Obama on What Trump and Cruz Get Wrong About Islam

The struggle against jihadist terrorism isn’t the same as the struggle against communism—and it’s dangerous to conflate them.

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

The two leading Republican presidential candidates both suggest that America has a problem with Islam. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz sometimes frame the problem that they have diagnosed as one having to do with “radical Islam,” rather than simply “Islam,” though Cruz has called for increased police patrols of “Muslim neighborhoods,” not of “radical Muslim neighborhoods.”

Donald Trump, on this subject, as on others, is given to descriptive imprecision, and to a bluntness that can be terrifying. In a semi-forgotten 2011 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, a friendly interlocutor asked Trump about a statement he had made about Islam on Fox. Trump said, in response, “Bill O’Reilly asked me if there is a Muslim problem. And I said, absolutely, yes.” Trump went on to say, “Many, many, most Muslims are wonderful people, but is there a Muslim problem? Look what’s happening.” He added, in reference to the Koran, “A lot of people say it teaches love ... but there’s something there that teaches some very negative vibe.” Trump’s commentary on Islam since that interview has not gained depth or nuance.

Many of the Republican complaints around this subject have to do with President Obama’s approach to the issue. In a recent appearance on Fox and Friends, Cruz said, “What’s bizarre is the political correctness that they will not even say the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ Instead after every attack, after Paris, after San Bernardino, the president goes on television and lectures Americans on Islamophobia.”

There is, of course, a legitimate critique to be made of President Obama’s rhetorical approach to terrorism. He is, in my view, so worried about activating panic, or xenophobia, that he will sometimes over-calibrate his remarks, erring on the side of Spockian rationality. As was noted in my new Atlantic cover story on Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, it is important for a president to acknowledge the legitimate fears of American citizens before he sets about castigating the fearmongers.

But the lack of satisfying rhetoric on Obama’s part should not be confused for a lack of strategy. He is, after all, killing jihadists at a frenetic pace (these targeted killings receive comparatively little coverage in the press, at least when compared to the coverage of Donald Trump’s complaints about Obama’s prosecution of the war on ISIS), and there is a national security-oriented rationale to his limited use of heated anti-ISIS rhetoric. One of the president’s goals in this fight is to avoid enlarging the pool of adversaries. As his CIA director, John Brennan, told me, “The goal is not to force a Huntington template onto this conflict.” Brennan is referring to the late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s famous suggestion that the West is engaged in a clash of civilizations with Islam.

It is true, contra the apologists, that ISIS is a Muslim problem (read my colleague Graeme Wood on this subject). Those who have read “The Obama Doctrine” know that the president believes this to be true, and that he has called on Muslim leaders and clerics to examine the causes of extremism in their community. But it is also true that Islam is the solution to the ISIS problem. The great mass of the world’s billion-and-a-half Muslims are not ISIS supporters, nor sympathizers, and it is also true, of course, that most of ISIS’s victims are Muslim. Only Islam can truly defeat this movement. One reason Obama is cautious in using heated, or overly generalized, rhetoric is that he would like to avoid a situation in which ordinary Muslims come to believe that the West despises their religion. It is a core interest of ISIS to convince non-radicalized Muslims that there is no space for them in the West. Trump and Cruz are helping ISIS make this case; Obama, and the national-security apparatus of the United States, are not interested in doing this.

In one of my recent conversations with Obama, he dilated on this point in an interesting way. (“The Obama Doctrine” contains many thousands of words of Obama’s thoughts on foreign policy. However, I could not, for reasons of space, include all of what he had to say. In the coming weeks, I will be highlighting some of the things he told me that did not make it into the original article.) Obama made these particular comments during a conversation about Ronald Reagan’s influence on Republican thought. His main argument here is that rhetoric that could legitimately be deployed against an ideology like communism cannot be similarly deployed against the world’s second-largest religion.

Obama first praised Reagan’s “moral clarity about communism,” saying, “I think you can make a credible argument that as important as containment was in winning the Cold War, as important as prudence was in winning the Cold War, that at a time when perhaps the West had gotten too comfortable in the notion that, ‘Look, the world is divided and there’s nothing we could do about it,’ Reagan promoting a clearer moral claim about why we have to fight for freedom was useful and was important.”

The danger comes, Obama told me, when people apply lessons of the struggle against communism in the struggle against Islamist terrorism.

“You have some on the Republican side who will insist that what we need is the same moral clarity with respect to radical Islam. Except, of course, communism was not embedded in a whole bunch of cultures, communism wasn’t a millennium-old religion that was embraced by a whole host of good, decent, hard-working people who are our allies. Communism for the most part was a foreign, abstract ideology that had been adopted by some nationalist figures, or those who were concerned about poverty and inequality in their countries but wasn’t organic to these cultures.”

He went on to say, “Establishing some moral clarity about what communism was and wasn’t, and being able to say to the people of Latin America or the people of Eastern Europe, ‘There’s a better way for you to achieve your goals,’ that was something that could be useful to do.” But, he said, “to analogize it to one of the world’s foremost religions that is the center of people’s lives all around the world, and to potentially paint that as a broad brush, isn’t providing moral clarity. What it’s doing is alienating a whole host of people who we need to work with us in order to succeed.”

Obama said that the manner in which a president discusses Islam has direct bearing on the fight against Islam’s most extreme manifestations. “I do believe that how the president of the United States talks about Islam and Muslims can strengthen or weaken the cause of those Muslims who we want to work with, and that when we use loose language that appears to pose a civilizational conflict between the West and Islam, or the modern world and Islam, then we make it harder, not easier, for our friends and allies and ordinary people to resist and push back against the worst impulses inside the Muslim world.”

Obama added, “This is not speculation on my part. Let’s just track what has happened from the emergence of ISIS to the language that Donald Trump has used and his logical conclusion that we should ban Muslims from entering the country, including potentially Muslim citizens. That wasn’t by accident. I’m amused when I watch Republicans claim that Trump’s language is unacceptable, and ask, ‘How did we get here?’ We got here in part because the Republican base had been fed this notion that Islam is inherently violent, that this is who these folks are. And if you’ve been hearing that a lot, and then somebody shows up on the scene and says, well, the logical conclusion to civilizational conflict is we try to make sure that we’re not destroyed internally by this foreign civilization, that’s what you get.”

One answer to the challenge posed by ISIS, Obama said, is to highlight for the world the achievements of American Muslims, and also the idea that a Muslim can live in a multicultural, multi-confessional country like the U.S. without losing faith. “We have the ability to continue to promote the extraordinary success and patriotism and loyalty and success of Muslim Americans,” Obama said. “That is as powerful a message that we can send to other Muslim countries who are going through these identity crises.”

This is not a thought of Obama’s alone. Based on my own conversations at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community, I can say with reasonable certainty that there are no senior-level national security professionals in the U.S. who believe that it is in America’s best interest to risk making Islam itself the enemy. The two leading Republican candidates for president are currently out of step with this conclusion.