Winston Churchill famously suggested that:
You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.
Speaking with his characteristic mix of the compassionate and cerebral, the articulate and analytic, President Obama reminded Americans of the need for “strategic patience” in battling ISIS on Sunday night. He largely rejected Churchillian grand rhetoric. The nearest he got was when he said that “freedom is more powerful than fear.”
What he did was to lay out America’s policy approach. It is one that mixes the domestic and the foreign: a greater emphasis on the regulation of the visa program, community outreach and gun control at home; intensified support for the multilateral forces and the use of intelligence abroad.
Yet President Obama is obviously hoping that Churchill is right about Americans.
Because in a rare speech from the Oval Office, he sent a subtle but unmistakable message: his policy is on course, but meanwhile America is doing its best to assist ISIS.
How is America assisting ISIS?
There are four ways in which it is doing so – ones that Americans need to address.
First, terrorism in the United States has moved to a new phase. The primary threat in the United States is now, it seems, from lone wolves who are operating on a random basis. And, unlike in Europe, the evidence suggests that this threat isn’t from recruits returning from Iraq and Syria.
These people are American-based, ISIS-inspired actors who aren’t even part of cells that can be monitored. They are basically impossible to find – a point reinforced by a recent Georgetown University report.
The prescription is clear when the fact that the death toll from jihadist terrorism since the September 11 attacks – 45 people – is about the same as the 48 killed in terrorist attacks motivated by white supremacist and other right-wing extremist ideologies is added to the calculation.
Guns are all too readily available in the US, especially the high-velocity kind that can cause carnage. They need to be regulated. By refusing to do so, Americans are helping ISIS.
Second, the “Us versus Them” narrative has to cease when it comes to talking about Muslims.
As Obama suggested:
We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam…That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.
The rhetoric routinely employed by Republican candidates, in contrast, alienates moderate Muslims at home and abroad. It doesn’t co-opt them, which is what the government needs if it is to heighten its intelligence capacities.
Donald Trump’s suggestion of a registry for Muslims or Ted Cruz’s invocation of wartime rhetoric against what he insists should be labeled “Radical Islamic terrorism” is unhelpful at best, incendiary and hostile at worst.
And while this rhetoric may garner political support among Republican primary voters, it lacks any tangible policy benefits. After all, nobody uses the term “radical Christian terrorism” to describe the behavior of domestic right wing terrorists. American politicians need to moderate their language. Otherwise it helps ISIS.
Third, America can’t let the rapidly escalating siege mentality spill over into other issue areas – as it is doing in the case of refugee policy.
As I described in an earlier column, America has a noble history of admitting refugees since the start of the Cold War, especially those from failed and fragile states like Iraq and Syria.
Denying Muslims entry to the US, even in the pitifully small numbers advocated by the Obama administration, while admitting Christians, plays into a jihadist narrative that the US hates Muslims. It reverses our ever expanding notion of “who is human” – and therefore who should be helped. American efforts over the decades have expanded to assist people without regard to their religion, gender or sexual identity.
The president’s point is that halting that trend now both ruins our credibility abroad and tears at our social fabric at home. And, by the way, when did the US become a Christian country? I thought we had a clear separation of church and state. The divisive profiling by religion assists ISIS.
Fourth, the grandstanding wartime rhetoric employed by people like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio may be politically popular – but is unhelpful.
From the internment of Japanese Americans in the Second World War to the measures implemented by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War and on to the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” the evidence is consistent: using this language makes America susceptible to the kind of measures that risks America’s liberties at home and its reputation abroad.
A recent poll suggested, for example, that 40% of Americans currently favor a registry for Muslims.
The president, with his focus on freedom, recognizes the risks of adopting a bunker mentality. But many of the measures introduced by the Bush administration remain in law and their consequence rumbles on.
Guantanamo remains open. And if the right to bear arms with a velocity and capacity more befitting a theater of war is the only one we hold sacrosanct, then Americans will likely be, the president recognizes, the net losers.
Talking about this conflict as a war elevates ISIS’ standing while potentially circumscribing the rights and liberties of Americans – and so assists ISIS.
And just for the record
There is a fifth and final theme. It is one upon which the president didn’t dwell for political reasons. But he should have, and so I will.
America’s bureaucracy has unprecedented resources at its disposal in pursuit of the county’s national security both at home and abroad.
But a stream of reports – from the 9/11 report to those issued during the Bush and Obama administrations – makes clear that this burgeoning bureaucracy is a nightmare when it comes to sharing information and coordinating policy.
Being on a “no fly” list, for example, doesn’t stop someone from buying guns. Homeland security keeps growing. It is now composed of 22 federal departments and appears to still have as much trouble coordinating within those departments – or with other agencies – as when it was formed in 2002.
Big government is not the problem. Indeed, when it comes to national security, even Republicans approve of big government. But coordinated government is a problem here – one that America’s political leaders need to work on every day. It’ll never be seamless.
When reports repeatedly point to the same kind of gaps, then there is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed. Not working night and day to integrate America’s otherwise sophisticated and highly competent security apparatus – by leaving gaps that can be exploited - assists ISIS.
Subverting our own best efforts
The political culture precludes the president from saying so explicitly, but, as he implied, the terrorist threat may have to be managed and mitigated rather than quickly fought and won.
As the British discovered in Ireland, the only lasting solutions are political. They tend to be negotiated. They are not unilateral and military. And even then they take a long time to work out. But, regardless, the president’s implicit message was clear: it’ll help a great deal if Americans stop shooting themselves in the foot.
Let’s hope Churchill was right.