Sebastian Gorka is a deputy assistant to the president of the United States. He is also part of the Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG) headed by Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump's chief strategist. The SIG is independent of The National Security Council and serves as a source of advice and analysis unfiltered by U.S. foreign-policy and intelligence agencies. In this context, Gorka's portfolio is counterterrorism, particularly of the jihadist variety. Given his possible proximity to the president — who reportedly appreciates Gorka's tenacious on-camera defenses of his policies — it is important to understand the ideas and policies he might espouse, whether he remains in the White House or in another position of influence in the government.
Gorka has attracted considerable scrutiny and criticism for his ties with anti-Semitic groups in Hungary. The White House resisted lending credence to the allegations, but by late April 2017 Gorka's longevity in the White House environs was in jeopardy ("White House weighs kicking out Sebastian Gorka," Daily Beast, April 28, 2017). Press reports citing Trump administration sources indicate that he has not been granted a security clearance, a sine qua non for his job. A search was reportedly underway for a new administration position for Gorka, although his detractors are unlikely to be mollified.
Gorka was born in Britain but is a naturalized U.S. citizen. His father, an opponent of the communist regime in Budapest and a British agent, fled Hungary following the 1956 uprising. The younger Gorka is clearly proud of his roots. He not only pursued his PhD in Budapest (Corvinus University); he engaged in a variety of right-wing political activities there. Press reports, most notably by Forward, have pointed to a variety of problematic affiliations. In 2007, along with two prominent members of the Jobbik Movement for a Better Hungary, an anti-Semitic ultra-nationalist party, he was a cofounder of the New Democratic Coalition (UDK). He also supported the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary force accused of threatening the human rights of minorities that was forced to disband by the Hungarian government.
The issue that has attracted the most attention is Gorka's alleged membership in Vitézi Rend, a group that, according to the State Department, is understood to have been "under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany during World War II." Gorka's father was a member. Reporting by Forward, citing three leaders of the group, indicates that Gorka took an oath of loyalty to the Historical Vitézi Rend, a successor organization. Members are "presumed to be inadmissible" to the United States, according to State Department manuals and the Immigration and Nationality Act, so it would be relevant to know what affiliations Gorka revealed when he applied for U.S. citizenship. Although Gorka has denied that he pledged loyalty to the group, he has occasionally used the initial "v." as part of his name — understood to signify membership in Vitézi Rend. On his dissertation, his name appears as Sebestyén L. v. Gorka.
Eighteen Democratic members of the House of Representatives have called on President Trump to fire Gorka. Their letter points to the organizational links cited above, as well as Gorka's contributions to Magyar Demokrata, cited by the State Department for its regular publication of anti-Semitic articles. However, no articles have surfaced in which Gorka himself expressed anti-Semitic themes. At least three Democratic senators have also called for Gorka's dismissal.
Gorka's PhD dissertation addressed al-Qaeda and the rise of the "transcendental terrorist" (see: http://phd.lib.uni-corvinus.hu/314/1/gorka_sebestyen.pdf). The work is weakly researched and does not present an original contribution to the field. Andrew Reynolds eviscerated it in Haaretz: "Stop Calling Him 'Dr.': The Academic Fraud of Sebastian Gorka, Trump's Terrorism 'Expert.'"
Gorka has taught at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, and lectured at a variety of U.S. agencies, including the FBI and the Special Operations Command. In 2016, he became a faculty member at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, a facility that offers MA-level training in foreign policy and intelligence. From 2014 to 2016, he was national-security editor at Breitbart, where his boss was Stephen Bannon. At Breitbart, Gorka often contributed barbed pieces about one or another "catastrophic" decision by President Barack Obama.
Until his ascendance in the Trump administration, his work was unknown among academic specialists on Islam and terrorism. Although he was not called to testify at the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, he did submit an "expert report" in which he discussed the "modern global Jihadist Movement" and reviewed his resume, including the publication of "180 monographs, book chapters and journal articles on national security and terrorism, more specifically summarized" (see his report at http://thebostonmarathonbombings.weebly.com/uploads/2/4/2/6/24264849/56…). A review of standard research indexes turned up a couple of dozen articles, mostly for military periodicals, and one short journal piece from 1996 that was listed in the Social Science Citation Index.
Gorka's concern is the challenge of global jihad, especially as posed by the Islamic State: "Today no nation or other group poses a direct existential threat to America and the whole of Western civilization except the Islamic State." It is rather obvious that Russia and North Korea pose far more serious threats to the United States than the Islamic State, but Gorka's statement is indicative of his hyperbole.
Gorka suggests that only the United States can defeat the threat posed by the Islamic State, yet he avers that Washington has applied the wrong strategy since the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. He is especially critical of the Obama administration for refusing to connect jihadi terrorism to Islam. He also makes a rather bizarre and fallacious claim: that the Obama administration had a "strange theory" that, by mitigating poverty and oppression, terrorism could be defeated:
Terrorism is a natural response of uneducated human beings who have been disenfranchised politically and economically. If we can solve the 'root grievances' of the poor and oppressed around the world, there will be no more terrorists, and Americans will be safe. This view is of course absurd.
Gorka does not cite a single Obama administration document, speech or comment that substantiates this off-the-wall allegation.
The conceit of Defeating Islam is that the United States faces a global totalitarian threat comparable to the one posed by the Soviet Union, although this time the threat is religiously expressed. Gorka argues that we may learn from the wisdom of George Kennan, author of the famous "Long Telegram" of 1946, and Paul Nitze, the author of NSC 68, the top secret 1950 document that spelled out U.S. Cold War strategy (both documents are reprinted in full, occupying nearly 75 pages). Gorka's idea might be intriguing, except that he does not attempt a serious analysis of either seminal document.
At best, Gorka claims to draw on the historical documents to offer a strategy against jihadist terrorism. Whereas Kennan offered a detailed and nuanced analysis of Soviet ideology, objectives, strengths and weaknesses, Gorka offers only a very amateurish assessment of the Islamic State. NSC 68 announced the Cold War doctrine of containment with a detailed plan for confronting the Soviet Union on a variety of axes. In contrast, Gorka advocates a smattering of ideas, none of which are developed in any detail. What should the United States do? Deploy the truth, he answers. In contrast to the Obama administration, which was "influenced by [unnamed] malevolent actors" who censored any talk of religion, we must call the enemy by the right names: jihadists, takfiris, radical Islamists. Donald Trump, like Gorka, claims that using terms like "radical Islam" will enhance U.S. efforts against the Islamic State, whereas Trump's two immediate predecessors prudently avoided any suggestion that that the United States was at war with Islam.
Gorka argues that, to counter the information and propaganda campaign of the Islamic State, we need a "[massive] strategic-level counterpropaganda campaign from inside The National Security Council." The United States also needs to support its allies, including by providing covert funding for an informational-warfare campaign and sending U.S. troops to advise and support allies' efforts against the jihadists. Finally, the government needs to educate the American public and build up its capacity for gathering human intelligence within the United States. Both suggestions raise important constitutional questions under the First and Fourth Amendments that pass unacknowledged by Gorka.
Defeating Jihad is pocked with errors and exaggerations. For instance, Gorka claims that Soviet control over its allies and satellites was unquestioned; this is patently untrue. He states that, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Washington started nation-building, also untrue. In reality, the United States shifted its focus to Iraq and neglected Afghanistan. He misidentifies common Arabic terms, such as al-sham, widely understood to refer to Syria or Damascus.
Among the elements missing from Gorka's suggestions is any explanation of how a new counterpropaganda or psychological-warfare effort would supplement, improve or replace those that have enjoyed very limited success to date. Gorka also counsels his readers to be on the lookout for terrorists and to get a gun and a concealed-carry permit. He suggests that the "subversive" lobbying by legally organized groups of American Muslims should be resisted. Instead of sharpening the U.S. effort against the Islamic State, Gorka's penchant is to broaden it to encompass entities that have no obvious connection to the Islamic State and are often explicitly critical of it. Thus, he advocates designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and increasing sanctions on Iran.
Although the reader learns about Gorka's Islamophobic worldview and his background, one does not gain much insight into the Islamic State or jihadists in general. One is left to question the wisdom of the advice he might offer to the president, whether perched in the White House or elsewhere in the U.S. government.