Despite controversy ahead of his visit, former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka appeared at an Israeli counterterrorism conference in Herzliya on Monday, outlining the difficulties faced by the United States in its war on terror.
Gorka was chosen to headline the first day of the 17th annual conference hosted by the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, alongside ex-French prime minister Manuel Valls.
This decision made waves in Jewish media, as throughout his short tenure as deputy adviser, Gorka was dogged by accusations that he had ties to an anti-Semitic Hungarian organization, the Historical Vitezi Rend.
The former adviser has also been critical of “liberal elements” of the American Jewish community, who he said had “basically become anti-Israeli.” He said he believes the left wing has attacked him in the media because of his support for Israel.
Gorka, who has accused the Jewish Forward newspaper of a smear campaign for its reporting on him, did not address the accusations of anti-Semitic links or his attacks on liberal Jews.
His remarks Monday were delivered in a dramatic style — and occasionally accompanied by a provocative aside — though he mostly offered only generalities.A hawk known for his combative style, some of Gorka’s comments would likely be seen as fringe views or contradicting accepted counter-terror orthodoxy.
The London-born Gorka, whose parents had fled there from Hungary, said he had been “accused of many things,” but that he had “never said we’re at war with Islam.”
He did, however, say the West is at war with the “wrong versions of Islam,” which he said are “becoming more popular, while the more modern versions, like the ones in Jordan and Egypt, are being undermined.”
He added, “And this is not good for Muslims or for humans.”
He offered little insight into specific details of the current administration’s counterterrorism strategies, instead giving a general view of America’s war on terror since September 11, 2001.
He called for the US to focus on attacking the roots of terror, rather than “mowing the grass,” and going after specific terrorists.
“We must stop people from wanting to become terrorists,” he said.
The former White House adviser said the US needs to “engage vigorously and robustly” with terrorist ideologies, not just focus on the “kinetic” or violent aspects of the war on terror, though he said the US was the best in the world at that.
He compared terrorists groups like the Islamic State to the Nazis, as they are both totalitarian. “You cannot negotiate with [Adolf] Hitler, and you cannot negotiate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” he said.
He also called for the US to think more strategically, something he said it hasn’t done since “around 1988,” as American became powerful enough to be “stupid.”
But in addition to statements that reflect the generally agreed upon counterterrorism theories of the day, Gorka also sprinkled in comments that would surely ruffle some feathers.
For instance, he said the Arab Spring of the early 2010s “should more correctly be known as the Christian Winter.” The comment was offered with no context or explanation and appeared to have been designed to be provocative, implying that these movements in Arab countries marked the beginning of a decline in Christian ones.
The former adviser to US President Donald Trump left the White House last month in a shroud of controversy, with conflicting claims about whether he resigned or got the boot.
Gorka denied that he had been fired and said he had resigned. But he did not go into the details of his decision for leaving, beyond what he described as a stifling environment in civil service.
“Something in bureaucracy kills creativity,” he said.
He also complained of a “cynical” environment in the Trump White House.
“I thought that being the child of people who lived under fascist dictatorship… that I had an adequately cynical understanding of the world. I was very naive,” he said.
Gorka personally thanked one of the organizers of the conference, the director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Boaz Ganor.
“When the going gets tough, that’s when you find out who your real friends are, Boaz Ganor included,” he said.