What Obama Actually Thinks About Radical Islam

The president does not suffer illusions about the pathologies afflicting the broader Muslim world.

Obama delivers remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville, Maryland February 3, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

It is not a new practice for critics of President Obama to question his commitment to the fight against Islamist terrorism, but Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has cast doubt on Obama’s commitment to this struggle in uniquely florid and bizarre ways. On Tuesday, he claimed that Obama “prioritizes” America’s enemies over the American people; on Monday, he insinuated that Obama is sympathetic to the Islamic State terror group. (Read the previous sentence again and ask yourself: How has it come to this?)

Trump’s recent statements about Obama grow from a neurotic belief in the president’s malevolent otherness: On ISIS, Trump said, Obama “doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands.” Barack Obama, to Donald Trump, is, and will forever be, the Manchurian President—Manchuria, by way of Kenya, with a detour in Raqqa.

It is true that Trump’s critique of Obama’s handling of terrorism is, among other things, analysis-free and comprehensively unserious, but it is also true is that there are non-hysterical critiques to be made, and not only critiques that concern Obama’s reluctance to describe the threat as one posed by “radical Islam” (a reluctance the president addressed on Tuesday). Critics to Obama’s right fault him for prematurely withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and for not doing enough to prevent Syria from becoming a safe haven for ISIS. His reluctance to involve the U.S. more systematically in the Syrian civil war, the argument goes, has allowed jihadists to fill the vacuum created by the absence of the world’s sole superpower. Some critics on the right also argue that Obama blanches when confronted by the ugly truth about Muslim dysfunction and extremism; political correctness, in this view, hamstrings the president, and makes him obtuse. Critics to Obama’s left, on the other hand, argue that he is killing too many people, particularly through the use of drone strikes, and that his policies are distressingly of a piece with those of his Republican predecessor. The over-militarization of the so-called war on terror, that argument goes, exacerbates a problem that has already been hyped by “Islamophobic” fearmongers.

Over the course of many conversations with Obama about the Middle East, terrorism, Islam, and the role of religion in fomenting extremist behavior, I’ve developed at least a partial understanding of his thinking on these subjects. Suffice it to say that I find neither the right’s nor the left’s interpretations of Obama’s policy and rhetorical predispositions to be particularly satisfying or comprehensive.

Obama, in my reading, does not—contra his right-leaning critics—suffer illusions about the pathologies afflicting the broader Muslim world. If anything, his pessimism on matters related to the dysfunctions of Muslim states, and to the inability of the umma—the worldwide community of Muslims—to contain and ultimately neutralize the extremist elements in its midst, has, at times, an almost paralyzing effect on him. The president has come to the conclusion (as I outlined in my recent Atlantic cover story, “The Obama Doctrine”) that the underlying problems afflicting Islam are too deep, and too resistant to American intervention, to warrant implementation of the sort of policies that his critics, including his critics in foreign-policy think tanks, demand.

Early in his first term, Obama believed (rather too naively, in my opinion) that he could, in fact, make a substantive difference. He delivered a speech in Cairo that was meant to reset relations with Muslims, but was also meant, he later told me, to challenge Muslims to cease manufacturing excuses for problems of their own making. He told me recently, in reference to the Cairo speech, “My argument was this. Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel. We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”

He gave the Cairo speech in 2009. By 2012—as the revolutions of the Arab Spring were curdling, and as Libya drifted toward chaos, despite a partial U.S. intervention—Obama developed strong antibodies to what I call the Carly Simon Syndrome, which is an affliction affecting American policymakers so vain that they probably think Islamist extremism, and everything else, is about them. Obama, unlike many American analysts, does not suffer from this delusion. He sees the problems affecting parts of the Muslim world as largely outside American control. At its best, this belief keeps him from rushing into disasters not of America’s making; at its worst, it keeps him from taking steps that stand a chance of making things better.

Again and again in our conversations, Obama spoke about the Arab and Muslim worlds in ways that ran counter—dramatically counter—to the caricature of his views as advanced by critics. At one point, he suggested, to my surprise (I’m not immune to the power of these caricatures) that far too many Arab Muslims, in particular, have given themselves over to hatred and violence. He contrasted these Middle Easterners with young people in East and Southeast Asia (and in Africa and Latin America as well), by saying, “They are not thinking about how to kill Americans. What they’re thinking about is How do I get a better education? How do I create something of value?” Obama went on to say that if America is not engaging these young Asians “because if the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”

It is not only Obama’s seven-year war against jihadist organizations that calls into question Trump’s claim that he is working to advance the interests of ISIS (or, to put it another way, if Obama is indeed an ISIS agent, he’s doing a very bad job of it). It is also his publicly and frequently articulated demand, made of all Muslims, to fight harder against those who refract their faith through the prism of arid and merciless textual literalism. “There is ... the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society,” Obama told me.

He immediately pivoted from this statement, though, by addressing Donald Trump—not by name, but his target was obvious. “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate,” he said, “if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.”

This represents the core of Obama’s anti-Trump argument. John Brennan, the CIA director, described to me the tightrope Obama walks on Muslim extremism this way: “The goal is not to force a Huntington template onto this conflict.” Brennan was referring to the political scientist Samuel Huntington, who posited the existence of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.

The fundamental difference between Obama and Trump on issues related to Islamist extremism (apart from the obvious, such as that, unlike Trump, Obama a) has killed Islamist terrorists; b) regularly studies the problem and allows himself to be briefed by serious people about the problem; and c) is not racist or temperamentally unsuitable for national leadership) is that Trump apparently believes that two civilizations are in conflict. Obama believes that the clash is taking place within a single civilization, and that Americans are sometimes collateral damage in this fight between Muslim modernizers and Muslim fundamentalists.

In one conversation, parts of which I’ve previously recounted, Obama talked about the decades-long confrontation between the U.S. and communism, and compared it to the current crisis. “You have some on the Republican side who will insist that what we need is the same moral clarity with respect to radical Islam” that Ronald Reagan had with communism, he said. “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.”

Does Obama go too far in avoiding the terms “radical Islam” or “violent Islam”? This question represents a not-unreasonable basis for an interesting debate. However, given the realities of the battlefield—that most of the fighting against ISIS is done by Muslim-majority states, and Muslim organizations, and that the leaders of these entities would rather not see the U.S. overgeneralize its description of the fight—then it seems to me, at least, that Obama’s semantic prudence is justifiable.

Donald Trump, I believe, is not capable of making the sort of analysis Obama has made about the splits within Islam. Nor has he refuted Obama’s analysis in a cogent fashion. But this is not Trump’s main sin; his main sin is to refuse to listen to experts on counterterrorism, including experts in the U.S. military and intelligence community, who argue that he is helping ISIS by demonizing Muslims. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph of Islamic State, argues that there is no place in the West for a devout Muslim. Donald Trump often gives the impression that he shares this view, and that he is advancing the cause of ISIS, by endorsing its premise that the struggle in which it is engaged is, in fact, civilizational.

None of this is meant to be an argument that Obama does enough, or does enough of the right things, in the struggle against ISIS. I could (and will!) write a critique of the administration’s tactical approach, particularly as it relates to Syria. And Obama could bring more emotional intelligence to bear on this problem: He is eloquent in condemning the fearmongers, but he sometimes fails to acknowledge the legitimate fears of non-racist, non-paranoid Americans who would prefer not to be killed by terrorists acting in the name of Islam. The United States is under intermittent attack from an organization called the Islamic State, which, as Graeme Wood has pointed out in this magazine, represents one, extreme, branch of Islam. There is no point in trying to convince Americans that what is happening is not happening. But neither is there a point in encouraging hysteria and division.

Privately, Obama expresses the deepest loathing for ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. ISIS, he has noted, stands for—quite literally—everything he opposes. Nevertheless, his approach to the challenge of Islamist terrorism is sometimes emotionally unsatisfying; it is sometimes insufficient to the challenge; and he himself is sometimes too fatalistic about the possibility of change in the Middle East.

Donald Trump’s approach, on the other hand, is simply catastrophic.

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