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A Summit of Leaders Who Refuse to Level With U.S. Citizens
Obama, speaking Wednesday at the White House Summit on countering violent extremism: “We’ve got to discredit these ideologies. We have to tackle them head on. And we can’t shy away from these discussions. And too often, folks are, understandably, sensitive about addressing some of these root issues, but we have to talk about them, honestly and clearly.”
Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking Tuesday: “ ‘Radical Islam,’ ‘Islamic extremism,’ you know, I’m not sure an awful lot is gained by saying that… What we have to do is defined not by the terms that we use, but by the facts on the ground. So I don’t worry an awful lot about what the appropriate terminology ought to be. I think that people need to actually think about that and think about really, are we having this conversation about words as opposed to what our actions ought to be?”
Holder’s point is that the terminology is moot and unimportant… and yet for some reason, the White House refuses to use certain terminology.
Chuck Todd, Wednesday afternoon: “I was just looking at the fact sheet that the White House just put out, to go in conjunction with the president’s statement. I can already predict exactly what some of the criticism is going to be of the president. You don’t see the word Islam, Islamic, or radical Islam anywhere in the fact sheet. They use extremists, very careful not to associate it with one religion, frankly, I’m told there is actually debate inside the White House about should they be avoiding the phrase radical Islam or not? Do you say it to force other countries and leaders to tackle this because happening in their religion and faith?”
I heard a better version of Holder’s argument from a D.C. mainstream media reporter who asked (I’m paraphrasing) what would change if Obama spent the next month using the term “Islamist extremism” and “radical Islam” in every speech. Would it kill a single ISIS member? Would it change the dynamics of the fight against ISIS in any significant way? Isn’t the real problem the policies, strategies and tactics used against ISIS and al-Qaeda and not the terms the president is using?
It’s a fair point, but the question of language and clarity is still relevant.
Why does it matter so much to some of us that the administration describe ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Charlie Hebdo shooter, the Denmark synagogue shooter, the Paris Kosher grocery store shooter, and other perpetrators as “Islamists” or “Islamic radicals” instead of just “violent extremists”?
Because the generic term is less accurate, and less honest, and this administration has a serious problem when it comes to leveling with the American people.
The Obama administration – like many administrations before it — has amassed an ignoble history of insisting everything is fine when it isn’t, or that a problem isn’t as bad as it seems right before it blows up. Obama dismissed ISIS as “the JV team.” Obama touted Yemen as a “success story” for his counterterrorism policies, six months before the government collapsed under assault from Iranian-backed extremists.
Obama at a DNC event: “I promise you, things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago.” He said this the day UK Prime Minister David Cameron declared that his country faced “the greatest and deepest terror threat in its history.”
The president speaks about the invasion and occupation of Crimea as if it had been properly resolved: “Our ability to mobilize international opinion rapidly has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine.”
They’re always insisting that everything is going fine.
(This happens in the domestic realm as well: They go out and tout Healthcare.gov when it’s not working. The private sector is “doing fine.” People who already have health insurance “don’t have to worry.” Increases in the unemployment rate are, similarly, just “bumps in the road.”)
In the past few years, we’ve watched the governments of Libya and Yemen collapse, and Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan half-collapsed. Terrorist attacks have shot up the Canadian Parliament, Paris magazine offices, Danish synagogues. ISIS keeps inventing new, more horrific and theatrical images to show the world: crucifixions, pilots burned alive, Christians beheaded en masse.
Things aren’t going our way. We’re not doing fine. We want the government to stop lying to us about people who want to kill us.
So start by acknowledging the obvious. The perpetrators of these atrocities claim to act in the name of Islam, and they seek to implement, by force, a system of rule where everything must be Islamic. If the term “Islamist” is sufficiently accurate and fair for The New York Times and The Washington Post, why is it not good enough for the Obama administration?
Holder wants us to stop worrying about the name of the threat and focus upon stopping it. But it is exponentially harder to stop a threat when you refuse to see it clearly or describe it accurately.