Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

In Nairobi mall, a layered ‘clash of civilizations’

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 25, 2013 20:06 UTC

What can we make of the terrible events in Nairobi, where innocent shopping trips turned into a bloodbath? It is usual to think of such horrors as acts of senseless killing. For every civilized person, the slaughter is inexcusable and incomprehensible. But in this case, as in so many others, it is not inexplicable.

The notion of a “clash of civilizations” has gained widespread currency since the September 11 al Qaeda attacks, particularly in the United States, where the idea has not only been used to explain why many young Muslims hate the West but to encourage a general fear and suspicion of all Muslims.

Islamists set out to violently counter the perceived decadence of Western capitalism. Those who use such intolerance to promulgate hatred against Muslims in general do not do justice to the subtlety of the arguments on the “clash of civilizations” made by Bernard Lewis, the Princeton professor who requisitioned the phrase for modern use, and the late Samuel P. Huntington, the Harvard and Columbia academic who came to similar conclusions.

In Nairobi, Islamists from lawless, pirate-ridden Somalia have been waging war against their Kenyan neighbors, who have been fiercely fighting back. According to the Kenyans, the Islamists are almost defeated and the Nairobi shopping mall massacre was their last desperate attempt to turn the tide.

Certainly the Islamist killers achieved the one aim they prize above all: They have drawn attention to their cause. How many had heard of Osama bin Laden until he brought down the Twin Towers? The Nairobi slaughter, like the 9/11 attacks, was a propaganda coup. The fact the terrorists targeted a Western-style shopping mall, patronized by prominent, prosperous Kenyans — President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nephew and his fiancée were among the at least 67 people who were killed — suggests the terrorists were protesting against commerce and symbols of the West.

Government shutdown threat means it’s high noon for Obama

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 20, 2013 14:44 UTC

As the nation heads towards a government shutdown and defaulting on its debts, the two battling sides cannot even agree which election they are fighting. Republican presidential hopefuls are jostling for position ahead of the 2016 primaries while President Obama has his eyes on the midterms next year. Both sides insist they will not compromise; yet both sides cannot win.

The president’s blink over Syria has encouraged the GOP. His failure to act resolutely and stand by his promise to punish Bashar al-Assad for gassing his own people suggests that when he declared over the debt ceiling, “I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations. I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States,” he may have been bluffing, just like when he said about Syria, “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

The Republicans who hope to launch their presidential bids by tapping into the energy of the Tea Party, currently obsessing about killing the Affordable Care Act by defunding it, are prepared to call the president’s bluff. For Senator Marco Rubio, whose reputation among Tea Partiers was dimmed by his attempts to broker immigration reform, the debt ceiling showdown at the end of the month is the perfect way to strangle Obamacare before it comes into full force. “I’m in favor of funding the government at the levels that were agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act and not spending a single penny more of hardworking taxpayer dollars on a disaster, which is Obamacare,” he said.

On Syria, Obama shouldn’t text while he’s driving

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 17, 2013 15:50 UTC

The confusion surrounding the American response to the Syrian government gassing its own people has shocked foreign policy wonks. Here is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, after the president threw the problem to Congress, then, facing defeat, handed negotiations with Bashar al-Assad to his nemesis Vladimir Putin: “The President has essentially allowed the red line in Syria to be somewhat ignored.” And here is Haass’s final verdict on the president’s dillydallying: “Words like ‘ad-hoc,’ ‘improvised,’ ‘unsteady’ come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”

There is little sign the president has yet grasped the cost of contradicting all his top foreign policy advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were each asked for advice, then ignored. Obama appears oblivious to the fact that his fumbling over Syria has severely diminished his authority, even among close colleagues and his own party. He is under the impression that marching to the top of Capitol Hill and marching down again and backward flipping on decisive action against a despotic perpetrator of dastardly mass murder is simply a matter of “style.”

He seems to think his real enemies are not Assad, Putin, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top mullah, and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean tyrant, but “folks here in Washington.” “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear [the 'folks in Washington’] would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy,” he told George Stephanopoulos.

The isolationists’ dilemma

Nicholas Wapshott
Sep 5, 2013 15:33 UTC

There has been a lot of loose talk about the return of isolationism since President Obama asked Congress for permission to degrade Bashar al-Assad’s ability to gas his people. Isolationism hasn’t been a respectable thread of political thinking in America since the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made redundant the clamor to keep America out of World War Two.

The isolationists grounded their belief that America had no business interfering in other countries’ affairs in Washington and Jefferson’s warnings not to become entangled in foreign alliances. They scuppered Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to get the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. And they came to full blossom in 1938-1941, when their hope that the distance from Europe and West Asia could keep America out of Hitler’s war led Charles Lindbergh, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy, and others to make excuses for Nazism. Little wonder that in the last seventy years few have wanted to be thought of as isolationist.

Isolationism was always a combination of ideas. Around its central core — that America was too far away to be attacked and that we enjoy a self-sustaining economy that could, if necessary, prosper without foreign trade — was also an intense dislike of government, a belief that the profiteering defense industry was driving American foreign policy, and a detestation of Wall Street (which often disguised a rich seam of anti-Semitism that even in the Thirties was politically toxic) and the Federal Reserve.

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