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.