Know Your Enemy

Know Your Enemy

President Obama spent half of his recent national security speech dealing with why he doesn’t call the ideology of  the biggest terror threat “radical Islam”. Republicans have noticed that he has refused to use that term for years, and he finally addressed why. But are his reasons reasonable? And why is calling the threat by this name such a big deal?

I’ll explain why it is such a big deal. And I’ll have to break my self-imposed time limit to do so (but not by much).

Mentioned links:

WATCH: President Obama’s Press Conference on Orlando and the Phrase “Radical Islam”

Remarks by the President After Counter-ISIL Meeting (full transcript of the speech)

President Obama on ISIS Fight: ‘We Don’t Yet Have a Complete Strategy’

Hillary Clinton: I’ll say the words ‘radical Islamism’

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Show transcript

President Obama came out of a meeting with his National Security Council on June 14th and gave a speech on what they had discussed; most notably their efforts to destroy ISIL/ISIS. This meeting had been planned  before the Orlando nightclub shooting, but that shooting, and the shooter’s alleged support of ISIS, gave this meeting and subsequent speech a bigger impact. However, I don’t want to talk about the part of the speech where the President listed the items they talked about. I want to focus on what he discussed in the second half of it; his use of the term “radical Islam” when describing terrorism, or rather, his lack of use of the term. Here is the President.

And let me make a final point.

Let me just note that, in a 25-minute speech about dealing with ISIL in general, this “final point” came, as I said, halfway through the speech. Clearly I’m going to have to pare this down to the specific remarks that I want to respond to, but in what is essentially a speech about dealing with terrorism, he spent half of it talking about this. Methinks he doth protest too much.

For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase “radical Islam.”  That’s the key, they tell us — we can’t beat ISIL unless we call them “radical Islamists.”

No, that’s not what Republicans have been saying. What they have been saying is that if you don’t have a clear idea of who your enemy is, your policy and strategy will be fuzzy at best, and allow you to target just about anyone you wish. If it’s just “radicals” you’re after, you can define it to mean “conservatives” in general, and use the IRS to harass them and chill their political speech. You can define it to mean “Christians” and send them off to re-education and sensitivity training, accompanied by huge fines, for not baking a cake for a ceremony that their conscience says they shouldn’t participate in.

What exactly would using this label accomplish?  What exactly would it change?

Other than clarity of vision and strategy? Gee, who would want that?

Before we go on, let me first describe what a “straw man argument” is. The analogy is to trying to knock down a strong man, but instead creating a man out of straw and knocking it down instead, and then claiming victory. In debate, this is where you argue against a simple, and easily discredited, argument that your opponent isn’t really making, but when you easily knock it down, you hope your audience sees it as knocking down the real opponent. Let me give you some examples. Well, actually, let’s let President Obama give you some examples.

Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans?


Would it bring in more allies?


Is there a military strategy that is served by this?

No. Well, once you actually have one, and for quite a while, during this time when Republicans were trying to get you to name the actual enemy, you said you didn’t have a strategy.

The answer is none of the above.  Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away.  This is a political distraction.

No, it is not a distraction. Offering up straw men to knock down is. Naming your specific enemy means you have to deal with, and have a strategy for, that specific threat.

There has not been a moment in my seven and a half years as President where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label “radical Islam.”  Not once has an advisor of mine said, man, if we really use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around.  Not once.

Well first, as I said (well, as you said), you didn’t have a specific strategy for this specific enemy. And it doesn’t surprise me that your advisors were cool with that.

If the implication is that those of us up here and the thousands of people around the country and around the world who are working to defeat ISIL aren’t taking the fight seriously, that would come as a surprise to those who have spent these last seven and a half years dismantling al Qaeda in the FATA, for example — including the men and women in uniform who put their lives at risk and the Special Forces that I ordered to get bin Laden and are now on the ground in Iraq and in Syria.  They know full well who the enemy is.

And therein lies the issue. If you say the enemy is ISIL or ISIS, you leave out al Qaeda and Boko Haram and Hamas. So in fact, the enemy is more that any one group. The major terror attacks, not just in the US but all around the world, overwhelmingly come from, not a group, but an ideology. And what is that ideology?

So there’s no magic to the phrase “radical Islam.”  It’s a political talking point; it’s not a strategy.

Nobody said it was!  But, the magic in the phrase is a clarity and a focus that this administration has been sorely lacking.

And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism.

Extremist … what? Go ahead, you can say it.

Groups like ISIL and al Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West.  They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions.  They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people; that they speak for Islam.  That’s their propaganda.  That’s how they recruit.  And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion — then we’re doing the terrorists’ work for them.

No, but you are brushing up dangerously close to the truth. Sure, their propaganda says that they speak for all of Islam, but in that phrase we have been talking about, the first word is “radical”. Do ISIS and al Qaeda call themselves “radical”? Do we validate them by calling them “radical”? Do they recruit with posters that say, “Come join us; we’re radical”? No, of course not! But the President wants to make it sound like those who want him to use the phrase “radical Islam” mean for him to use it to describe an entire religion, and that is an outright lie. The phrase itself proves that it is a lie. The phrase is marginalizing by definition, yet he accuses those who use it of painting with a broad brush.

Who’s putting this stuff up on the teleprompter? Certainly not an English teacher.

But we are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be.  We’re starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we’re fighting, where this can lead us.

Yeah, it can lead us to the mass killing of 50 people in a nightclub. OK, that’s not what he means, and he can’t even realize he’s the sloppy one, but let’s see where he thinks it is leading us.

We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States to bar all Muslims from emigrating to America.  We hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests that entire religious communities are complicit in violence.  Where does this stop?  The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer — they were all U.S. citizens.

As ill-advised as a blanket ban on Muslim immigration is, the idea that we need to get our act together regarding the vetting process is not really a “radical” idea, if you will. But if you don’t identify the enemy as “radical Islam”, this is certainly a blind spot.

And as for US citizens, no one is suggesting that entire communities are complicit. The FBI investigations of the Orlando shooter were looking for radicals. Now, I’m actually good with the idea that if an investigation turns up no evidence, as it apparently did with this shooter, then the case ought not be left open indefinitely. But the President seems to be putting forth the idea that calling our enemy “radical Islam” means we’d be investigating anyone of that religion. This is patently false.

The rest of the speech is in the same vein; accusing Republicans of everything short of creating internment camps for all Muslims, all because they want him to be specific about who the enemy really is. Totally upside down.

One final point (and no, that doesn’t mean I’m halfway done): Hillary Clinton, whom Barack Obama has endorsed for President, apparently didn’t get the memo.  She says she’s happy to use the phrase, although she has her own version of the straw man as well.

“From my perspective, it matters what we do more than what we say,” Clinton said on CNN’s “New Day.” “And it mattered we got bin Laden, not what name we called him. I have clearly said we — whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing.”

She wouldn’t do that until she was the presumptive Democratic nominee, so it seems rather convenient that only now does she come out and say that. The wind is blowing, and she’s going right along with it.

Filed under: ReligionWar