The criticism of President Obama's speech last week at National Defense University has run the gamut from hyperbolically partisan to utter incoherence to absolutely spot on. There's no need to rehash the critiques, but there is, I think, a need to flag a significant point that's been missed about the speech's entire premise.
One of the reasons the president's speech was supposed to be big news was because it was hyped as a systemic analysis of America's entire national security posture. Indeed, the president insisted that his speech was about outlining a "comprehensive strategy (to) significantly reduce the chances of large-scale attacks on the homeland." Instead, though, he offered up the opposite of a "comprehensive strategy," providing proposals mostly designed to fight one specific threat, while largely ignoring other known threats.
If that sounds like an overstatement, read the president's words for yourself. You will find most of the speech focusing on the specific threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, but only a single passing reference to "homegrown extremists" and just three sentences about domestic, non-Muslim terrorism.
The implicit message of such a skewed speech should be obvious: Through omission, the president insinuated that a plan to fight Islamic terrorism in specific is the same thing as a comprehensive plan to fight terrorism in general. In other words, the speech seemed to be a more erudite Obama version of Islamophobes' favorite aphorism, which glibly (and wrongly) claims "not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim."
To know that saying is wildly inaccurate is to simply look at this list (about halfway down the page). Likewise, to know a plan primarily to fight Islamic terrorism is not a "comprehensive" plan to secure America is simply to behold a few data points comparing the size of different threats and, thus, putting the threat of Muslim terrorism in the context of all known threats to national security. Here are a few of those data points:
- Citing data from the New America Foundation and Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, Mother Jones reports that "Between September 11, 2001, and the end of 2012, there were no successful bomb plots by jihadist terrorists in the United States." The magazine also notes that Islamic jihadists "killed 17 people in the United States in four separate incidents during this time" while during the same time "right-wing extremists killed 29 people."
- U.S. News and World Report notes that "Of the more than 300 American deaths from political violence and mass shootings since 9/11, only 33 have come at the hands of Muslim-Americans, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security." Additionally, the magazine reports that "The Muslim-American suspects or perpetrators in these or other attempted attacks fit no demographic profile—only 51 of more than 200 are of Arabic ethnicity."
- Wired magazine reports that according to data compiled by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and National Security, since 9/11 "33 Americans have died as a result of terrorism launched by their Muslim neighbors" while "180,000 Americans were murdered for reasons unrelated to terrorism." Additionally, the magazine reports that "in just the past year, the mass shootings that have captivated America’s attention killed 66 Americans, 'twice as many fatalities as from Muslim-American terrorism in all 11 years since 9/11.'"
- Citing the Federal Bureau of Investigation's own data, ThinkProgress reports that "terrorism by Muslim Americans has only accounted for a minority of terror plots since 9/11" and that "right-wing extremist and white supremacist attacks plots alone outnumber plots by Muslims." The website LoonWatch.com used the FBI data to create this helpful pie chart comparing different kinds of terrorist plots.
So, in sum, while fundamentalist Islamic violence is a very real threat to the United States, and while such a serious threat warrants requisite attention from national security agencies, it is one of many such serious threats. Additionally, data from the last decade suggest that though fundamentalist Islamic violence is typically portrayed as the single biggest -- or only -- menace threatening Americans' physical security, it is actually a smaller threat to Americans' physical security compared to other forms of violence that have caused far more death and destruction.
The good news is that according to recent polling, a majority of Americans understand all this. Indeed, as a Fox News survey found, "Voters say homegrown terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (51 percent) pose a greater threat on U.S. soil than Islamic terrorists (26 percent)."
The bad news is that even considering that political reality, and considering the data about different threats, President Obama gave a speech implying that primarily stopping Islamic fundamentalist violence is a "comprehensive strategy" to protect America. That raises a simple question: Why?
One answer may be the president's misguided belief that he can appease the right.
President Obama no doubt remembers the overwrought conservative backlash to the Department of Homeland Security merely mentioning the threat of non-Muslim terrorism. From that, he knows that the same American right that constantly inveighs against censorship and "political correctness" often promotes a version of such censorship and "political correctness" when it implies that it's unacceptable to even talk about non-Islamic terrorism. Hence, he knows that to present a truly "comprehensive" national security plan -- one that addresses threats in proper proportion and that therefore focuses in part on non-Islamic terrorism -- would be to offend the right's speech police and consequently fuel another such backlash at a time when the conservative movement is already successfully manufacturing scandals out of Benghazi and IRS revelations.
And so maybe to avoid such a backlash and/or to try to assuage the Islamophobic right, the president simply delivered a speech echoing a conservative national security ideology that pretends Muslim terrorism is the singular threat against America.
Then again, perhaps it wasn't a deliberate political calculation at all. Perhaps, instead, the speech just showed that in the last decade, conservatives have so succeeded in making the definition of the term "terrorism" synonymous with the term "Muslim" that the president ignores nuance and simply assumes the formula is: comprehensive national security = stopping Islamic violence.
Whatever Obama's motivation, though, the big problem is that the attendant policy and focus may be as misguided as the rhetoric.
As just one example of that possibility, consider Rania Khalek's Salon report from a few months ago quoting former Department of Homeland Security officials fretting that the agency is putting a disproportionate amount of its resources into combating Islamic terrorism while ignoring many other threats. In that report, the author of the 2009 DHS report on non-Muslim terrorism "said DHS employed just one analyst to monitor all non-Islamic extremism, down from eight prior to the report’s release," all while "the department has at least two dozen personnel assigned to analyzing the threat of homegrown Islamic extremism." Another former DHS official now working in another law enforcement agency recalled a "3-to-1 ratio” of "analysts assessing Islamic extremism versus those covering non-Islamic threats."
Such a deliberate allocation of resources is obviously dangerous in how it focuses disproportionately on one threat while ignoring others. And here's the thing: that kind of misallocation is almost certainly happening in other law enforcement and national security agencies. That's because those resource allocations don't happen in a vacuum; they are instead the result of an overarching national security strategy like the one outlined in President Obama's speech.
This, of course, is the biggest consequence of allowing fact-averse ideology -- in this case, Islamophobia -- to shape national security policymaking. When that happens, America's national security strategy ends up ignoring concrete data about the totality of the threat we face. That consequently endangers the country -- at least until we get a truly "comprehensive strategy" that starts reflecting reality.