Cliff May

‘Humans are great at self-delusion,” the polymathic philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb has observed. I’m confident he’d agree that the humans who populate the foreign-policy community are no exception.

Two years ago this month, Osama bin Laden was killed on President Obama’s orders — a very good thing. Before long, however, sophisticated analysts were declaring that this was not just a battle won — it was a war ended.

If bin Laden was dead, they asserted, rigor mortis also must have set in at al-Qaeda. Nor could any serious threat continue to be posed by the supremacist, totalitarian ideology that al-Qaeda was created to advance — not to mention the closely related ideology that Iran’s rulers champion. And when I say “not to mention,” I’m speaking literally: Both the Obama administration and the Bush administration before it have assiduously avoided accurately naming such ideologies — e.g. jihadism, Islamism, or political Islam. Instead, “violent extremism” has been the preferred euphemism, based on the peculiar belief that any reference to Islam, however attenuated, would offend and perhaps radicalize Muslims around the world.

Among those most prominently writing and lecturing on al-Qaeda’s “defeat” were retired lieutenant colonel Thomas Lynch, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University, and Peter Bergen, a director of the New America Foundation, a CNN national-security analyst, and the producer of the first television interview with Osama bin Laden, which aired in 1997.

“I’ve devoted 20 years of my life to [this problem],” Bergen said during a debate the New America Foundation co-sponsored with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the think tank I run. “I feel like a Sovietologist in 1989, and that’s a good feeling.”

I’m recounting this not to disparage Bergen, Lynch, and other smart people whose bold analyses turned out — unfortunately — to be incorrect. What I do want to emphasize is that ideas matter: Give a broken compass to a man in the jungle and chances are he’ll end up lost, if not in the jaws of a crocodile.

Which brings me to Benghazi and the murders of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on September 11, 2012. Much of the commentary has focused on the State Department’s characterization of the attack as “a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet” by an individual seeking to “denigrate the religious beliefs of others” — specifically, a video made by an Egyptian Christian in California lamely lampooning Islam.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.