To applause, he added firmly: "And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam."
In saying that, the president is repeating almost word for word statements made by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, when he first declared the war on terror in the wake of the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001. In his address to the nation on September 20, 2001, Bush said the terrorists were on "the fringe" of Islam. "The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself," he said. In later remarks, Bush repeatedly said, "Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith." He added, "We do not fight Islam; we fight against evil."
But those sentiments never brought Bush the withering criticism faced by Obama for saying the same thing 14 years later. In part, that is because Bush at the same time was sprinkling his remarks with doses of bluster, such as wanting terrorists "dead or alive." And in part, it is because Obama has bewildered even his supporters by the reticence of his White House to state what seems obvious. In the last week, that means the obvious facts that Jews were targeted in the Paris attack on a kosher deli and that Christians were targeted in the horrific mass beheadings by the Islamic State militants in Libya last weekend.
At Wednesday's White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest denied he had "tip-toed" around the reality. But when pressed, he replied, "We'll put an end to the tip-toeing to the extent that there's been any." He added, "If people assume that I've been tip-toeing, let me just try and be as clear as I can and we'll see how this works."
In fact, Earnest and the White House had been more guilty of tripping over their own words than tip-toeing around the facts. Every White House tries to be cautious when talking about international affairs. They understand that diplomats—and enemies—will be parsing each syllable, eager to pounce on poorly chosen words. Bush was a victim of that in 2001 when he twice described the war on terror as a crusade, using a word that even centuries later is heavily laden with symbolism and bad memories for the Muslim world.
In Obama's case last week, it was seeming to suggest that the deli victims in Paris were chosen "randomly" and not because of their faith. Instead of immediately correcting the misimpression, Earnest and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki struggled to answer questions. Only later in the day did Earnest send out a tweet to correct the record.
In the case of the Coptic Christians slaughtered by the Islamic State, an initial statement by Earnest said all the right things—except that it described the victims as Egyptian "citizens" instead of Christians. The critics ignored the fact that the president, in his op-ed written for the Los Angeles Times, wrote openly about "Egyptian Christians." Or that Earnest quickly offered assurances that he was not trying to ignore why they were killed.