Opinion

A New Day In U.S. Foreign Policy: Obama Embraces ‘Moderate’ Islamists

Pete Hoekstra Shillman Senior Fellow, Investigative Project on Terrorism

Soon after assuming office, President Obama began reaching out to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and — as noted by former UK ambassador Charles Crawford — his Cairo speech capped this new approach: “On June 4, 2009, Obama delivered a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in which he declared that ‘America and Islam are not exclusive.’” What this really meant, Crawford paraphrased was: “Under my restrained leadership the United States will respect and accept conservative forms of Islam. Even if Islamism gets too aggressive we don’t plan to do much about it. And we may not be too active in supporting Muslim liberal trends either. Steady as she goes. And by the way I do hope you have noticed that I am not G. W. Bush.”

This was the backdrop to American support of the “rebels” against [Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi. Though Obama waited until hundreds of U.S. diplomats and civilians had been evacuated on February 25, 2011, to impose unilateral sanctions and explicitly call for Gaddafi to step down, it is now clear that Obama’s goal from the start was that the Libyan rebellion fully succeed.

What is striking is that this required direct cooperation with a force counting among its number countless Salafi-jihadist veterans of the global Al Qaeda network, with American policymakers seemingly content to buy jihadists’ assurances that they would pursue jihad solely in their homeland, afterward laying down their arms.

In brief, for the first time, American policymakers willingly made the distinction between “good” jihadists — those entitled to the support indispensable to their fight — and “bad” jihadists, who even now were regular targets of American drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, ideologically, and in their ultimate goals (notwithstanding professions to the contrary), the “good” and “bad” jihadists were close to identical. And both the “good” and bad” were well aware, even if the Americans were not, that according to their interpretation of the Qur’an, lying to infidels in the service of the cause was not merely permissible, but in fact encouraged.

Yet in Obama’s worldview, America was engaged not in “a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather [in] … a series of persistent targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” as the president himself put it. Thus, it was essential to make a “distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

It was such thinking that led the Obama administration to seek direct talks with Mullah Omar and the Afghani Taliban in 2011 and, even more astonishing in retrospect, to reach out to the Islamic Front in Syria, the coalition of Salafi-jihadist militias that in December 2013 would metastasize into ISIS.

Although early in his presidency Obama signaled his greater acceptance of radical jihadism by siding with the Iranian regime over pro-democracy protestors during the Green Revolution, as well as with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — both in 2009 — the full extent of the transformation of American engagement with the Islamists only became fully apparent in Libya. Indeed, Libya ought to have put this policy of wishful thinking to the test — and then to an end. For in Libya, where many supposed U.S. allies made only the thinnest pretense at political moderation or at readiness to embrace democratic norms, the consequences were all too quickly apparent.

Still, even with the evidence before them, Obama’s team characteristically remained obdurate, maintaining that their approach was isolating the real foe. “Al Qaeda seeks to portray America as an enemy of the world’s Muslims,” John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, explained in June 2011, midway through the Libyan civil war. But, he said, America’s action on behalf of the “rebels” had made it “clear that the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam,” thereby eroding “the ability of Al Qaeda and its network to inspire people.” Without any precondition, jihadists were welcomed into America’s coalition for the first time.

Pete Hoekstra is the former Chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee and currently the Shillman Senior Fellow with the Investigative Project on Terrorism. This piece has been excerpted from his new book, Architects of Disaster: The Destruction of Libya, published by Calamo Press. (c) Pete Hoekstra 2015. All rights reserved.