By Michael J. Parker
In his recent address during a summit on terrorism, President Obama refused to equate or even connect Islam with terrorism, or to paint the atrocities by ISIL and Al-Qaida as Islamic. Obama prefers to refer to the atrocities in the Middle East as a sort of non-denominational extremism, stating, ISIL and Al-Qaida “Are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
Obama has spent a lot of time in public rhetoric systematically detaching Islam from terrorism.
Lots of people are pissed about this, and it’s not just the conservative right.
Max Fisher of Vox, stated in his article, “Obama should stop pretending Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam” that Obama “Has veered so far into downplaying Islamist extremism that he appears at times to refuse to acknowledge its existence at all” and that there are real consequences to not connecting terrorism with Islam, stating, “Obama, by refusing to acknowledge that there is such a thing as Islamist extremism, has tied his own hands; he cannot draw a distinction between Islam and Islamist extremism if he pretends the latter does not exist.”
Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard recently went public, denouncing the president saying “I’m upset that the President and the White House… [are] not actually saying, ‘This is a war that the Islamic extremists are posing against the United States and against the West and we recognize who our enemy is and come up with a strategy to defeat that enemy.”
So what’s the problem? Is Obama making a mistake? Is he being weak? Why doesn’t he just come out and “call a spade a spade,” name these monsters as Islamic extremists. Why doesn’t he “identify” our enemy?
I have lots of issues with elements of the foreign policy of the administration, but I would like to give you some color on this based on my time in Afghanistan over the years, as well as two years in Pakistan and around the Middle East.
This concerted effort to disconnect Islam and Terrorism is a rational one.
It has nothing to do with religion or Islam, it has everything to do with killing ISIL and Al Qaida efficiently. The fact that Obama isn’t connecting Islam and terrorism isn’t a reflection of “not identifying” our enemy, rather, just the opposite. It is that we have identified who our allies are and we want to keep them onside. Lumping terrorism with Islam will only weaken our position against ISIL and Al Qaida, and does not measurably help us in any way.
With due respect to Mr. Fisher, Congresswoman Gabbard, Sen. McCain and others who criticize the president on Islam and terrorism, I think taking the opposite approach to the current one would, frankly, be stupid.
What Nobody is Talking About:
Let’s put Obama’s recent comments into perspective. Right under our noses, the Obama administration has assembled what is perhaps the largest and broadest Islamic coalition force in history. Not long ago, because our relationships with Middle Eastern governments were so shitty, we had American teenagers with M-16s guarding truck stops in what is now ISIL controlled Iraq. We spent hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars with troops on the ground to pay for some big strategic mistakes we made in the invasion of this part of the world.
It was not exactly efficient.
If you want to kill members of ISIL and Al Qaida, AND you don’t want boots on the ground, you will need to build a diplomatic coalition. What we need to understand in this context is, currently, the people doing the vast majority of the fighting against ISIL and Al-Qaida (and the Taliban) are not Americans… in fact, the people doing the fighting against our enemy are Muslims. We need to respect that. This is perhaps one of the biggest strategic victories in coalition building we have seen in many years.
The Egyptians, the Iraqis, the Kurdish Pesh-Merga, the Emeratis, the Saudis, hell even the Iranians are bombing our enemies (supplemented by American intel. and coalition air power). This is no small feat, and this is perhaps the most efficient way to fight ISIL and Al Qaida. Imagine if we had taken this approach in Afghanistan or Iraq to start with.
The reason the Obama administration is consistently driving a wedge with its rhetoric between Islam and terrorism has nothing to do with some unquantifiable rationale on the relationship between Islam and terrorism. It’s not Obama’s job to engage in some dinner table conversation about religion and violence. Rather, his rhetoric is part and parcel of a very deliberate strategy to achieve our political and military aims using the coalition of Islamic states we have built in order to more efficiently kill terrorists. Make no mistake, it is a strategy, one you may not agree with, that has avoided boots on the ground to this point.
If you read the transcript of the president’s recent comments during their Islamic summit with this in mind, almost every paragraph is designed to divide ISIS from Islam, to peel ISIL away from it’s source of validation in order to give Islamic states like Turkey, Jordan and Iraq the political flexibility to justify a direct fight on their own soil with ISIL. This is unprecedented, this is a GOOD thing, and we should all be happy about it.
Think about costs and benefits here.
There is no quantifiable benefit whatsoever to connecting Islam with terrorism from a military or economic standpoint. None. In fact, by not driving a wedge between the two, and grouping both Islam and terrorism together, you only complicate the fight and make it more likely that we go back to sending our men and women overseas to do something that can be done for one tenth of the cost by a Kurdish fighter.
You Aren’t Crazy Just Because You See a Link
I am not saying that there are not good reasons to have theological and political discussions on the impact of religion on violence or human rights. I am not saying you are stupid because you think they are a link, or that you have no reason to be frustrated at our foreign policy.
What I am saying is that they are not measurably beneficial from the standpoint of a Commander-in-Chief to lump Islam and terrorism together. His job is to win a war, and lumping Islam with terrorism doesn’t help him do that. We should be behind him on that. What we want at the end is the maximum damage done to ISIL and al Qaida with the minimal cost to our people. How do we do that? We build an alliance and we kill ISIL without putting boots on the ground. How do we keep that up? We don’t go out and criticize the religion of all our allies without a VERY good reason.
Sometimes its ok to piss off other countries, but only if the benefits of pissing them off outweigh the costs. In this case, Obama’s comments about ISIL not being Islamic help provide political cover for Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and others to directly attack ISIL and Al Qaida. That should be what everyone wants. We should all be on the same page with this, whatever your political leanings are or what you view as the role of government, the outcome of Obama’s separating Islam and Terrorism leads to more dead terrorists and fewer American boots on the ground.
What If We Did the Opposite
Imagine a strategy with the opposite approach, imagine the leader of our military saying terrorism was Islamic or as Graeme Wood of the Atlantic said, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”
What would we gain strategically, economically or militarily if the president of the United States took a divisive political stance like that?
Do you think we would see the largest alliance between the United States and the Islamic world in history? Of course not. What you would get is a bunch of pissed off allies and a lot of closed doors, with American taxpayers and military personnel having to fill the void that is currently filled by Islamic nations in the fight against terror.
What Is the Gain?
So ask yourself, why are you so eager to lump the two together? What quantifiable and measurable strategic benefits arise which are better than having the largest Islamic coalition in history bombing what we all agree is the biggest threat to modern civilization? If you can come up with a better outcome, then by all means we should implement that.
I disagree strongly with a lot of the military foreign policy of this administration, particularly with regards to Afghanistan. In this case, I think everyone needs to be on the same page. Of course a dialogue within Islam is also an important. Of course Religion can play a role in creating violence, but Obama is avoiding that topic for measurable and beneficial reasons. I don’t expect this to totally change anyone’s mind overnight, but I think its worthwhile to consider this information as an element in your final calculation.
Follow Michael J. Parker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mickeyparx