At the core of Barack Obama’s terrorism speech on Sunday night lay a contradiction. He gave the address to convince an increasingly fearful nation that he takes the terrorist threat seriously. But he doesn’t, at least not in the way his political opponents do.
For George W. Bush, the fight against jihadist terrorism was World War III. In his speech to Congress nine days after 9/11, Bush called al-Qaeda “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century ... they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.” Many Republicans still see the “war on terror” in these epic terms. After the Paris attacks, Marco Rubio didn’t merely warn that the Islamic State might take over Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East. He warned that it might take over the United States. America, he argued, is at war with people who “literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future.” In his telling, the United States and “radical Islam” are virtual equals, pitted in a “civilizational conflict” that “either they win or we win.”
Obama thinks that’s absurd. Unlike Rubio, he considers violent jihadism a small, toxic strain within Islamic civilization, not a civilization itself. And unlike Bush, he doesn’t consider it a serious ideological competitor. In the 1930s, when fascism and communism were at their ideological height, many believed they could produce higher living standards for ordinary people than democratic capitalist societies that were prone to devastating cycles of boom and bust. No one believes that about “radical Islam” today. In Obama’s view, I suspect, democratic capitalism’s real ideological adversary is not the “radical Islam” of ISIS. It’s the authoritarian, state-managed capitalism of China.
While Republicans think ISIS is strong and growing stronger, Obama thinks it’s weak and growing weaker. “Terrorists,” he declared on Sunday, now “turn to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society.” In other words, the Islamic State probably can’t do anything to America that we Americans aren’t doing to ourselves all the time, and now largely take for granted.
Obama also argued that the Islamic State is losing in the Middle East, where the “strategy that we are using now—air strikes, special forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country” will produce a “sustainable victory.”
The leading GOP presidential candidates reject that. They believe defeating the Islamic State requires some dramatic, if vaguely defined, new military and ideological exertion. Obama, by contrast, thinks America simply needs to not screw up. That means not being “drawn once more” into an effort to “occupy foreign lands,” thus allowing the Islamic State to use “our presence to draw new recruits.”
While Obama doesn’t say it outright, he appears to be subtly referencing Robert Pape’s influential argument that the great driver of suicide terrorism is not jihadist ideology but occupation. Because Obama, unlike Bush and Rubio, believes the Islamic State is ideologically weak, he thinks America’s current strategy will eventually defeat it unless America commits a large occupying force, which would give the jihadists a massive shot in the arm.
The other unforced error America must avoid, according to Obama, is “letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want.” Because the GOP candidates see violent jihadism as a powerful, seductive ideology, they think that many American Muslims are at risk of becoming terrorists, and thus that the United States must monitor them more aggressively. Because Obama sees violent jihadism as ideologically weak and unattractive, he thinks that few American Muslims will embrace it unless the United States makes them feel like enemies in their own country—which is exactly what Donald Trump risks doing.
Obama is a kind of Fukuyamian. Like Francis Fukuyama, the author of the famed 1989 essay “The End of History,” he believes that powerful, structural forces will lead liberal democracies to triumph over their foes—so long as these democracies don’t do stupid things like persecuting Muslims at home or invading Muslim lands abroad. His Republican opponents, by contrast, believe that powerful and sinister enemies are overwhelming America, either overseas (the Rubio version) or domestically (the Trump version).
For them, the only thing more terrifying than “radical Islam” is the equanimity with which President Obama meets it. And, to their dismay, that equanimity was very much on display on Sunday night.
Graeme Wood discusses his groundbreaking investigation of the Islamic State.