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.”