• 17:26
  • Friday ,20 February 2015

Obama's ISIS Narrative Problem

By Jonathan S. Tobin; Commentary Magazine



Friday ,20 February 2015

Obama's ISIS Narrative Problem

On the second day of what is actually being billed as the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, President Obama tried again today to explain his strategy for defeating ISIS. But as with his speech on Wednesday, the result was a confusing rhetorical mess that failed to prioritize the need to defeat the terrorists. The president is clearly worried about reinforcing what he considers to be ISIS’s narrative of this war, but in doing so he seems to have actually conceded victory to them. By doggedly sticking to his position that there is no such thing as Islamist terror and by focusing on the economic and political grievances of such groups, the president undermined any notion that the U.S. was committed to the fight. Indeed, rather than bolster the West’s resistance to ISIS, the massive effort expended on this public-relations extravaganza may have only solidified the belief among the terrorists that this president isn’t someone they should either fear or take seriously.

According to the president, to say that ISIS is an Islamic terrorist group is to give credence to the organization’s narrative in which they depict their struggle as being one of a Western war against Islam. Instead, Obama and his various minions only talk about “violent extremism,” in a vain effort to deflect attention away from the religious roots of the conflict. But by refusing to acknowledge the religious roots of the conflict and by focusing on talking points about poverty and Muslim frustration with the politics of the Middle East, the president has done exactly what he claims he is not doing: adopting the same narrative promoted by terrorists whose goal is the destruction of the West.
As I noted in my New York Post article on yesterday’s speech, this is not, as the president’s apologists insist, merely a semantic argument. So long as the position of the White House is that the ultimate solution to this conflict is one that revolves more around better community relations than on military action, ISIS has little to worry about.
Let’s acknowledge that the president is right to echo his predecessor, George W. Bush, when he says this isn’t a war between the West and Islam. But by adopting this line as a constant refrain, President Obama is setting up one of his favorite rhetorical devices, the straw man. After all, no one on either side of the political aisle is claiming that it is a war against all Muslims. Rather, it is a fight against a powerful variant of political Islam that can count on significant support throughout the Muslim world. Though he continues to try and set the U.S. government up as an authority who can decide who is really a representative of Islam and who is not, ISIS and its allies have no doubt about their Islamic character. Nor does anyone else.
Remarks by Vice President Biden at the event’s opening doubled down on the president’s previous comments attempting to establish a moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity and Judaism. But like the president’s dubious history about the Crusades, the vice president’s discussion of white supremacist extremists is off the point. That the person who publicized this gaffe on Twitter was someone who once said Israel was a “suspect” in the 9/11 attacks and was considered worthy of an invitation to the summit speaks volumes about the misguided nature of the event. If we are in a war against ISIS, and we are, then we need our leaders to be inspiring us to persevere in that fight, not trying to tell us that Americans are not really very different from a barbarous enemy. In a month in which ISIS has expanded its reach from Iraq and Syria to Libya and in which the group has beheaded and burned to death its captives while its sympathizers gun down journalists, artists, and Jews in the streets of Europe, the White House is more concerned with not offending Muslims than in ramping up a half-hearted military effort against the terrorists.
Just as bad, the president is still stuck on his 2011 talking points about the Arab Spring. Many of us had high hopes for that moment when it seemed as if the Muslim world might embrace democracy as it shucked off the fetters of incompetent autocracies. But those of us who prefer to deal with reality rather than our dreams had to admit that this was largely a delusion. The Arab Spring proved that Islamists were not seeking to reform the Arab world but to enslave it. The people of Egypt figured this out when they overthrew a Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, but the administration still seems to think the rise of Islamists in the last three years is a coincidence they can ignore.
There is nothing wrong with the U.S. government seeking to cooperate with Muslim communities in the fight against terror, but doing so is not a substitute for waging war on ISIS. The president is right that there is a problem with narratives, but it is one that he is perpetuating. The Muslim world needs to be convinced of American determination to defeat ISIS but instead the president offers platitudes that do just the opposite. Moderate Arabs observing the spectacle at the White House the last two days were not reassured by the outreach efforts. Instead, they may be forgiven for thinking that this is a president who is still more interested in appeasing Islamists—like his Iranian negotiating partners—than in vanquishing them. Though the White House summit was oozing good intentions, all America’s enemies may have seen was weakness and irresolution that will inspire them to even greater cruelties and bloodshed in the weeks and months to come.