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Marie Harf: My ISIS Remarks Were Just 'Too Nuanced' For You Little People

Deputy State Department spokesperson Marie Harf is kind of having a rough week.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, she said the United States couldn’t win this war against ISIS by killing them, which set off a firestorm of criticism and mockery in the conservative blogosphere (via Mediaite) [emphasis mine]:


“We’re killing a lot of them, and we’re going to keep killing more of them. So are the Egyptians, so are the Jordanians — they’re in this fight with us,” Harf said. “But we cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s a lack of opportunity for jobs.”

“We’re not going to be able to stop that in our lifetime or 50 lifetimes,” Matthews interrupted. “There’s always going to be poor people. There’s always going to be poor Muslims, and as long as there are poor Muslims, the trumpet’s blowing and they’ll join. We can’t stop that, can we?”

In return, Harf suggested a soft power-like approach: “We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance,” she said. “We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.” She conceded, however, that there is “no easy solution.”

As many of you already know, poverty doesn’t cause terrorism. Some of the most infamous terrorists–and leaders of such organizations–are well educated and wealthy. Why? They have the time to elaborate, plan, and disseminate their extreme messages. The poor only have one thing on their minds: survival. They have absolutely no time to think about global jihad.

Even the left-leaning Nation magazine admits that poverty doesn’t cause terrorism. Princeton economist Alan Krueger said it’s the lack of civil liberties that breeds such extremism:


"There is no evidence of a general tendency for impoverished or uneducated people to be more likely to support terrorism or join terrorist organizations than their higher-income, better-educated countrymen," he said. The Sept. 11 attackers were relatively well-off men from a rich country, Saudi Arabia.

He [Kreuger] began poking around this sordid subject a decade ago when he and a colleague found little connection between economic circumstances and the incidence of violent hate crimes in Germany. Among the statistical pieces of the puzzle a small band of academics have assembled since are these:

  • Backgrounds of 148 Palestinian suicide bombers show they were less likely to come from families living in poverty and were more likely to have finished high school than the general population. Biographies of 129 Hezbollah shahids (martyrs) reveal they, too, are less likely to be from poor families than the Lebanese population from which they come. The same goes for available data about an Israeli terrorist organization, Gush Emunim, active in the 1980s.
  • Terrorism doesn't increase in the Middle East when economic conditions worsen; indeed, there seems no link. One study finds the number of terrorist incidents is actually higher in countries that spend more on social-welfare programs. Slicing and dicing data finds no discernible pattern that countries that are poorer or more illiterate produce more terrorists. Examining 781 terrorist events classified by the U.S. State Department as "significant" reveals terrorists tend to come from countries distinguished by political oppression, not poverty or inequality.
  • Public-opinion polls from Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey find people with more education are more likely to say suicide attacks against Westerners in Iraq are justified. Polls of Palestinians find no clear difference in support for terrorism as a means to achieve political ends between the most and least educated.

Nevertheless, in the wake of these statements, Harf doubled down on them with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, saying they were “too nuanced” for her detractors to understand. Oh, and George W. Bush also said poverty was a catalyst for extremism. He did; and he was wrong too.

As Noah Rothman wrote over at Hot Air, the poverty = terrorism hypothesis is a liberal fantasy:

Many on the left seem, consciously or otherwise, married to the notion that you can win a war by airdropping bales of money over hostile targets. It’s a lovely fantasy, and there is nothing “nuanced” about it. In fact, it’s a rather unsophisticated concept. Those who think that an enemy needs to be defeated before they can be converted are not missing Harf’s infinitely complex point. That she would flatter herself into believing that she had spoken over the nation’s heads reflects the hubris that explains her insultingly naïve belief that this abhorrent ideology can only be defeated by an army of career counselors.

At the same time Harf and her superior, Jen Psaki, are the voices to an administration that holds an egregiously unserious foreign policy.  As Katie wrote, Obama thinks that Islamic extremists have "legitimate grievances," and that governments who deny human rights only fan the flames of Islamic extremism.  Sounds like Kreuger's hypothesis until you read Graeme Wood's excellent piece about ISIS in the Atlantic, where the grievances are anything but legitimate.     

To add to the mental detachment, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder said that we're not at war with ISIS, which the Daily Beast's Tim Mak noted was kind of an odd statement.


"This isn’t the first time an Obama administration official has tried to argue that the war against ISIS is not, in fact, a war," he wrote.

"Last September, Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS, 'If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with [ISIS], they can do so, but the fact is that it’s a major counterterrorism operation.' The remarks were quickly walked back."

As the data shows, finding members of ISIS and al-Qaeda a job isn’t going to halt global terrorism. It’s a repudiated hypothesis. That point isn’t nuanced at all.  Harf was offered a "mulligan" on Morning Joe–she declined.

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