I have yet to fisk Frank Rich, partly because he rarely deals with an issue in which I have some expertise, partly because, like Daniel Pipes, he so thoroughly links his comments to other literature, that I have not had the time or the energy to look them all up. But Rich is a former classmate (Harvard ’71), and I’m on a class listserv where I posted David Brooks’ criticism of the psychological school’s approach to Major Hasan’s killing spree, and several classmates answered. So when Rich weighed in on the subject, I decided to call up all his links, read the material, and respond.
The result is long and sometimes circuitous. At times, following his logic is like trying to deal with a bucking bronco: easier to watch than to ride. But in the end, I think what a close look at how Rich dealt with problem reveals, is how bereft of serious thinking even the most intelligent and apparently well-read among the self-styled “liberal left” are on the subject of Islam and its extremist manifestations, and to what lengths they will go to belittle people who try to think clearly on the matter.
Nietzsche once likened serious thinking to diving into an icy river and grasping a stone lying at the bottom. Rich won’t get his feet wet, but he mocks those of us who are soaking from head to toe.
The Missing Link From Killeen to Kabul
By FRANK RICH
Published: November 14, 2009
THE dead at Fort Hood had not even been laid to rest when their massacre became yet another political battle cry for the self-proclaimed patriots of the American right.
It also became a non-battle cry for the self-proclaimed progressives of the left, who far preferred the psychologization of the event — “pre-proxy-post-traumatic stress syndrome” — to any discussion of the problem with Islam. Will Rich have the courage to address the problem? Or will he just bash the “right”?
Their verdict was unambiguous: Maj. Nidal Malikan, an American-born psychiatrist of Palestinian parentage who sent e-mail to a radical imam, was a terrorist. And he did not act alone.
“Terrorist,” I think it’s hard to argue against. Did not act alone? That’s another matter. As for “unambiguous,” does Rich mean “unanimous”? I don’t know too many people who thought he acted in concert with anyone.
Indeed, the near-unanimous verdict was that he was a loner. If there’s any support group here, it’s some of the more radical members of his mosque, like Duane. So what does Rich mean here, other than suggesting that the “self-proclaimed patriots of the right” are conspiracy theorists? (Unlike the truthers who have come up with the scenario whereby Hasan’s been framed.)
His co-conspirators included our military brass, the Defense Department, the F.B.I., the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and, of course, the liberal media and the Obama administration. All these institutions had failed to heed the warning signs raised by Hasan’s behavior and activities because they are blinded by political correctness toward Muslims, too eager to portray criminals as sympathetic victims of social injustice, and too cowardly to call out evil when it strikes 42 innocents in cold blood.
Oh, now I get it. Rich means that the vast range of responsible figures, hands tied by a political correctness that he, among others, plays a major role in enforcing, are, in the minds of the “right,” collaborators. Is this what, “didn’t act alone,” means? I thought it meant, “had co-conspirators.” Rich takes it to mean “enablers.” Intellectual integrity is not the first word that comes to mind here.
Is this clearly sarcastic summary of the “self-proclaimed patriots of the American right” suggesting that there’s no problem here with political correctness? Does it not matter that our intelligence services can’t talk about “honor-shame” culture because some people — Rich? — think it’s racist as Edward Said so urgently insisted? Does it matter that Hasan’s multiple flags never quite tripped a switch somewhere? Does it matter that all those doctors who heard his alarming presentation were too embarrassed to say, “something’s wrong?”
Let’s see where Rich goes from here. Because the reader needs to read the following paragraphs uninterrupted to get the full impact of Rich’s rhetoric, I’ll first cite it in full, and then fisk it.
The invective aimed at these heinous P.C. pantywaists nearly matched that aimed at Hasan. Joe Lieberman announced hearings to investigate the Army for its dereliction of duty on homeland security. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, vowed to unmask cover-ups in the White House and at the C.I.A. The Weekly Standard blog published a broadside damning the F.B.I. for neglecting the “broader terrorist plot” of which Hasan was only one of the connected dots. Jerome Corsi, the major-domo of the successful Swift-boating of John Kerry, unearthed what he said was proof that Hasan had advised President Obama during the transition.
William Bennett excoriated soft military leaders like Gen. George Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, who had stood up for diversity and fretted openly about a backlash against Muslim soldiers in his ranks. “Blind diversity” that embraces Islam “equals death,” wrote Michelle Malkin. “There is a powerful case to be made that Islamic extremism is not some fringe phenomenon but part of the mainstream of Islamic life around the world,” wrote the columnist Jonah Goldberg. Islam is “not a religion,” declared the irrepressible Pat Robertson, but “a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world.”
As a snapshot of where a chunk of the country stands right now, these reactions to the Fort Hood bloodbath could not be more definitive.
Let’s unpack these paragraphs, sentence by sentence, after consulting the links.
The invective aimed at these heinous P.C. pantywaists nearly matched that aimed at Hasan.
Silly bit of moral equivalence: the right treats the left like mass-murderers. It suggests that the “self-proclaimed progressive left” (here referred to sarcastlically as “P.C. pantywaists”) finds hard criticism hard to take, and a bracing dose feels to them like they’re being accused of deliberate mass murder.
Joe Lieberman announced hearings to investigate the Army for its dereliction of duty on homeland security.
Well, one could argue that, with 13 army personnel shot to death, as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, he would be derelict in his duty not to investigate. Is this an illustration of invective as ferocious as that aimed at Hasan? Hopefully we can do better.
Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, vowed to unmask cover-ups in the White House and at the C.I.A.
This bears only the slightest relationship to the article cited, in which the CIA only appears in a subordinate clause as a parallel example of withholding embarrassing information, and the word cover-up does not appear once, not even in the singular.
The Weekly Standard blog published a broadside damning the F.B.I. for neglecting the “broader terrorist plot” of which Hasan was only one of the connected dots.
This brief summary sure makes the Weekly Standard piece sound like conspiracy theory. I recommend reading it, because Rich’s punchy summary is profoundly misleading. Is Rich not disturbed by the facts: 1) that Hasan had repeated contact with al Qaeda’s al Awlaki; 2) the FBI ignored the evidence because, in their minds, it was “consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center,” and 3) therefore, “the JTTF concluded that Major Hasan was not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning”?
If this is not evidence of something wrong at the JTTF, I’m not sure what is? I can assure you that the 9-11 truthers would happily jump on this as evidence Bush — oops, Obama — ordered the FBI to ignore this so that once Hasan did what he did, the government could state a fascist deportation of all Muslims in America. After all, Al Awlaki is probably the most adept recruiter of American Muslims for al Qaeda:
“Anwar al Awlaki (a.k.a. Anwar al Aulaqi), an American who lives in Yemen, who is regarded as an Islamic scholar, may be a key player in Al-Qaida’s efforts to radicalize and incite American Muslims to commit terrorist acts… Al Awlaki is a highly regarded, American-born, pro-Jihad ideologue with access to a young audience in the United States, even from his location in Yemen. There is no other comparable pro-Al-Qaida American figure who has such tremendous access to audiences or who has such credibility.”
So what is Rich suggesting we not connect the dots? That we ignore these connections? Or that we conclude after the catastrophe, as did the FBI before, that Hasan was “not involved in terrorist planning or activity.” Maybe if we say — as did the FBI — that there’s no evidence that this was a terror plot, we can so conclude.
But the signs are so plentiful that even Rich doesn’t make the argument that all this is mere hindsight. As Mark Steyn noted in response to the Monday morning quarterbacking (especially intense these days in Boston),
Well, like they say, it’s easy to be wise after the event. I’m not so sure. These days, it’s easier to be even more stupid after the event. “Apparently, he tried to contact al-Qaida,” mused MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “That’s not a crime to call up al-Qaida, is it? Is it? I mean, where do you stop the guy?”
And this guy likes to think of himself as a “hardball” thinker?
Jerome Corsi, the major-domo of the successful Swift-boating of John Kerry, unearthed what he said was proof that Hasan had advised President Obama during the transition.
This rates a special place in this list of offenders: Rich links to a smear piece by Jason Linkens which misrepresents Corsi’s original significantly more than Corsi’s piece can be said to misrepresent the situation. On the contrary, the only thing in Corsi’s piece that goes significantly beyond the evidence is the title — which any journalist knows is not in the control of the author of the article — and which is studiously ambiguous. Unlike Rich’s third-hand distortion — “Hasan advised Obama during the transition” — the title, for anyone who reads the report, is a syncopated reference to the transition team. Corsi makes no link between Hasan and Obama. Did Rich even read the original, or is he a victim of his own ad hominem — if Corsi can swiftboat, then no one should read him, even (especially?) me as I swiftboat him.
William Bennett excoriated soft military leaders like Gen. George Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, who had stood up for diversity and fretted openly about a backlash against Muslim soldiers in his ranks.
I don’t know. I think Bennett’s right to point out that this remark by Casey is pretty disturbing:
I think we have to be very careful. . . .Our diversity not only in our Army, but in our country, is a strength. And as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.
Maybe Rich agrees with it, but if I were a soldier whose fellows had just been shot by a US Army officer, I’d want an unblinking investigation, and a statement to the effect that whatever the causes, we will root them out. As Bennett pointed out, don’t hold your breath for anything comparable to the massive investigation of Tailhook rape scandal, in which no one died. Furthermore, if I were a Muslim soldier who was playing with the same traitorous Islamist ideologies that inspired Hasan, I’d be comforted.
“Blind diversity” that embraces Islam “equals death,” wrote Michelle Malkin.
When you realize that at his famous “grand rounds” speech, Hasan told his audience of infidels, “We love death more than you love life,” and that there are a number of other similar cases that Malkin documents, this is not exactly an outragous statement.
“There is a powerful case to be made that Islamic extremism is not some fringe phenomenon but part of the mainstream of Islamic life around the world,” wrote the columnist Jonah Goldberg.
And there is. But this quote, taken out of context, sounds like Goldberg is an ardent proponent of such a position, when his full statement explcitly distances himself from it.
I am more sympathetic toward this reluctance to state the truth of the matter than are some of my colleagues on the Right. There is a powerful case to be made that Islamic extremism is not some fringe phenomenon but part of the mainstream of Islamic life around the world. And yet, to work from that assumption might make the assumption all the more self-fulfilling. If we act as if “Islam is the problem,” as some say, we will guarantee that Islam will become the problem. But outright denial, like we are seeing today, surely is not the beginning of wisdom either.
That sounds pretty thoughtful to me.
Islam is “not a religion,” declared the irrepressible Pat Robertson, but “a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world.”
Even this quote, from a figure so far removed from all the other people in this list, only needs tweeking in order to be accurate: Islam is a religion that, in some perfectly legitimate readings of its sacred texts — Quran, hadith, sharia — involves a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of this world (including allegedly Muslim governments).
How many mainstream Muslims (not American moderates and pseudo-moderates, but figures who will carry weight in the most prominent circles of Islam in the world today, whether Shii or Sunni) will formally, officially, renounce the principles of Dar al Islam and dar al Harb? How many will formally embrace the central principle of a civil polity dedicated to justice, “whoever is right, whether Muslim or not“?
As a snapshot of where a chunk of the country stands right now, these reactions to the Fort Hood bloodbath could not be more definitive.
Now here, I must admit to being puzzled. Definitive about what? That Islam, not just Islamism is a problem? That we have problems even identifying much less addressing the problem?
Given the sneering tone and the silly mix of serious comment misrepresented, with outliers (even then, misrepresented), this comment about “a chunk of the country” seems to be definitively negative. Below, he will refer to these comments as “Jeremiads” — which everyone knows is “over the top.”
And yet.. the rest of the paragraph, however superciliously, basically acknowledges that this “chunk” may have a point.
And it’s quite possible that some of what this crowd says is right — not about Islam in general, but about the systemic failure to stop a homicidal maniac like Hasan in particular. Whether he was an actual terrorist or an unfathomable mass murderer merely dabbling in jihadist ideas, the repeated red flags during his Army career illuminate a pattern of lapses in America’s national security.
What on earth does “dabbling in Jihadi ideas” mean in the case of a man who walks into an army base and randomly shoots dozens of people yelling Allahu Akhbar! until he himself is gunned down? One of the master-moves of those who don’t want to talk about Islamism, is the use of false dichotomies and dismissive rhetoric — dabbling?! — like this.
Whether those indicators were ignored because of political correctness, bureaucratic dysfunction, sheer incompetence or some hybrid thereof is still unclear, but, whichever, the system failed.
More false dichotomies: the system failed because political correctness led to bureaucratic dysfunction. Indeed, as the Weekly Standard piece Rich derides above put it, after going over the leads the FBI failed to follow up on and their bizarre statements about how there’s no evidence this is a terrorist act, this is “myopic to the point of absurdity.”
All this is reminiscent of the FBI immediately and persistently insisted that Egyptian-born Hadayet’s shooting up of the El Al counter at LAX was “not terrorism.” No self-criticism, no learning curve.
Yet the mass murder at Fort Hood didn’t happen in isolation. It unfolded against the backdrop of Obama’s final lap of decision-making about Afghanistan. For all the right’s jeremiads, its own brand of political correctness kept it from connecting two crucial dots: how our failing war against terrorists in Afghanistan might relate to our failure to stop a supposed terrorist attack at home. Most of those who decried the Army’s blindness to Hasan’s threat are strong proponents of sending more troops into our longest war. That they didn’t mention Afghanistan while attacking the entire American intelligence and defense apparatus in charge of that war may be the most telling revelation of this whole debate.
Okay, this is quite a move. From where I stand, this is pure distraction: the subject is Islam in the USA. But let’s say Rich were to propose, with a bit more modesty, that we should look at something worth considering about our military situation in Afghanistan to shed light on this. Then let’s follow and see if it’s a substantive argument. But in any case, it’s hardly the most obvious thing in the world.
The reason they didn’t is obvious enough. Their screeds about the Hasan case are completely at odds with both the Afghanistan policy they endorse and the leadership that must execute that policy, including Gen. Stanley McChrystal. These hawks, all demanding that Obama act on McChrystal’s proposals immediately, do not seem to have read his strategy assessment for Afghanistan or the many press interviews he gave as it leaked out. If they had, they’d discover that the whole thrust of his counterinsurgency pitch is to befriend and win the support of the Afghan population — i.e., Muslims. The “key to success,” the general wrote in his brief to the president, will be “strong personal relationships forged between security forces and local populations.”
I’d hardly call that “the whole thrust.” But in any case, this is more or less the strategy of the “surge” in Iraq — get the tribal groups in Iraq to turn against the vicious Muslim radicals who were engaged in suicide bombing. But more interestingly, Rich is about to equate American Muslims with Afghani tribes.
McChrystal thinks we might even jolly up those Muslims who historically and openly hate America. “I don’t think much of the Taliban are ideologically driven,” he told Dexter Filkins of The Times. “In my view their past is not important. Some people say, ‘Well, they have blood on their hands.’ I’d say, ‘So do a lot of people.’ I think we focus on future behavior.”
I think McChrystal should stick to matters military. This is loopy stuff. Maybe to Rich’s taste, but then again, isn’t one of the classic liberal (i.e. Western) fantasies the idea of the Blank Slate? Religious fanaticism is only skin deep, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Whether we could win those hearts and minds is, arguably, an open question — though it’s an objective that would require a partner other than Hamid Karzai and many more troops than even McChrystal is asking for (or America presently has). But to say that McChrystal’s optimistic — dare one say politically correct? — view of Muslim pliability doesn’t square with that of America’s hawks is the understatement of the decade.
Finally, we agree about an observation, probably not about its implications.
As their Fort Hood rhetoric made clear, McChrystal’s most vehement partisans don’t trust American Muslims, let alone those of the Taliban, no matter how earnestly the general may argue that they can be won over by our troops’ friendliness (or bribes). If, as the right has it, our Army cannot be trusted to recognize a Hasan in its own ranks, then how will it figure out who the “good” Muslims will be as we try to build a “stable” state (whatever “stable” means) in a country that has never had a functioning central government? If our troops can’t be protected from seemingly friendly Muslim American brethren in Killeen, Tex., what are the odds of survival for the 40,000 more troops the hawks want to deploy to Kabul and sinkholes beyond?
With that kind of logic, we never would have tried the surge. There’s an important difference between American Muslims who may be willing to befriend America on the basis of the exceptional freedoms they enjoy here (a little gratitude for things they can’t get in any Muslim dominated country) — and I think there are many American and Western Muslims who feel this way — and Afghani and Iraqi tribesmen, who would deal with us because we are a better alternative to Taliban and Al Qaeda excesses.
Indeed that’s the core of the difference. American Muslims, howevermuch harassment they may undergo at their Mosques from radicals, are not subject to suicide bombings. But I will agree with Rich on one thing — both populations represent genuinely mysterious phenomena that we cannot fathom right now. What I will venture to say that I doubt Rich will, is that P.C. (pantywaist or not) is not going to help us here.
About the only prominent voice among the liberal-bashing, Obama-loathing right who has noted this gaping contradiction is Mark Steyn of National Review. “Members of the best trained, best equipped fighting force on the planet” were “gunned down by a guy who said a few goofy things no one took seriously,” he wrote. “And that’s the problem: America has the best troops and fiercest firepower, but no strategy for throttling the ideology that drives the enemy — in Afghanistan and in Texas.” You have to applaud Steyn’s rare intellectual consistency within his camp.
Because Rich’s camp — as illustrated by this article — is full of intellectual consistency?
One imagines that he does not buy the notion that our Army, however brilliant, has a shot at building “strong personal relationships” with a population that often regards us as occupiers and infidels.
That final line is not a quote from Steyn, and although I’m reluctant to anticipate what he might say, I’m certainly willing to point out that there’s a significant difference between the Taliban and the rest of the population which, according to McChrystal, doesn’t want a return of the Taliban.
In a week of horrific news, it was good to hear at the end of it that Obama is dissatisfied with the four Afghanistan options he has been weighing so far. The more time he deliberates, the more he is learning that he’s on a fool’s errand with no exit. After Karzai was spared a runoff last month and declared the winner of the fraud-infested August “election,” Obama demanded that he address his government’s corruption as a price for American support. Only days later the Afghan president mocked the American president by parading his most tainted cronies on camera and granting an interview to PBS’s “NewsHour” devoted to spewing his contempt for his American benefactors.
Hmmm. I wonder if Rich notices the contempt shown Obama for his liberal attitudes by the Koreans, the Iranians and the Arabs.
Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and, until recently, a State Department official in Afghanistan, could be found on MSNBC on Thursday once again asking the question no war advocate can answer, “Do you want Americans fighting and dying for the Karzai regime?”
That sounds a lot like the kind of thinking we used to hear about the corrupt regime in South Vietnam. Of course, after we left, the south Vietnamese got a taste of the difference between corruption and zealotry. High levels of corruption are endemic in most of the world, and the idea that, if the regime we have as a local ally is corrupt, then we need to get out, is just silly. No one is arguing we’re fighting and dying for Karzai; but rather, we’re fighting to prevent Afghanistan from melting down, once again, into a hotbed of Islamic Jihadism. Eyes on the ball, Rich.
Hoh quit his post on principle in September despite the urging of colleagues, including our ambassador there, Karl W. Eikenberry, that he stay and fight over war policy from the inside. But Hoh had lost confidence in our strategy and would not retract his resignation. Now he has been implicitly seconded by Eikenberry himself. Last week we learned that the ambassador, a retired general who had been the top American military commander in Afghanistan as recently as 2007, had sent two cables to Obama urging caution about sending more troops.
We don’t know everything in those cables. What we do know is that American intelligence continues to say that fewer than 100 Qaeda operatives can still be found in Afghanistan. We also know that the Taliban, which are currently estimated to number in the tens of thousands, can’t be eliminated. As McChrystal put it to Filkins, there is no “finite number” of Taliban, so there’s no way to vanquish them. Hence his counterinsurgency alternative, which could take decades, costing untold billions and countless lives.
And the alternative? Necessity is the mother of invention. If you imagine that getting out of Afghanistan is a relatively low cost, life-and-money-saving proposition, there’s no necessity.
Perhaps those on the right are correct about Hasan, and he is just one cog in an apocalyptic jihadist plot that has infiltrated our armed forces. If so, then they have an obligation to explain how pouring more troops into Afghanistan would have stopped Hasan from plotting in Killeen.
I am one of the ones who does think precisely that (although I don’t think it’s so much that they’ve infiltrated the military — maybe, very possibly — but that American Muslims are susceptible to not-so-sudden Jihad syndrome). And I don’t think I have any obligation to explain how more troops in Afghanistan would have stopped Hasan. That’s Rich’s weightless intellectual conceit.
On the contrary, the point of “those on the right” — which I think is itself a deeply deceptive designation since most of us reluctantly acknowledge a problem the self-proclaimed “left” fantasizes away — is that it’s political correctness that enabled Hasan’s grotesaque act, and that it’s the inability at home (as well as abroad) to split a real moderate and courageous Islam off from the extremists (?) like Duane and Youssuf al Quattab — both converts — that leaves us open to these attacks.
Don’t hold your breath. If we have learned anything concrete so far from the massacre at Fort Hood, it’s that our hawks, for all their certitude, are as utterly confused as the rest of us about who it is we’re fighting in Afghanistan and to what end.
That’s an interesting final confession. Rich does nothing if not ooze self-confidence. I’m not a regular reader, but I can’t remember a column — this included — that had any sense of intellectual or ideological modesty.
On the contrary. Maybe, if he had acknowledged right at the outset, that the “chunk of the country” represented by the “P.C. pantywaist crowd” who downplay Islam — among whom I imagine he is much more comfortable — didn’t know what to do about the problem of radical Islam in the USA, then we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, Rich has taken us on a detour to Afghanistan, and left us stranded there.
And for those who follow Rich down his dead-end alleys, what you walk away from this column with is not a deep suspicion of Rich’s intellectual integrity on the issue of Islam — the fundamental problem of Western progressives in the 21st century — but a sneering contempt for those of us who struggle with the searing contradiction between everything we’ve learned about decency and humanity, and the uncanny reappearance of the most grotesque hatreds within our midst in the form of a resurgent Islam(ism).
At least some intellectual modesty would be fitting.