Last month, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Benjamin Netanyahu made a connection between the Islamic State and Hamas. These terrorist entities, Netanyahu said, have a lot in common. Separated by geography, they nonetheless share ideology and tactics and goals: Islamism, terrorism, the destruction of Israel, and the establishment of a global caliphate.
And yet, Netanyahu observed, the very nations now campaigning against the Islamic State treated Hamas like a legitimate combatant during last summer’s Israel-Gaza war. "They evidently don’t understand," he said, "that ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree."
The State Department dismissed Netanyahu’s metaphor. "Obviously, we’ve designated both as terrorist organizations," said spokesman Jen Psaki. "But ISIL poses a different threat to Western interests and to the United States."
Psaki was wrong, of course. She’s always wrong. And, after the events of the last 48 hours, there ought not to be any doubt as to just how wrong she was. As news broke that a convert to Islam had murdered a soldier and stormed the Canadian parliament, one read of another attack in Jerusalem, where a Palestinian terrorist ran his car over passengers disembarking from light rail, injuring seven, and killing 3-month-old Chaya Zissel Braun, who held a U.S. passport.
Islamic State, al Qaeda, Hamas—these awful people are literally baby killers. And yet they produce a remarkable amount of dissension, confusion, willful ignorance, and moral equivalence on the part of the men and women who conduct U.S. foreign policy. "ISIL is not ‘Islamic,’" President Obama said of the terrorist army imposing sharia law across Syria and Iraq. "Obviously, we’re shaken by it," President Obama said of the attack in Canada. "We urge all sides to maintain calm and avoid escalating tensions in the wake of this incident," the State Department said of the murder of a Jewish child.
"Not Islamic," despite the fact that the Caliphate grounds its barbarous activities in Islamic law. "Shaken," not stirred to action. "All sides," not the side that targets civilians again and again and again. The evasions continue. They create space for the poison tree to grow.
The persistent denial of the ideological unity of Islamic terrorism—the studied avoidance of politically incorrect facts that has characterized our response to the Ft. Hood shooting, the Benghazi attack, the Boston Marathon bombing, the march of the caliphate across Syria and Iraq, and the crimes of Hamas—is not random. Behind it is a set of ideas with a long history, and with great purchase among the holders of graduate degrees who staff the Department of Justice, the National Security Council, Foggy Bottom, and the diplomatic corps. These ideas are why, in the words of John McCain, the terrorists "are winning, and we’re not."
A report by Katherine Gorka of the Council on Global Security, "The Bad Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy," analyzes the soil from which the poison tree draws strength. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Gorka writes, U.S. policymakers have faced a dilemma: "how to talk about Islam in a way that is instructive in dealing with Muslims who are enemies but not destructive to those who are friends." For decades, the preferred solution has been to declare America’s friendship with Islam, and to distinguish between jihadists and everyday Muslims.
One of Gorka’s earliest examples of this policy comes from former Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, who said in 1992, "The U.S. government does not view Islam as the next ‘ism’ confronting the West or threatening world peace." Similar assurances were uttered by officials in the Clinton administration, by Clinton himself, and by President George W. Bush. The policy was meant to delegitimize terrorism by denying the terrorists’ claim that they are acting according to religious precepts. "Policymakers believed that by tempering their language with regard to Islam, they might forestall further radicalization of moderate Muslims and indeed even potentially win moderates into the American circle of friendship."
George W. Bush, Gorka notes, combined his rhetorical appeals to moderate Muslims with denunciations of the immorality of terrorism and illiberalism. And yet, for the government at large, downplaying the religious and ideological component to terrorist activities became an end in itself.
The Global War on Terror was renamed the "global struggle against violent extremism." In 2008 the Department of Homeland Security published a lexicon of terrorism that said, "Our terminology must be properly calibrated to diminish the recruitment efforts of extremists who argue that the West is at war with Islam." State Department guidelines issued in 2008 said, "Never use the terms jihadist or mujahedeen to describe a terrorist."
Then came Obama. As a candidate, he stressed his experiences in Indonesia and Pakistan. He told Nick Kristof of the New York Times that the call of the muezzin is "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset." In one of his first major addresses as president, he traveled to Cairo to inaugurate a new beginning with the Muslim world. His counterterrorism adviser, now director of the CIA, called jihad a "legitimate tenet of Islam," and referred to Jerusalem as "Al Quds."
The change in the manner in which the government treated Islamism was profound. "Whereas the 9/11 Commission report, published under the presidency of George W. Bush in July 2004 as a bipartisan product, had used the word Islam 322 times, Muslim 145 times, jihad 126 times, and jihadist 32 times," Gorka writes, "the National Intelligence Strategy of the United States, issued by the Obama administration in August 2009, used the term Islam 0 times, Muslim 0 times, jihad 0 times." The omission is stunning.
For Bush, terrorism consisted of immoral deeds committed by evil men animated by anti-Western ideology. Obama downplayed such judgmental language. He preferred an interpretation of terrorism as discrete acts of wrongdoing by extremists, driven by resentments and grievances such as the American failure to establish a Palestinian state, American support for secular Arab dictatorships, American forces in the Middle East, U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, and, infamously, an anti-Islamic YouTube video. "The logic that follows," Gorka writes, "is that once those grievances are addressed, the extremism will subside."
Some logic. Six years into the Obama presidency, not only has the vocabulary of jihad been removed from official rhetoric and counterterrorism policy, but troops have been removed from Iraq, troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, the administration has condemned Israeli settlement activity while coddling Hamas’ backers in Ankara and Doha, "torture" has been banned, the White House intends to close Guantanamo unilaterally, Hosni Mubarak was abandoned in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the president is desperate for a partnership with the Islamic theocracy of Iran.
The result? The Islamic State rules Mosul, threatens Baghdad, and has conquered half of Syria as Bashar Assad gasses the other half. Libya has collapsed into tribal warfare. Egypt has gone from military dictatorship to Islamic authoritarianism and back again. An Islamic strongman rules Turkey, Hamas murders with impunity, Al Jazeera broadcasts anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda around the world, and the Taliban are biding time in Afghanistan. Not only is al Qaeda not on the run, it governs more territory than at any point since 2001. It is once again the "strong horse," attracting jihadists to its crusade who inevitably turn their attention to the West.
"Without an ideological catalyst," Gorka writes, "grievances remain merely grievances. They are dull and banal. They only transform into acts of transcendental violence when ignited by Sayyid Qutb or Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is the narrative of Holy War that gives value to local grievances, not the other way around." Before we can hope to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State or the al Qaeda movement, we must recognize the poison tree of jihad for what it is. We must recognize the global and unitary nature of the threat. We must recognize that there is only one way to deal with a poison tree: You chop it down.