How A Junior Official’s ISIL Comments Sparked The Right’s Latest Outragefest

The U.S. can win the war against the Islamic State terror group by tackling poverty over the long term in the Middle East instead of trying to "kill our way out," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
February 18, 2015 3:08 p.m.

Conservative politicians, pundits and bloggers have spent much of the last 48 hours railing against a junior State Department official they say made the U.S. look ridiculous when she argued that terrorism can’t be eliminated without increasing economic opportunities for young men in the Middle East.

Marie Harf, a deputy State Department spokesperson, refused to back down or “take a mulligan” on Wednesday. The previous evening, she sniped that her comments may have been “too nuanced” for her detractors to comprehend because they didn’t fit into a neat little soundbite.

It all began when she appeared Monday on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” Harf told host Chris Matthews that the U.S. was “killing a lot of” Islamic State militants in the Middle East. But she argued no bombing campaign would be enough to wipe the scourge of Islamic extremism off the the globe.

“We cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war,” she said. “We need in the medium- and longer-term to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs –“

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Harf’s critics took away two things from those remarks: that the Obama administration was naive enough to think it didn’t need to secure a total military victory over Islamic State militants; and that the administration thought increasing economic opportunities for people in the Middle East would dissuade them from hooking up with any terror groups.

Many of her critics distilled those arguments down to the easy-to-mock mantra of giving jobs to terrorists, which Harf later called a “gross oversimplification.” But in the mad dash to critique her argument, Harf’s detractors also largely ignored the precedents she drew from, including past comments from former President George W. Bush. Some even took lazy, sexist potshots at the spokeswoman.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), a noted anti-terror hawk, characterized Harf’s comments as naive in a Tuesday interview with WCBS.

“The only way we’re going to defeat ISIS to kill them. Kill them over there before they get here to kill us, and stop this nonsense about somehow this is because they’re deprived or had a sad childhood,” King told the news station. “You don’t cut people’s heads off on the shores of Tripoli because you didn’t have a job. These people are animals, they’re savages, and they’re murderers. The sooner the Obama administration realizes it, the better.”

Hot Air’s Noah Rothman saw Harf’s argument as a microcosm of a larger problem with liberals’ approach to war.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

The Washington Free Beacon’s Sonny Bunch had perhaps the most fun with Harf’s comments in a post that photoshopped the her alongside history’s great generals, from Marc Antony to William Tecumseh Sherman, and imagined how she would tackle each conflict.

“State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf suggested that ‘we cannot kill our way to victory’ against ISIS on MSNBC last night,” he wrote. “This flies in the face of literally the entirety of human history, through which, time and again, we have seen people killing other people lead to victory in armed combat.”’s Erick Erickson opened his own rumination on Harf’s comments with a similar every-war-can-be-won-by-killing-more-bad-guys line. He went on to argue that the spokeswoman’s approach ignored part of the Islamic State’s appeal to wannabe jihadis: the offer of a shared identity or purpose in life that may otherwise evade Muslims living in the West.

“I realize the Obama Administration is composed of a bunch of secular, atheist God haters, but this is just naive dumbassery,” Erickson wrote. “As has now been well established, the Islamic State is, in fact Islamic, and intends to expand a Caliphate and bring about the Apocalyse.”

“Marie Harf wants to offer comfort, jobs, and income. But a lot of comfortable Westerners are joining ISIS because they want adventure, struggle, danger, and death,” he added later. “A jobs program for Lackcrapistan is not nearly as appealing as bringing on the second coming of Jesus.”

Rush Limbaugh said Tuesday on his radio show that he felt like he was “still watching the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Show” when he heard Harf’s comments. He then launched into a gendered attack, calling Harf “an absolute throwback to 1960s feel-good liberalism that is senseless, it is chickified, it defies reality.”

When Harf appeared on CNN’s “The Situation Room” Tuesday afternoon, host Wolf Blitzer gave her an opening to respond to her critics. She pointed out that she wasn’t the first person to recognize poverty as a driving force behind of violent extremism and later cited former President George W. Bush on Twitter as saying “we fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” Bush made the remark at a 2002 United Nations conference in Mexico.

“The spirit of enterprise is not limited by geography or religion or history,” Bush said at the conference. “Men and women were made for freedom, and prosperity comes as freedom triumphs. And that is why the United States of America is leading the fight for freedom from terror.”

“History has called us to a titanic struggle, whose stakes could not be higher because we’re fighting for freedom, itself,” he continued. “We’re pursuing great and worthy goals to make the world safer, and as we do, to make it better. We will challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize and try to turn to their advantage.”

The Daily Caller’s Jamie Weinstein conceded that Harf wasn’t the first to bring up poverty in the context of terrorism, albeit without mentioning Bush. But he argued that regardless of who was making the poverty connection, it’s all bunk because prominent Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden or the so-called “underwear bomber” had substantial personal wealth.

“Most people don’t need to read the academic literature to know the contention that poverty causes terrorism is false,” Weinstein wrote. “They just need to read the newspaper. Anecdotes abound.”

“If poverty created terrorists, the term ‘Papua New Guinean suicide bomber’ would produce millions of results on Google instead of zero,” he added.

It seemed as if conservative commentators became increasingly incensed the more Harf defended her original comments. Appearing Tuesday on Fox’s “Outnumbered,” commentator Rachel Campos-Duffy brought balance to the panel’s discussion of Harf’s remarks when she pointed out that the poverty narrative originated with the Bush administration hours before Harf made the same connection on CNN.

But by Wednesday afternoon, Campos-Duffy was taking personal shots at the State Department spokeswoman.

“This is the face of so-called American power,” she said on “Outnumbered.” “Her and her colleague, Jen Psaki, they look like they’re ready to take on rush week at Arizona State University. They don’t look like they’re ready to take on the most brutal apocalyptic terrorist group in modern time.”

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