In the wake of the June 12 attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left at least 49 people dead and 53 wounded, President Obama renewed his call for gun control and chided Republicans for insisting on attributing the murders to “radical Islam.”
“There is no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ It’s a political talking point, not a strategy,” Obama said in an address Tuesday, later adding, “We are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be.”
But Republican leaders — and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump — have pushed back. “President Obama disgracefully refused to even say the words ‘radical Islam.’ For that reason alone, he should step down,” Trump said in a statement.
Does the language matter? Do American leaders understand who the enemy is? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
Does President Obama know who the enemy is? What a perfectly ridiculous question. He’s the president who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden, after all. And he’s spent the majority of his presidency quietly overseeing a drone war to assassinate militants — in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere — he’s judged pose a threat to the United States.
The drone war has problems: Far too many innocents have been killed, and there’s reason to believe the targeting process could use a few more checks and balances. But Obama’s actions indicate that he’s more than sufficiently aware of the dangers posed by terrorists, and more than willing to take the fight to them.
So why doesn’t he use the phrase “radical Islam?” Because he’s interested in protecting Americans.
The Islamic State and other militant groups want the broader Muslim world to believe it is in a civilizational war with the West. The rhetoric of Trump and his fellow Republicans who demand the president say “radical Islam” aids their cause immeasurably.
“When we use loose language that appears to pose a civilizational conflict between the West and Islam, or the modern world and Islam, then we make it harder, not easier, for our friends and allies and ordinary people to resist and push back against the worst impulses inside the Muslim world,” Obama said recently.
“This is not a thought of Obama’s alone,” the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg — who has his own criticisms of Obama — wrote recently. “Based on my own conversations at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community, I can say with reasonable certainty that there are no senior-level national security professionals in the U.S. who believe that it is in America’s best interest to risk making Islam itself the enemy.”
Get that? Obama has the national security establishment on his side on this issue. It’s not because they’re namby-pamby peaceniks. It’s also worth noting: President George W. Bush took almost exactly the same approach, for exactly the same reason.
It’s often the case that Republicans prize faux-toughness — and scoring political points against Democrats — over smarts in protecting Americans from violence. That’s simply foolish.
President Obama is wrong. What the phrase “radical Islam” may lack in “magic” — as the president put it — it more than makes up in the one thing missing most from U.S. counterterrorism strategy these past 15 years: clarity.
Clarity — as opposed to mealy mouthed condescension. Clarity — as opposed to politically correct rhetoric and bureaucratic obfuscation.
Clarity — and not the overly cautious, timid, infantilizing line that the U.S. government has taken since the 9/11 attacks made it obvious for anyone with eyes to see that we are at war with a distinct group of people with distinctive beliefs.
Never before in our history has the United States fought a foreign war against an abstraction. The Revolutionary War was war for independence from Great Britain. The War of 1812 was a war against British encroachments against American sovereignty. World War I was a war against German imperialism. World War II was a war against expansionist German National Socialism, Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism.
And this “war”? It used to be the “global war on terror,” which was bad enough. In 2013, Obama ended that “war” and redefined the current conflict as “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
It just so happens that those “specific networks” of “violent extremists” fight under the banner of violent Islamic jihad. Why not just say so?
Adjectives are important. The enemy is “radical Islam” or “militant Islam” or “jihadi Islam.” Not Islam simply. Not all Muslims. Unless, of course, you think that Islam simply is all of those things.
Our enemy knows why he fights. He declares his philosophy openly. He justifies his atrocities citing chapter and verse from the Quran and the recorded sayings and traditions of Muhammad known as the Hadith. He does not deny the imperialist strain of militant Islam in history; rather, he celebrates it.
Our enemy is clear. In the absence of clarity, we’re left with the sort of blinkered and insipid commentary over the past week that places the blame for a radical Muslim’s murderous attack on a gay nightclub on “transphobia,” Evangelical Christianity and the National Rifle Association. It’s insane.
Ben Boychuk (email@example.com) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.