I don’t talk about it much, but in a former life, I was an Intelligence Analyst.
At the University of Maine, I pursued a degree in Political Science, and my primary concentration was American Government, but I had a rather insatiable interest in what was happening in other countries. In an attempt to satisfy that interest, I spent significant time in the classroom studying Comparative Politics and International Affairs, and as it happened, my first job out of college was in a private security firm in Annapolis, Maryland.
It was my job to gather information through Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) resources (those available to the public at large) and analyze the impact of large geopolitical events, as well as specific, local incidents that impacted business travelers, expatriates, and multinational corporations who held assets overseas.
Holding that particular position gave me an appreciation for just how complicated problems in the world are. When you write situation reports for people in harm’s way, you’d better have a good handle on not only what is currently happening, but also why it is happening, what the historical roots of the situation are, and what is likely to happen based on that well-informed perspective.
Foreign affairs, and large questions of what happens in the world and why, require that level of perspective if you ever hope to legitimately understand or solve problems on the international stage. There is probably nothing more ill-suited to soundbites and impulse overreactions as a large geopolitical problem.
This week offered a case in point.
Appearing on MSNBC, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf made a rather curious statement. She suggested that the United States can not “kill our way out” of the war against the Islamic terrorist organization known as ISIS, and that instead we must take steps to address the medium and long-term challenge of addressing the root causes of ISIS, like a lack of jobs.
Immediately, heads shook and administration critics everywhere pounced on the appearance. Everywhere you looked on social media, you were confronted with some level of ridicule about Harf talking about giving ISIS jobs, and it was held up as an example of the stunning level of ignorance and detachment from reality shown by the Obama administration, as well as its continued refusal to confront the international challenge for what it is: a violently radical, genocidal Islamic terrorist movement.
If this remark were made in a vacuum, it would likely be defensible. A realistic analysis of the region’s history of violence would indeed come to a very simple conclusion: the lack of choices or opportunities has created desperate people without anything to lose.
That, coupled with violent oppression by governments and militant, religiously based propaganda fed to those desperate people that offers them hope for a better afterlife, creates a toxic environment where violent religious extremism festers.
Would people in the region be susceptible to recruitment if they actually had freedom, choices, economic opportunity, education, and were told the truth about the world around them? Likely not.
But the administration makes it so hard to give a spokesperson and the State Department she represents a pass on this poorly articulated point.
The president’s passivity as the world burns around him is stark.
The attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The continued Russian aggression into Ukraine. American hostage Kayla Mueller confirmed dead. The forced evacuation of the United States embassy in Yemen. A targeted attack on Jews in a kosher grocery store in Paris. All met with the president’s dismissal and his continued refusal to even rhetorically confront the reality of what is happening.
As Charles Krauthammer put it in his excellent column last week, “A coalition POW is burned alive and the reaction of the alliance leader barely 48 hours later is essentially: ‘Hey, but what about Joan of Arc?’”
In such an environment, where the policymakers are unable to even legitimately define the source of the problem, how can they be expected to analyze the history of what created that problem and come up with recommendations for what to do about it?
I respect, more than anyone on earth, the steely cold, logical, rational actions of a thoughtful president in the arena of foreign policy, but that is not what we have seen from President Obama.
The president seems to believe this cold indifference and constant groping for moral equivalency is a strategy. It isn’t. And until he begins to take seriously what is happening around the world, and he begins to confront it, it is impossible to give him or anyone in his administration the benefit of the doubt.