Major media outlets are having a field day attacking Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump. His offense has been naming “radical Islam” as the enemy. For example, The New York Times carried an op-ed on Feb. 24 by Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, both former Obama foreign policy officials, titled “The Islamophobic Huckster in the White House.” It was peppered with inaccuracies. This I know from having first met Mr. Gorka in Budapest some 15 years ago and from having lectured with him a number of times in both military and civilian venues since then.
Contrary to the op-ed, he does not say that Islam is the enemy, but Islamism, or that the current conflict is “a historic clash of civilizations,” a thesis I have heard him rebut in front of a large Muslim audience. As a sign of desperation, others have stooped to the level of reductio ad Hitlerum, suggesting that Mr. Gorka is an anti-Semite for his former political associations in his native Hungry. If this charge were not so noxious, it would be amusing since he is unabashedly pro-Israel.
How is one to understand the hysteria surrounding this issue? It reminds me of another era in which I was a participant as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. In the early Reagan years, anyone who spoke of the Soviet Union in the same manner as the president was considered a dangerous person. Recall that in 1983 Mr. Reagan named the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” He said it was an error to consider the conflict “a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” The press and people in academe generally reacted with horror at this crazy cowboy. If you named America’s enemy, you became the enemy.
How could this have been? One can only comprehend it from the perspective offered by Sen. J. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who told his colleagues in 1963 that we “must learn to overcome our emotional prejudices against Russia” so that the Communists will gradually learn to trust us. He said, “I refuse to admit that the Communist dogma per se is a threat to the United States.” This sort of willful blindness, then or now, explains a widely-shared resistance to doing anything serious. The modus operandi is the same: simply deny the problem, or pretend it exists because of a lack of trust. We need only to change ourselves — so our enemies can trust us — for the problem to go away.
Those who disputed this view were considered “outside the mainstream” of Western scholarship on the Soviet Union, just as Mr. Gorka is considered outside the mainstream on terrorism today, according to Messrs. Simon and Benjamin. But the scholarship was massively wrong about the Soviet Union, and Ronald Reagan was right. What ended up on the ash heap of history along with Communism was the vast majority of Soviet studies, all peer-reviewed, that are now worth reading only for the intellectual pathology they reveal.
President Obama and his former administration officials are the William Fulbrights of today, arguing that we need not change our opponent’s thinking, but rather our own. The best way to do this is to refuse even to name the enemy. Did Messrs. Simon and Benjamin speak up when Mr. Obama, in Orwellian fashion, expunged any mention of Islamism or radical Islam from the government vocabulary? You cannot go into a war of ideas (or a kinetic war) without understanding the ideas you are at war with. Yet, throughout his eight years in office, Mr. Obama never mentioned the substance of the enemy’s ideas once. At first, I wondered if he was cleverly employing the ancient Greek rhetorical technique of paralepsis — emphasizing something by ignoring it. In other words, if there is an elephant in the room and you want to call everyone’s attention to it, don’t mention it. In Mr. Obama’s case, however, it soon became apparent that he chose not to see the elephant at all.
Continuing to foster the Obama fantasy that Muslims actually care what non-Muslims think is legitimate or illegitimate in Islam, Messrs. Simon and Benjamin say that “declaring a religious war now would only validate the jihadist narrative ” Yet most Muslims know they are fighting an internal “religious” enemy and employ the very vocabulary to describe it, like “jihadi” or “Islamist,” that Mr. Obama refused to use. By deflecting attention away from the Islamist ideology, Mr. Obama and his erstwhile policy experts actually lent legitimacy to the “grievance” theory that the terrorists are reacting to a lack of opportunity in their lives which somehow must be corrected in order to delegitimize their cause. Consistent with the confusion of his Fulbright-like views, Mr. Obama actually went on to embrace politically the Muslim Brotherhood, the original source of the enemy narrative in the first place.
President Trump and Mr. Gorka see the elephant in the room. Naming the enemy and its ideology may not be popular with the “mainstream,” but it is actually helpful to those in the Muslim world who hold to values much more in line with our own. With their help and by helping them, we can, as Mr. Gorka has said, “make the black flag of jihad as repugnant around the world as the black, white and red swastika flag of the Third Reich.”
• Robert R. Reilly was special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is the author of “The Closing of the Muslim Mind” (Intercollegiate Studies Institute).