At Contentions, John Podhoretz highlights one aspect of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Dorothy Rabinowitz: “[T]the genuine innovation of Barack Obama’s presidency,” he summarizes, “is that it has imported much of its sense of the United States and its role in the world straight from the precincts of the post-1960s academy.” Yet the fact that Obama qualified as a product of academia, at its most elite and elitist, was hardly a hidden aspect of his resume or of his political coalition. His victory was widely celebrated as a victory for this stratum. Even during the worst periods of his presidential campaign and during the worst moments of his presidency up to today, he could always depend on a core of ardent, articulate, voluble, and relatively well-to-do supporters from those “precincts” located in and around universities and wherever so-called “intellectual laborers” labor intellectually.
The supposed origins of Obama’s worldview actually seem less important to Rabinowitz than the distance that Obamaist intellectualism creates between his administration and the people:
A great part of America now understands that this president’s sense of identification lies elsewhere, and is in profound ways unlike theirs. He is hard put to sound convincingly like the leader of the nation, because he is, at heart and by instinct, the voice mainly of his ideological class. He is the alien in the White House, a matter having nothing to do with delusions about his birthplace cherished by the demented fringe.
Considering Rabinowitz’s emphasis as the piece proceeds on the Obami’s refusal to “name the enemy,” it’s worth pausing to consider the above description in similar terms. Referring to Obama as an “alien” may even reflect a certain distance on Rabinowitz’s own part from currents of American political opinion that she sets apart and discounts as a “demented fringe.” There may be a much larger number of people who may or may not question where Barack Obama was born, but who may see the word “alien” as both appropriate and never very far from “stranger,” “illegal,” “monster,” “invader,” and “enemy” – as well as, sooner rather than later, but generally in unspoken ways, “scapegoat.” Indeed, these currents are broad enough, apparently, even to include esteemed anti-intellectualist intellectuals writing for esteemed op-ed pages.
As on the general question of intellectualism, Rabinowitz’s work on what the Obami specifically have been doing wrong tends to summarize what we already know rather than cover new ground. She remains satisfied overall with reminding us of the Obama Administration’s reluctance to acknowledge that the Islamist enemies of the United States have anything to do with Islam, then finally brings her two themes together: “The truth about that distance is now sinking in, which is all to the good. A country governed by leaders too principled to speak the name of its mortal enemy needs every infusion of reality it can get.”
What Rabinowitz fails to consider is that the Obamaist refusal even to use words like “Islamist” or “jihadist” reflects a legitimate – if not necessarily valid – strategic determination whose concept somewhat prevents the determination itself from being discussed openly. If Holder or Brennan or Napolitano or any number of our ambassadors and generals (including certain famous generals) or Obama himself could speak freely, they might be able to say something like the following:
Our goal is to isolate the most radical forces from the Islamic mainstream, and, since everything we say is heard worldwise, we are forced to use a different language than might be politically convenient domestically. The foreign audience, including people we want and need on our side, will be offended by crude use of terms like “Islamist,” and “jihadist.” The domestic audience isn’t ready to make fine distinctions. It hurts us politically and may even make us look like foolish academics, but we’ve decided to accept that trade-off. And if you think we’re wrong, just you try explaining the Islamic world to the bitter-clingers!
Even a bitter-clinger might at some length, after noting that he had accurately discerned the condescension in that approach, be moved to sympathize. Still, that there is an argument for this rhetorical strategy, for accepting certain trade-offs presuming certain definitions and objectives, is not the same thing as saying it has been correctly calculated and calibrated.
In refusing to name the enemy at all, in necessarily rough and somewhat problematic terms, the Obami have communicated the exact opposite of what they likely believe – have in effect defined the enemy as a great, all-but-unnameable, undifferentiatable mass. The upsurge in open anti-Muslim sentiment in conjunction with the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” project suggests that, deprived of a specific, clearly defined target – Islamo-fascism, radical Islamism, jihadism, Islamist extremism, etc. – people do not disengage: Instead, they switch their ideological gunfire from aimed and tightly grouped bursts at “the terrorists” to uncoordinated spraying fire in the general direction of Mecca. In the meantime, the Obami feed suspicions that they are too cowardly to speak the truth – or, even worse, are afraid to let some different truth (about whose side they’re really on) from getting out. That anyone could believe such a thing may strike an alien at the Wall Street Journal as bizarre. It might strike those of us on certain mailing lists or who frequent certain popular web sites as quite familiar, and troubling.
New acts of violence as well as new diplomatic and rhetorical challenges from those who happily and determinedly seek to associate themselves with the unmentionable words, and in the broadest way possible, may ensure that the Administration’s rhetorical strategy fails. Eventually, the rise of a popular, openly anti-Muslim movement may be inestimably more dangerous to America’s strategic aims and international posture – and also to American political life – than the friction or inconvenience of using names that others may happen to take the wrong way, or seek to exploit opportunistically.
Political action in the here and now requires partial concepts, the pounding of sometimes ill-fitting pegs into conceptual holes, alongside all kinds of cracks and splinters and painful effort. The only alternative is fatal disconnection, and a requirement for more desperate exertions later on. Clumsy ol’ W, for all his faults, had a much better strategy on this one, and the Obami should hurry to embrace it, or some more refined version of it. I strongly suspect that they will otherwise find it forced into their arms anyway – we may hope not too late.