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.