Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | September 9, 2010

Korans in Flames: Why the “Petraeus Argument” is the Wrong One (UPDATED)

I have stayed away, myself, from General Petraeus’ point about the Dove World Outreach Center’s plan to burn Korans on 9/11, because I don’t regard it as the decisive argument.  Petraeus’ concern is that burning Korans will result in greater danger to US troops in Afghanistan, as Muslims there retaliate.  (Presumably General Mattis, the CENTCOM commander, has a similar concern about all our troops in the AOR, including Iraq, Kuwait, etc.)

Allahpundit at Hot Air has pointed out some problems with this argument already.  I largely agree with his points. Now President Obama himself has come out with the Petraeus argument, and it’s time to take it on.  Obama really does have a tin ear, and absolutely no sense of what’s appropriate for our head of state to be saying in public.

My take on this is basically a different aspect of the main point Allahpundit has made.  The thing about provoking people is that it must always be a secondary concern.  It should never be the deciding factor.  There are many times, in the life of an individual or nation, when things have to be done that are guaranteed to provoke someone.  Whether they should be done or not depends on necessity, utility, effectiveness – on suitability for achieving the objective and on the importance of the objective.

If the driving factor were how provocative something is likely to be, we’d never even defend ourselves.  Defending yourself, after all, provokes the attacker.  Carry the Petraeus argument to its logical conclusion, and we in the USA (in fact, in the entire West) should either commit mass suicide or all convert to Islam, because our very existence in our current state is a provocation to Islamist radicals and Muslim rent-a-mobs, and therefore constantly endangers the lives of our troops.

I think Petraeus would agree that if we need to do something to achieve our own objectives, we do it, even if it will provoke a backlash in the Muslim world (or, for that matter, from policy opponents at home and their useful-idiot BFFs abroad).  He also has the obligation, given the post he occupies, to point out when there’s likely to be a backlash.  That’s in his job description; I don’t fault him for making the point.

But I do fault the president for taking the easy way out and simply reiterating it.  Commander-in-chief is only one of the hats he wears.  He, of all Americans, should take the top-level view of this issue, as one involving civil rights, the moral tone of our society, and pragmatic calculations about military operations.

By simply restating Petraeus’ concern, Obama comes off as weak, defensive, and narrow of vision.  The highest and most important factor in all of this, for the American president, is that freedom of expression is not just for those who do everything right.  And if defending it provokes someone, well:  too bad.  It’s the freedom that matters most.  Here is what Obama should have said:

“George, I disagree profoundly with the purpose of this stunt, and I understand why many Muslims would find it offensive, including our fellow Americans who are Muslims.  In America, we all have the right to freedom of thought and expression, and as the president of this great people I affirm that right, even in this case.  I also want to tell the many Muslims of goodwill, both here and around the world, that it’s not an expression of American intention or American policy.  I know I have the great majority of the American people with me on that.  And I expect our Muslim partners will understand that.

“As a Christian myself, I can tell you that I don’t regard this as a Christian act.  I’m heartened that so many Christian and Jewish leaders in America have spoken out against it.  I stand with them in condemning the wrong thinking behind it.

“And yes, General Petraeus has expressed concern about the safety of our troops if there’s a backlash after this stunt.  It’s his job to advise me of concerns like that, and I always consider his input very carefully.  He knows, of course, as you do, that one of the freedoms he has spent a whole career fighting to preserve is the one these people in Florida plan to exercise on 9/11.

“I call on the congregation in Florida to rethink their plan, because it achieves nothing, to inflict meaningless destruction on what others hold dear.  They have the right to listen to my request or not.  But I will tell you this:  American troops will be prepared for whatever happens.  They will be undeterred.  They have a job to do, and that job is very important to America and our allies, and this isn’t going to stop them.  We will take action as we must to keep our operations on track.  I know General Petraeus agrees with me on that.”

Cross-posted at Hot Air.

UPDATE:  Terry Jones, the pastor of the Dove Outreach Center, has now announced that he’s not going to burn the Koran because he’s been promised the Park 51 mosque will be moved.  There are layers of wrongness here — Jones never presented his plan as a method of persuading Imam Rauf to move the mosque, and Rauf should certainly not move the mosque for such a reason — but it begins to be clear that Jones is in way over his head here.

At this point, I feel that some doggerel from Sully is our best option.



  1. Good post; but you don’t go far enough. It is simply impossible to guarantee that all of our citizens will forswear all actions likely to provoke backlash by those as touchy as this whole conversation assumes a large percentage of those who walk “the Muslim street” are.

    If Koran burning by a few wackos can set off the muslim street to the extent warned of by General Petraeus we need to reassess our ability to create and sustain acceptable governments in Muslim majority lands. And we need to urgently reassess our policies re visas, immigration, etc.

    • ‘And we need to urgently reassess our policies re visas, immigration, etc.”


      • We’ve been over this many times. We owe visas and naturalization to no one. Importing people who’s education and productive potential are less than the average of our current population is foolish. Importing people who believe their god commands them to kill, convert or subject us to Dhimmi status is complete madness.

  2. Spengler, over at First Things, has some interesting thoughts as well:

    • That Spengler thing was very interesting, adam. Thanks for linking it.

  3. Seems to me that Obama, did voice the backlash as a secondary concern, opticon.
    Having it come after the part about religious freedom and tolerance and in a sentence beginning with “And” sure makes it sound secondary, eh.


    “If he’s listening, I just hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values of Americans. That this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance. And as a very practical matter, as commander of chief of the Armed Forces of the United States I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform …”

    • On the subject of endangering our young men and women in uniform I’m quite willing to accept President Obama’s opinion. The man’s a proven expert.

  4. Spengler’s article went too far for me, frankly. If I were the president, I’d tell Bob Gates to tell Dave Petraeus to keep such concerns within channels next time, and let ME decide how much of his concern is communicated to the public. But this was hardly a breach to go to GQ over, and Petraeus was 100% in his lane — doing his job as he should do it — to raise the concern.

    Although I appreciate fuster making his argument about Obama’s comments, I can’t ultimately agree with it. All atta-boys related to Obama’s affirmation of free speech were wiped out by the one aw-s*** of doubling down on the Petraeus objection. O didn’t just reiterate it, he embellished it, giving it a rhetorical emphasis that was clearly designed to heighten its significance.

    My point stands, as far as I’m concerned. What Obama SHOULD have said is that any backlash will be dealt with, not cowered before. Our troops will get their job done.

  5. Where exactly was the part where Obama or Petraeus mentioned that we were cowering?
    What I heard was dumb and ugly stuff like Koran burning makes for more anger and fighting and is a great propaganda point for people saying that our war is against Islam itself, rather than radical groups using Islam as a front.

    Show me.

    • One does not need to announce that he’s cowering to be cowering, fuster. The premise that O or P would only be proposing to cower if he used the word “cower” is invalid.

      That said, “cowering” is a shorthand characterization with a set of assumptions behind it. You clearly disagree with the assumptions. That’s understood.

      • No, opticon. It’s not that I’m disagreeing with the assumptions.

        It’s that you’re leaving them unstated. I assume that you’re doing that because you can’t state them and defend them because they’re based on …. nothing.

  6. Move along folks. The President, The Secretary of Defense and a four star general officer have succeeded in intimidating that loony pastor with the thirty congregants. No word on whether he was paid off or showed a picture of that Dutch guy who irritated religion of peace adherents and informed that his home address, make and model of car and daily locations would be published and the local police would be directed to come slow in the event of a call.

    I liked the fact that President Obama couched his intimidation as a defense of religious freedom.

    • That was fifty congregants, Sully. Whole different ball of wax.

  7. What is interesting is that it wasn’t enough for all the bigwigs to say that burning Korans is wrong and obnoxious, that Terry Jones is a wacko, etc.–everyone was clearly desperate to actually make sure it didn’t happen. We need to translate this back into a message to the “Muslim world”: we give you no credit for being able to distinguish between the actions of a very few people and the practices of a great nation–that is, we assume you are stupid or crazy; or, even worse, we accept your claim that the Koran is sacred, and that all harm to it must be prevented. Either way, Spengler’s question is the right one: where does it end?

    For what it’s worth, I now think we should withdraw all troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. If if such minor and pathetic anti-Muslim expressions endangers our troops so much, then the increase in anti-Muslim expression such incidents are sure to cause (does no one consider that there might be an “American street” outraged by insults?) will make their situation intolerable. Let’s get out before we are passing laws forbidding “Islamophobia” in the name of supporting the troops.

    • To be honest, though, we must acknowledge that these attitudes were put in place under Bush.

  8. The problem is embodied by the choice of mediator;

    • Good catch, narciso. I thought that might be the same guy, but hadn’t been able to check it out today. Thanks for that link. This whole thing is so “out there,” it’s kind of hard to believe. Charlie Crist used to just be a garden-variety not-the-worst-RINO-in-the-world, but he’s gone round the bend in the last 18 months.

  9. adam, you have a point about the basis for this unedifying spectacle being laid in the Bush administration. I don’t quite agree that the selfsame attitudes were put in place then — I think it’s more a case of Obama choosing to take a less categorical, more ambiguous attitude down the wrong path from a fork in the road.

    I don’t dismiss the genuine political difficulty all this represents for a liberal-democratic polity. As GB implies at the original post, the conclusion that Islam doesn’t self-police, when it comes to the incompatible eruptions of IslamISM, is inevitable — and it means that insisting on treating Islam as a religion, with the same status as Christianity or Judaism, leaves the West without the right tools to deal with its violent manifestations.

    There’s a real sense in which we’re asking our political order to deal with something neither government nor politics can fix. They have to have a role, if only because some form of self-defense is necessary for our people. But Islam not agreeing to adapt to Western liberalism is too big for either law or force of arms to take on.

    We want Muslims to be persuaded to accommodate and integrate with the non-Islamic world. There is no solution in killing or trying to subjugate them all. Either prospect is hideous, and completely antithetical to our Judeo-Christian moral beliefs.

    I’ve said for several years now that this is a harder problem than Communism, because it involves something even more basic. It was relatively easy for people under Communism to conceive of a meaningful life without it. Communism is inherently alienating because it dismisses the idea of God, and posits a whole set of unnatural concepts that quite obviously are dissonant with the human heart and psyche.

    But Islam is a way of life that resonates with the need for transcendence, fraternity, belonging, and order. It zeroes in on the intrinsic human longing for honor and vengeance. It has a lot of appeal — unlike Communism — for human aspirations that are inherent with our nature.

    What vehicles does a society have to approach this and persuade Islam to change? I think appeal on an individual level is the most productive path. Dealing with Muslims, and showing them over time that adapting to our tolerant ways is a soft place to land, AND offers a bright future, seems to me to be the most useful approach. (Naturally, as a Christian, I believe faith outreach is important, but again, on an individual level and on a quiescent basis — NOT as a tool of state policy.) Our president can be one of us who does the individual dealing with Muslims, but he cannot, in his capacity as president, do it FOR us.

    What he should do, however, at a minimum, is defend our way of life. Publicly worrying that our freedom of expression and democratic domestic disputes will act as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda is the opposite of defending our way of life. It’s showing fear about our way of life. Imam Rauf jumped right on that theme after Petraeus made his statement, and issued what frankly can only be taken as a threat.

    I honestly don’t think he would have made the threat about exploding anger in the Muslim world back when Bush was in office, even though, as you point out, the Bush administration was off-base on this in some ways as well. I’ve been thinking about this all day, and I’m not sure Petraeus would have made HIS statement to the media, when Bush was in office. I think the senior commanders in CENTCOM had a comfort level that the boss was engaged and “in charge” then that they don’t have now. The indiscipline of the McChrystal staff, as recorded in the Rolling Stone interview, was a Leadership 101 red flag in that regard.

    Be that as it may, Obama is the one person in all this who could and should have corrected the thematic course that’s emerging. None of this should be “about” whether Muslims are going to be mad at us. In my view, Obama could make a lot of our luck for us by predicting a mature reaction from Muslim leaders around the world, rather than, as you say, simply assuming that the Muslim mob is uncontrollable.

    But he’s not the man for that job. That’s profoundly regrettable, since it’s the job we need done. Anyone can take the banal position that Muslims are going to get mad, and that is REALLY inconvenient. But that’s not leadership. Leadership is upholding the right principle at the right time, and prioritizing factional anger no higher than it merits.

    • I agree with your analysis of Islam and us, and want to zero in on this, which I think gets to the heart of things:

      “What vehicles does a society have to approach this and persuade Islam to change? I think appeal on an individual level is the most productive path. Dealing with Muslims, and showing them over time that adapting to our tolerant ways is a soft place to land, AND offers a bright future, seems to me to be the most useful approach. (Naturally, as a Christian, I believe faith outreach is important, but again, on an individual level and on a quiescent basis — NOT as a tool of state policy.) Our president can be one of us who does the individual dealing with Muslims, but he cannot, in his capacity as president, do it FOR us.

      What he should do, however, at a minimum, is defend our way of life. ..”

      My response to this is that the implication here is that Islam must be made part of the global marketplace of competing religions. I will focus on just one, enormous consequence, and something the government can do: Christians must be free to prosletyze among Muslims, including in majority Muslim countries: this may be unrealistic now, but a serious diplomacy would focus incessantly on insisting upon the rights of both foreign missionaries and local Chirstians and (especially) converts in those countries. It’s hard to imagine a policy that would lead to more outrage, threats and violence by Muslims; at the same time it would be a simple defense of our most cherished principles (who could really argue against it on other than slimy “pragmatic” grounds?)–but it would require a kind of courage and faith in our way of life that American political figures have not displayed for a long time. I’m not sure we could have expected it from Reagan.

      • And, of course, where Bush left the door open a crack, Obama has knocked it off its hinges.

      • But that is once again attacking the basic tenets of the faith. To leave Islam is to be guilty of apostasy – which is punishable by death.

        I believe GB’s closing comment on the original post is telling, and key. History suggests the only way to fix this will be by force, for I do not believe we have the strength to resist the slow creep of sharia compliant practices which are in full swing in Europe and are also popping up here. Saying no is not a noted strenght of western society. At some point we will need to declare that Islam in its current manifestation is not compatible with constitutional governance, and while we have no intent to outlaw the faith, there will be no accommodation of it in the public square until such time as it can say there is a place for the state, and that Islam is not the state nor ever will be. Kind of a “render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s” moment.

        Absent that, we will be forced to show that the words in the Koran are not the absolute words from God, which means a willful demonstration that this is so. The most drastic measures would be the destruction of say Mecca. That of course will create a real backlash – not just a little book burning/mosque dispute. I have a hard time seeing us doing such a thing, but increasingly I see no alternative unless we can persuade a school of Islamic thought that will publicly denounce Mohammed’s later text and embrace the earlier more accommodating ones. Which do you feel is more absurd?

  10. Well there’s two things wrong with this, one burning a book pertaining to a religion, is just indefensible,
    The other is you see how the justifiable anger we feel against certain factions of Islam, which manifest
    themselves in opposition to like minded mosques
    and the solemn commemoration of that dark day
    has been commandeered for an exercise in victimology and condescenscion

  11. “No, opticon. It’s not that I’m disagreeing with the assumptions.

    “It’s that you’re leaving them unstated. I assume that you’re doing that because you can’t state them and defend them because they’re based on …. nothing.”

    Read the posts again, fuster. If something’s not clear, please specify what it is.

    • It’s quite cloudy, opticon. You decide that Obama’s primary concern is something other than what he said is his primary concern and simply load your terminology.
      What’s clear about that?

      “Carry the Petraeus argument to its logical conclusion…”

      This is another bunch of wrongheadedness. There’s nothing logical about taking a comment that says showing contempt for an entire religion is going to make people of that religion think that we’re showing contempt for their religion, which is a point that the radicals use to recruit, and saying that if we don’t show contempt it’s because we’re so afraid that we will fail to defend ourselves.

      That whole paragraph seems confused. Why don’t YOU reread it. Try to recast it without the exaggerations and without the attempt to confuse gratuitous abuse with a failure to defend ourselves.

      • “… saying that if we don’t show contempt it’s because we’re so afraid that we will fail to defend ourselves.”

        I’ve never said anything remotely like that. I have, to the contrary, been very clear that I think it’s wrong to show contempt by burning the Koran. I don’t think the pastor should burn the Koran. It’s the first thing I said and I haven’t changed my position on that at all.

        What I have said is that the fear of Muslim anger isn’t the reason not to do it. The reason not to do it is that it’s wrong. Muslims are just as likely to get angry when we do some of the things that are RIGHT, and we can’t be stopped from doing what’s right by a principle of being deterred by their anger. We should do what’s right, and not do what’s wrong.

        In this particular case, Jones & Co have the right to do something that almost everyone agrees is wrong. I still hope they don’t do it, because it IS wrong. But that’s the case that should be argued — not that Muslims will explode in anger and become terrorists if the Dove crew do their worst.

  12. The Associated Press reports the FBI has visited the loony Florida pastor twice. And they quote a spokesman for the town saying it plans to charge him and his church for the cost of police overtime. Also, he says he’s received over a hundred death threats.

    In Pakistan, the AP reported, “. . . about 200 lawyers and civil society members marched and burned a U.S. flag in the central Pakistani city of Multan, demanding that Washington halt the burning of the Muslim holy book.”

    I wonder if the Pakistani lawyers marched under the banner “Moderate Muslims for Religious Understanding.”

    I also wonder if President Obama is hoping someone will rid him of the troublesome priest.

  13. 200 lawyers and civil society members, eh? I’m actually laughing out loud at the analogous image of 200 American lawyers and “civil society members” (who? the Rotary Club?) marching and burning — what? What would anyone even want to burn? Maybe the text of the PelosiCare bill, but I think they’d be giggling too hard and high-fiving each other too much for it to look very ominous.

  14. I’ve never said anything remotely like that.

    That’s the emotion, fear, that you’re attributing to Obama and Petraeus.

    When you attempt to elevate Obama’s secondary point to his primary motivation…..”fear of Muslim anger” as you’ve just reiterated, you’re going off without basis.

    We started off with my agreement with your statement that’s it’s not right or good to burn the Koran.

    Obama agrees with that statement and ADDS Petraeus’ assessment that it’s nothing but more trouble.
    WHERE do you get that fear is Obama primary reason?

    Pull it out of your back pocket?

    • You’re welcome to parse the argument differently, fuster, but not to attribute to me the argument made on your terms.

      You are the one saying I said Obama made fear of Muslim backlash his “primary reason.” I haven’t said that.

      What I am saying is that (a) he shouldn’t have made it part of his argument at all, and (b) he gave it importance by not only doing so but elaborating on Petraeus’ original point.

      He just did it again in his press conference this morning, about 10 minutes ago. This time, he didn’t start out by affirming American civil rights.

      • In your post you repeatedly say that Obama is wrong and that fear of backlash is and must be a secondary concern, opticon.

        Is there any other way to interpret that other than you’re trying to attribute too Obama fear as his primary motivation.

        Instead of telling me I’m not sharing your assumptions or am parsing other than you would have me parse, please assay a straight answer.

        Did Obama list the backlash as a secondary concern or not?

  15. Grease the cartridges with pork and beef fat.

    Have no fear.

    • Cry havoc and loose the. . . uhh, never mind.

  16. adam, on your comment at 1:59 AM, I think your point is an important one (that Christians have to be able to proselytize in Muslim countries).

    I understand the agnostics/atheists can’t necessarily go there with us, and I think long, hard thought would be required about pressing for liberalization in Muslim countries that would INCLUDE Christian proselytization, but not be intended to exclusively promote it. My concern is always government getting itself in charge of religious outreach, an enterprise that is bound to go wrong.

    That said, Christians already proselytize in Muslim countries every day of the year — by satellite TV and radio (and now, in some areas, the internet). It’s actually amazing to discover that literally millions of Muslims are being reached by Christian broadcasts, many of the teachers being people who came from those countries or cultures, and have a native facility for practical communication.

    Things are changing, albeit slowly, as things have been changing in other countries under the lingering Communist regimes. By many estimates, there are actually more Christians in China — about 300 million — than there are in the US.

    I don’t think we can really foresee yet HOW the very tenacious regimes — both political and social — that are based on power, vengeance, anger, and a perverted idea of “honor” will be overcome. The conditions don’t seem right for a series of American Revolutions around the world. But I think what we’re in the middle of right now is change, and that our job in the US is to yield no ground, be all we can be, and do what we can to make the conditions for this change peaceful and quiescent. We don’t have to force it using the tools of state power; we’ll have to use those tools in certain ways to give the change room to develop on positive lines. In virtually every case, I think using national power in traditional ways will do the trick.

    • That’s a helpful answer, JED–I’ll just say that I think agnostics and atheists can go along with us on the defense of this basic right (after all, we can defend their right not to believe), and our promotion of prosletyzing could be indirect–obviously, the US government wouldn’t fund missions, we would just turn our diplomatic eye on that issue, and highlight cases of persecution along these lines–which I doubt we do at all now. That little shift in emphasis can have a big effect.

  17. That was apocryphal both before the Indian mutiny and Pershings campaigns against the juramentados
    in the Phillipines

    • Was it apocryphal in the sense that the cartiridges weren’t actually greased with pig fat, or was it apocryphal in the sense that the belief they were greased with pig fat was not one of the causes of the mutiny?

  18. Per your request, the verses that sent a Tsar over the river and around the bend:

    Counting the angels on the head of a pin,
    Tends to be silly, but it isn’t a sin,
    Parsing the intentions of Islamist thugs,
    May not be a sin, but it won’t get you hugs,
    Among other things it may get you wings,
    And a harp you can play when the fat lady sings.

    When a people avow that Allah has said,
    And further attest that Mohammed has writ,
    That they may not rest until you are dead,
    Unless you bow, and scrape and submit. . .
    Believe them.

    • Gorgeous poesy, Sully! I very much like the “Area 51” allusion as well; it had not occurred to me. We await your leisure to see that and the many related, and very promising, syllables done justice.

  19. You’ve also set me to thinking about the possibilities offered by Jones and Rauf and Cordoba and Area, I mean Park, 51 but time is too short today to do them justice.

    • come publish them when they’re ready. the Tsar will survive or not, inshallah.

  20. “Is there any other way to interpret that other than you’re trying to attribute too Obama fear as his primary motivation.”

    Yes, of course there is. My point is that Obama is projecting fear as at least one of his motivations. He should not have agreed with Petraeus’ take on the Muslim anger angle.

    You can’t make this about which thing Obama said first or second. I’m making MY argument, and it is that he shouldn’t have addressed the point at all.

  21. ok. that’s as far as I can fairly expect you to move and I appreciate the time and attention.

    I’m not exactly sure that Petraeus and/or Obama is projecting fear, rather than disgust with knowing that gratuitous abuse is likely to result in gratuitous violence, but I semi-agree that a President would be better in not addressing that angle.

  22. Regarding the alleged showing of contempt by burning the Koran, I am reminded of the exchange in a Mae West movie that went something like this:

    Judge: Young lady, are you trying to show contempt for this Court?

    Mae West: I’m doing my best to hide it.

    If anyone knows the movie, or whether this, too, is apocryphal, I would appreciate the information.

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