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In 1950, 20-year-old Hungarian informant Paul Gorka received a life sentence in a communist prison after Soviet spy Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer, outed him and other dissidents. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution failed to overthrow Soviet oppressors, but it succeeded in freeing Gorka, who escaped to Great Britain with his future wife.
Today, the couple’s son, Sebastian Gorka, is a U.S. citizen, one of the world’s leading counterterrorism experts, and author of the 2016 New York Times bestseller Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War.
How has your father’s story shaped you? I was born and raised with a very specific understanding that liberty is as fragile as it is precious. That really informs my outlook on the threat today and is one of the reasons I wrote Defeating Jihad.
What parallels do you see between the war on terror and the Cold War? I saw the 9/11 attacks a little differently from my fellow Americans. It wasn’t just about terrorism or Muslim extremism. It was about a return of the totalitarians. The jihadis of today—whether al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Orlando shooter, the Boston Marathon bombers—represent a new type of totalitarianism. The link between the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler, Stalin and the Soviet Union, and the Islamic State: They’re all totalitarians. Either you agree with them, or you will be enslaved or killed.
Can you summarize NSC-68 and its relevance today? The Cold War shows how to defeat totalitarians. George Kennan in 1946 sent a secret cable from Moscow to D.C. explaining why communism was a global threat to America. Then a genius State Department strategist, Paul Nitze, wrote NSC-68, the top-secret plan to defeat the Soviet Union. It was a masterpiece of strategic thought that detailed what it was going to take to win—the nonkinetic, psychological, informational things that would help us delegitimize our enemy, and then the physical things we have to do to help our allies help themselves. Those two things form a model for how to fight groups like ISIS today.
‘In the long term, you defeat totalitarians by destroying their ideology. You delegitimize the message.’
Why is 1979 significant? If you really want to understand why 9/11 happened, why the Boston Marathon bombing happened, why Fort Hood, you really must understand that ’79 is that catalytic year in modern jihad for three reasons. The Iranian revolution proves to the world that theocracy is possible. The invasion of Afghanistan is hugely significant because, from the fundamentalist’s point of view, an atheist nation invaded sacred Muslim soil, and that requires a jihad. The thing most Americans have never heard of is the siege of Mecca. Three hundred jihadis, young Muslim hotheads with automatic weapons, besieged the holiest site in Islam, the Grand Mosque at Mecca, and basically declared war on their fellow Muslims—not the infidels. They said Islam had lost its way, was not faithful to Allah, and the way to purge Islam was to re-establish the caliphate in a jihad, and first by attacking false Muslims, like the Saudi king. After the siege was lifted, the Saudi regime made a Faustian bargain with the clerics who had sponsored this jihad: Promise there will never be jihad anywhere in Saudi Arabia ever again, and we’ll make you clerics to the House of Saud and sponsor the export of your jihadi ideas. Totalitarian jihad became a global enterprise that Saudi Arabia helped promote. That’s one of the ways we arrived at Sept. 11.
What should the United States have done after 9/11? If you’re serious about terrorism after 9/11, it’s Afghanistan and then Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia could have probably been settled behind closed doors with some very stiff, undiplomatic speak from the Bush administration. But we didn’t do it, and the problem got worse. Iran for the last 20 years has been the greatest state sponsor of terrorism, and we should have facilitated a revolution, a change from the inside, just as we did during the Cold War. In the long term, you defeat totalitarians by destroying their ideology. You delegitimize the message. Today, if you went to Washington and walked down the reflecting pool waving a giant Nazi banner, you would be an eminently uncool individual. We have to make the black flag of jihad as uncool as the swastika or the peaked, white hood of the KKK.
What role does communication—propaganda—play? Three-part plan: (1) Talk honestly about the threat, (2) empower our Sunni allies in the region, who really need to be on the face of this war, and (3) use the same tools we used during the Cold War. Ultimately it was a war of ideas. We win that war with massive, strategic counter-propaganda operations—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America. The CIA owned whole publishing houses in Europe to counter the message of Marxism, the message of socialism, and show it for what it was—a hollow, soulless, destructive ideology.
You write about hundreds of Muslims across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who are risking their lives to argue publicly against radical Islam. Is the United States supporting them? They should be the front line of this war, because they’re the people who can best undermine the message of jihadis. Unfortunately, because they talk about religious themes, they’re not supported by the U.S. government. These people have been treated as pariahs, and they’re the ones who need our help the most.
Why are we, as you write, losing this war “spectacularly”? We’ve spent trillions of dollars and had thousands of American servicemen and women killed. We’re 15 years into this—longer than Vietnam, Korea, World War I, World War II—and where are we? We’re losing. ISIS now controls territory in multiple countries of multiple regions. The latest report from the National Counterterrorism Center says there are fully operational ISIS affiliates in 18 nations around the world. Two years ago the State Department said it was seven. According to SITE Intelligence Group, since June 2 of this year, outside of Iraq and Syria war zones, there has been a jihadi attack somewhere in the world every 84 hours.
Can you contrast the two major presidential candidates? Out of 320 million people, we have slim pickings. The Democratic candidate is either going to be a third term of Barack Obama or even worse. Clinton has said she refuses to associate the threat of terrorism with any religious concepts. After Nice, she was painted into a corner and used the term “radical jihadism”—as if there is a moderate form of jihadism. So what’s left? We have a presidential candidate for the Republican Party who I advised last year (I’m not part of his campaign) and has his own deficiencies. He’s not a national security person. He’s hired people, some of whom are excellent, and hopefully he’ll listen to them. I can’t judge that right now, but I can judge one thing: This is a man who can’t stand political correctness, admits we are at war, and clearly wants to win. Those three things alone are not enough to win the war, but they’re a good foundation.
Also see “More Gorka: Knowing the enemy.”