President Trump said a lot in his superb Feb. 28 speech to a joint session of Congress. One of the most important returned to a distinguishing points of his presidential campaign. Mr. Trump said, “We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”
The president’s use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism” was a significant element his campaign. It distinguished him from former President Obama who refused to use the term. It demonstrated Mr. Trump’s clarity of thought and his rejection of the politically-correct way we’ve fought the war.
Why then did Mr. Trump hire as his national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who refuses to use the term? Gen. McMaster has reportedly told the National Security Council staff that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic.” That has been his position for years. For example, in a November 2016 address to the Center for Leadership Ethics, Gen. McMaster said that Daesh [ISIS] is an example of the terrorist “enemy who cynically use a perverted interpretation of religion to incite hatred and justify horrific cruelty against innocents.”
Those words demonstrate Gen. McMaster’s belief that the terrorist ideology isn’t connected to Islam. That belief was held and often voiced by Mr. Obama. Mr. Obama repeatedly professed that belief to explain the rationale for his politically-correct way of warfare. As two non-Muslim experts on Koranic law told me, the Obama-McMaster interpretation of Islamic scripture is plainly wrong.
Muslims believe that the Koran is literally the words of God revealed to their prophet, Mohammed, in a series of visions. The Koran’s revelations, Islam says, happened first in the city of Mecca and then in Medina.
The Meccan verses of the Koran present relatively peaceful laws and regulations governing Muslim life. The Medinan Koran, however, imposes on all Muslims the duty of holy war. It says that all non-believers shall either be slain or ruled over by Muslims. This is the religiously-based ideology terrorists cite as justification for their actions.
The conflict between the two parts of the Koran gives rise to the theory of abrogation. One school of Islamic thought believes that the Medinan Koran effectively repeals inconsistencies in the Meccan Koran. The other principal school of Islamic scholarship says that because the deity is infallible both the Mecca verses of Koran and the Medina verses are equally valid and that nothing is really abrogated.
According to one non-Muslim expert on Islam, some modern scholars say the Koran cannot be abrogated but, he said, this is not the classic view. He pointed me to Koranic Surah 2:106 which, in various interpretations, says that nothing is abrogated. But he also referred to the 15th-century Islamic scholar As-Suyti who wrote that there are 21 abrogated revelations in the Koran. As-Suyti also wrote that there is no general agreement on how many or which passages are abrogated.
If the abrogation theory is correct, the terrorists are not only faithful to Islam, they are its most faithful adherents. If the non-abrogation view is correct, then the terrorists have an equal claim to their faith as the majority of Muslims who aren’t terrorists.
In either case, Gen. McMaster’s view is comprehensively wrong and entirely inconsistent with the president’s stated desire to defeat the terrorist ideology.
In August 2016 Mr. Trump said, “Just as we won the Cold War in part by exposing the evils of communism and the virtues of free markets, so too must we take on the ideology of radical Islam. Military, cyber and financial warfare will all be necessary to dismantle Islamic terrorism. But we must use ideological warfare as well.”
That statement was probably the work of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In his book “Field of Fight,” Gen. Flynn prescribed four steps essential to defeating radical Islamists and their allies. The first two were: to destroy the jihadi armies, killing and capturing their leaders; and “discrediting their ideology, which requires a serious program all its own.” That is precisely right.
In 2006, Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that the war the terrorists wage against us is both a kinetic war and an ideological war. To paraphrase what Pace said, what we say and what we write is as important as how well we shoot. In short, there are two halves of the war which must both be won to defeat this enemy.
Gen. Pace understood that unless and until we defeat the radical Islamist ideology, no matter how many terrorists we kill more will arise. Gen. McMaster evidently rejects the idea. Neither President Bush nor President Obama was willing to do so. When Gen. Flynn was National Security Advisor, he was able to convince Mr. Trump of the necessity of fighting the ideological war. Gen. McMaster will advise against it.
We aren’t winning the war against the terrorist networks and the nations that sponsor them because of the politically-correct limits placed on our armed forces and because we haven’t begun to fight the ideological war.
Mr. Trump is in the unenviable position of either overruling his National Security Advisor or failing to win the war.
• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”