Marie Harf, Barack Obama, and 'Legitimate Grievances'

Marie Harf / Facebook
February 18, 2015

The State Department's Marie Harf got herself into trouble yesterday by employing a Bush-era talking point about the inability to "win this war by killing" the terrorists, adding, before being cut off by an incredulous Chris Matthews, that "we need in the medium- and long-term to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether its lack of opportunity for jobs..."

The ridicule rolled in swiftly. Harf, defensive and confused, seemed to conclude that she was witnessing an irrational backlash driven by pure partisanship, and took to the Twitters to point out that all she was doing was recycling a point made in the past by men like Mike Mullen and George W. Bush, among others.

Later she told Wolf Blitzer that her remarks may have been too nuanced for her critics to understand.

At no point did it seem to occur to Harf that when Mike Mullen—who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff presided over the later stages of the successful Iraq surge, among other campaigns—says something like this, he is making the point that military action alone is not a long term solution to the problem of Islamist terrorism. But coming from Mullen, the clear implication is that serious military action remains a necessary component, even if it is not sufficient for victory absent efforts along other lines. Coming from Harf, who, a) is not a senior military officer, and b) is a leading spokesperson for an administration that is clearly ideologically opposed to the serious use of American military force abroad, the comment sounds like a self-parodically liberal dodge. Especially with the little coda on jobs, it sounds like the kind of thing someone might say, Martini in hand, at 1988's famous "Dukakis After Dark" cocktail party.

Credibility matters, as does context—something you would think someone so aware of the importance of nuance would understand. Our military strategy against ISIS is going so well that, five months after its launch, the terrorists continue to expand their territory, even seizing the town adjacent to the base where U.S. Marines are training the Iraqi military and then reportedly burning to death 45 captives there, in case anyone missed the point. Moreover, unlike al Qaeda, ISIS has metamorphosed into something resembling a nascent state, with the potential to leverage energy resources and an industrial base, if they could get their act together. American military action against this distressing turn of events is an international joke. When, like Harf, you are a spokesperson for a manifestly failing effort, suggesting that what will really put us over the top is finding jobs for potential radicals sounds absurd and out-of-touch.

It doesn't sound any better coming from the president himself. In today's Los Angeles Times, Barack Obama has an op-ed, the rhetoric of which shows that Harf's comments were not freelancing but very much part of a coordinated effort.

More broadly, groups like al Qaeda and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today's youth something better.

Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change. Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies. Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.

You could, more or less, put these same words in the mouth of George W. Bush in 2007. But again, credibility and context matter. Absent a serious plan to crush the Islamic State—something entirely within America's military capabilities—the president's call to address the "legitimate grievances" of the citizens of Islamic countries just sounds like he is missing the point. Perhaps the German people, after World War One, were ill served by the political conditions in which they found themselves—but once Nazism arose, the first step in crushing Nazism was crushing Nazism. It is horrifying, but not difficult, to imagine what Obama or his flippant spokespeople would have said about how to deal with Hitler in 1939.