at the time, here and here). However, Trump is an unusual Republican. He has gotten away with political attacks that would likely have sunk any other candidate during the primaries. While that has worked less well for him since his primary opponents dropped out of the race, it hasn’t sunk him yet. Maybe Trump is the rare candidate for whom — or this is the rare year when — there is little political downside to foregoing the decent interval.

Setting aside the issue of unseemliness, what about the underlying question Trump raised? Did Obama’s policies contribute to the horrific Orlando terrorist attack?

Let’s be clear from the outset. The person to blame for the attack is the perpetrator. We may learn in coming days of other accomplices who abetted it in some way — if so, they willed this attack and should stand in the moral docket with him. But it would be monstrous to assign culpability to other political figures or entities — like Obama, Clinton, or Trump, or the NRA — who clearly did not will this attack.

Trump in his speech offered a scorched earth critique that danced up to the line of assigning outright culpability to Obama and Clinton, but, I think, stopped just short of doing so. In this respect, Trump is rather like some of his critics, who came uncomfortably close to blaming Trump for the attacks.

What Trump did do was say that Obama’s policies have failed and have made the terrorism problem worse than it would have been under wiser policies. In functional form, this is essentially the mirror-image of the argument that Trump’s opponents have made (a version of which I am making now): that Trump’s approach would make the terrorism problem worse than it would be under wiser policies.

In other words, one cannot say that Trump’s fundamental charge is beyond the pale without also saying that I and other Trump critics are also making a beyond-the-pale critique.

However, while Trump’s argument is within the bounds of acceptable partisan discourse, that does not mean it stands up to close scrutiny. On the contrary, Trump misfires in two important ways. First, he misstates Obama’s mistakes. Second, he prescribes cures that will make the problem worse.

In Trump’s telling, Obama has mishandled the Islamic State threat because (a) he has been unwilling to name the ideology that inspires the terrorists and (b) he has allowed dangerous people who hate American values to immigrate to the United State unfettered. Obama’s reluctance to name the ideology does reveal a certain sloppiness of thinking behind Obama’s counter-Islamic State strategy. Obama is right to lean away from rhetoric that would unintentionally fuel the Islamic State’s own narrative of a war between Islam and other faiths; in this, Obama is following somewhat the wise efforts of the George W. Bush administration, which went to great lengths from the outset to distinguish clearly between the terrorists and the millions of faithful Muslims who reject terrorism. But eventually the Bush administration adopted a balanced approach that named the ideology precisely, yet in a way that did not fuel the terrorist narrative. Obama would be wise to follow even more closely in Bush’s steps. But this is a secondary matter and I do not see how Obama’s counterterrorism policies would be substantially different if only he adopted the more nuanced language of his predecessor.

The immigration critique is a canard. To have blocked the entry of this particular terrorist’s family, the United States would have had to restrict immigration from Afghanistan back in the 1980s, when the United States was supporting Afghan fighters seeking to repel the Soviet invasion. That is absurd. Moreover, Trump repeatedly exaggerates the immigration policies that Obama and Clinton back, and he is simply wrong when he claims there is no vetting of immigrants. In any case, immigration policies had nothing to do with this attack.

This is not to say that Obama’s approach to the Islamic State has been optimal. As I have argued before, Obama’s approach has been deficient in many ways. Pursuing a wiser set of policies would likely have placed us in a much more advantageous position in the war on terror than the one in which we find ourselves today. The case is pretty conclusive that Obama is bequeathing his successor a security legacy that falls far short of what it could and should be. But the hard truth is that even if the Obama administration had heeded its critics and adopted wiser policies earlier, there is no guarantee that it would have prevented the Orlando attack.

The even harder truth is that adopting Trump’s approach would likely make the problem worse. Yes, we should not have stood idly by while the Islamic State threat metastasized over 2013 and 2014. Yes, we need to defeat the Islamic State now. But defeating the Islamic State involves both a kinetic element directed at the hardened core and also a war of ideas element directed at the group’s global appeal. The war of ideas element requires the active participation of the vast majority of Muslim men and women who share the world’s revulsion at the Islamic State’s ideology and who are better positioned than anyone else to persuade others to reject it. Trump’s bombastic rhetoric does not motivate Muslim voices to partner with the United States in this effort. Quite the contrary: Trump’s rhetoric incentivizes such potential allies to stay silent or worse. Trump’s rhetoric is even sloppier than Obama’s, and with far more deleterious impact on our ability to prosecute the war.

Trump’s response to the attack, then, is ineffective policy. But it may be effective politics. In the same way that Trump has thus far benefitted from a visceral connection with angry Republican primary voters, the Orlando attacks may provide him with an opening for another visceral connection with angry general election voters. That would compound an already horrible tragedy.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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