President Obama has long since stopped being a politician worthy of admiration. To take only the example of his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, Obama and his administration did a terrible job selling the proposals to the general public, stopped even trying to sell them after the law passed, and then botched the rollout. His relations with congressional leaders and world leaders, people upon whom he must rely if he is to be successful, have never been good because he has never invested the time needed in those relationships. And, in the area of foreign policy, his efforts often have been reactionary and dilatory. He seems to suffer from a tendency in the liberal imagination, a dangerous tendency in the world today, to think the world is just filled with budding Jeffersonians is only people would see things as he does.
But, yesterday, the President was pitch perfect when addressing a summit on confronting violent extremism. If you watch Fox News, you know that one of their most frequent mantras of late has been that the president is unwilling to use the phrase “Islamicist extremism” or some variant thereof, that this failure stems from his in-grained political correctness, and that this unwillingness to call the terrorists by their proper names is harming our ability to defeat them.
It is not likely that I shall be invited to be a guest on Sean Hannity’s show anytime soon, but the question I would like to pose to him is this: Sir, do you often find yourself in agreement with the butchers in ISIS? Their propagandists would love nothing more than to hear the President say “we are at war with Islam” or “these extremists are not perverting Islam, they are the most fierce activists in a dominant interpretation of Islam,” or something like that. ISIS already sees itself as engaged in a holy war against the infidels. Why would we want to second their interpretation, and worse than second it, adopt it as our own? And, also, Mr. Hannity, what difference would it make. If tomorrow, the president uses the phrase “Islamic extremist,” would our drone strikes become more accurate or more frequent? Would the American people suddenly support putting boots on the ground, and would that even help? We had plenty of boots on the ground in Iraq and that country is not exactly pacified and stable.
There is the further complication that we need moderate Muslims to defeat ISIS and other terrorists in the Islamic community. Even if President Obama believed “the West” is at war with Islam, it would not help build the coalition we need to say so. I have no problem with politicians lying when it is in the national interest. As Churchill said during World War II, in war, truth is such a precious commodity she must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.
When President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast last month, I did not think much of his speech. One of the problems with it was that while he pointed out that Christianity had been invoked to justify slavery and Jim Crow, he neglected to mention that Christians also took the lead is dismantling both slavery and Jim Crow. The truth is that the propaganda ISIS spouts finds plenty of justification within the tenets of Islam, just as advocates of Jim Crow used to invoke the story of Ham to justify segregation of the races. The Hebrew Scriptures hold plenty of justifications for the employment of violence on behalf of holiness. But, such truths can be spoken by a professor of comparative religion, but not by a president or a diplomat. Not when there are bigger fish to fry.
Here is President Obama’s rebuttal to the Fox News critique, from the transcript emailed to reporters last night:
Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders -- holy warriors in defense of Islam. That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the “Islamic State.” And they propagate the notion that America -- and the West, generally -- is at war with Islam. That’s how they recruit. That’s how they try to radicalize young people. We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders -- they’re terrorists. (Applause.) And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam. (Applause.)
As I say, this strikes me as pitch perfect, deftly calibrating the rhetoric, and rhetoric is still an important tool when challenging an ideology.
Of course, it does not matter to the people at Fox News that George W. Bush used almost identical language when he was president. Michael Gerson wrote a fine column on this topic in the Washington Post, demonstrating again that his is one of the most honest minds on the right.
I dislike political correctness as much as the next guy. I refuse to be cowed into telling only anodyne jokes. I shall never disown Archie Bunker or denounce Ralph Kramden. But, I do not let that dislike color my calculation of values when it comes to foreign policy. In the effort to defeat Islamicist extremism, a phrase I am happy to use, and one I am happy our president does not use, words matter and the worst words President Obama could possibly use are the ones his conservative critics wish him to use. And they know it, which makes their complaints cynical as well as stupid. And, dear Mr. Hannity et al., Islamicist extremism is not something about which anyone should be cynical.