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Obama's Social Work Summit on "Violent Extremism" Misses the Root

02/20/2015 11:52 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2015

Will social work solve the problem of "violent extremism?" Well, it has the virtue of not having been tried.

But that's probably because it's largely beside the point.

Unfortunately, social work, broadly defined, was the conceptual focus of President Barack Obama's ballyhooed international conference on "countering violent extremism" held this week at the White House. This was a social work summit, aimed at the capillaries, missing real root causes.

It missed four magic words that account for its reason in being: Oil, Israel, Iraq, and drones.

Politically correct, to a point, if not to a fault, the conference seemed a bit loathe to spell out precisely what "violent extremism" needs to be countered on such an international basis that high-level delegates from 60 nations came to the White House, including the director of Russia's FSB intelligence and security service. Nevertheless, some Muslim groups boycotted the gathering.

Obama, however, acknowledged the obvious in his speech, citing the spate of recent lethal terrorist attacks by radical Islamists in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, and Copenhagen.

He called for moves against injustice and economic deprivation, along with better efforts to counter extremist messaging in social media.

Noting that we're not at war with Islam but with those who pervert Islam, he called on Muslim leaders to speak out.

Unfortunately, though undoubtedly well-meaning, this is all wildly inadequate.

None of it even identifies the alienation factors making jihadism more widespread, if not exactly pervasive yet.

There's not a clear correlation between economic deprivation or personally experienced injustice and jihadism. That's been so right along from the beginning, with most of the 9/11 hijackers rather well-off young Saudi males.

And while it would be heartening to hear a chorus of condemnation from Muslim religious leaders, I don't recall Catholic or Protestant religious drowning out terrorists in their flocks during the very long years of religious zealotry and incredible terrorist violence in Ireland and Northern Ireland. And that was a conflict between white Christians.

Most folks don't want to make themselves targets.

This seems less about deprivation than it does about young people, primarily males, looking for outlets for their desires to feel important, to have some sort of higher mission in life beyond blah-blah materialism.

Do you ever watch recruitment ads for the U.S. Marine Corps?

What we're seeing with the sophisticated social media efforts of the jihadists, especially Isis, is just a further iteration of that sort of messaging. With a different mission, of course. And the added fillip of relative ease. A Marine has to undergo rigorous training. A homegrown jihadist does not.

This conference was little more than a palliative because there was barely a hint of discussion about the alienation factors which create a powerful sense of purpose for young people who may be searching for purpose in their lives.

If we don't understand or acknowledge why jihadism of an anti-Western/anti-American variety is spreading, we obviously won't be able to counter it.

We need to find ways to minimize the alienation factors driving the growth in this jihadism. It won't be easy, for we have a demonstrated limited ability to change some of the factors. But it will be impossible if we don't recognize the reality of the situation.

Oil. Israel. Iraq. Drones.

Each represents a large and aggravating American/Western presence in the Islamic world.

** Our continued economic and political addiction to oil keeps us ever involved in the Middle East. Even with American oil production reaching skyward, we are still entangled. The Saudi move in helping drive the price of oil down so dramatically since last June, and the subsequent pilgrimage by Obama and a bipartisan planeload of leaders to pay homage to the new Saudi king, makes that clear.

It's a global market with a global price, and major repercussions for the domestic US economy and geopolitical crises involving our non-friends Russia and Iran.

** But for American intervention in the form of massive military resupply, Israel would have been defeated in 1973's Yom Kippur War. The Arab oil embargo ensued immediately after, and blame for Israel's establishment in the middle of the Arab world a quarter century earlier became fixed. On us.

While life would certainly be simpler if the historic religious home of the Jewish religion were in, say, the mellow vastness of western Canada rather than the chock-a-block postage stamp-on-a-map long known as Palestine, we are where we are.

A fighter jet can fly across Israel in little more than a minute, demonstrating its military vulnerability in lack of strategic depth. And little more than a minute is about as long as it takes to rile up many Muslims about the support of America and most of the West for Israel.

Some very hard history underlies our support for Israel. The Holocaust, of course, and centuries of frankly shocking and bizarre prejudice against and persecution of a religion which has fostered enormous cultural richness and creativity.

While there are ways to limit these alienation factors, more recent alienation factors are more flexible.

** The non sequitur post-9/11 US invasion of Iraq, which must have had Osama bin Laden grinning from ear to ear, established America as an ultimately intrusive ogre in the Islamic world. We know it was a massive recruitment inducement for jihadists that began the "franchising" of Al Qaeda. The lesson to be drawn is that the presence of American personnel must be eliminated or at least strictly limited to avoid inflaming the situation.

That is also the lesson to be drawn with respect to American technology.

** The Obama administration has not leveled with the American public about how and why drone strike technology is being used in our name. Though the program is shrouded in secrecy -- perhaps the main reason why this Armed Forces function is primarily run through the CIA -- we know that our drones have become much feared and hated symbols in much of the world.

Some drone strikes are undoubtedly necessary to protect America. We just don't know how many, much less what the overall program really entails.

What we do know is that the alienation factors driving jihadism must be reined in if we are to limit its growth. And we know that we will never control, much less diminish, jihadism directed against us if we fail to understand its appeal.

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