Triangulation for the New Millenium

With the right threatening to make the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” a major distraction and the left refusing to yield, Hillary Clinton took a page from the 1990s and found a third way.

John Locher / AP

The massacre in Orlando has created dueling narratives of gays, guns, and God. Democrats tell a story of gays and guns: A hate crime was committed against the LGBT community, demonstrating a powerful need for greater gun control. For Republicans, the terrorist atrocity is no reason to trammel on Second Amendment rights. And many on the right don’t want to mention the fact that gays were the target: Homophobia is the hate that dare not speak its name. Instead, the GOP response has focused intensely on the Islamic nature of the attacker—placing Hillary Clinton in a difficult dilemma as she turns her focus to the general electorate.

Republicans insist on calling the enemy “radical Islamic terrorism”—the words pounded out like a 10-note drumbeat. Donald Trump even capitalizes the phrase on his website. It’s the right’s terrorism litmus test. The willingness to say “radical Islamic terrorism” marks you out as a guardian of freedom. By contrast, refusing to use the term means you don’t understand the true nature of the enemy. As James Woolsey, head of the CIA under Bill Clinton, said: “You can’t effectively fight something if you can’t discuss it.”

President Obama, however, refuses to play the Republican game: “The main contribution some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL, is to criticize the administration, and me, for not using the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ … What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? ... Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.”

As the White House sees it, labeling the adversary “radical Islam” only confirms ISIS’s narrative that it is the Prophet’s vanguard—the purest and holiest version of Islam. Better to frame the fight as one against specific terrorist networks like Al Qaeda or ISIS, or label the enemy as a band of thugs. And it’s the Republicans who have shifted ground, not the Democrats. After 9/11, George W. Bush went to great lengths to describe the enemy as Al Qaeda not Islam. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., just six days after the attacks and said: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” Now the GOP insists on calling the enemy Islamic.

This dogged use of “radical Islamic terrorism” threatens to become a major diversion. So what should Clinton do? Taking a page from the Clintons’ 1990s playbook, the answer is triangulation: Transcend the left-right divide, incorporate ideas from both sides, and shield against attack.

This week, like Obama, she pounced on Trump for fixating on a single phrase: “Is Donald Trump suggesting that there are magic words that once uttered will stop terrorists from coming after us?” But on Monday, she seemed to bow to GOP coercion by employing the term “radical Islamism” to describe the ISIS threat. Clinton’s use of “radical Islamism” might seem like the worst kind of triangulation: an unprincipled caving to Republican pressure that is music to the ears of those who see a civilizational clash between the West and Islam. But Clinton’s response was actually smart politics: It’s an effective kind of triangulation that disarms the opponent without sacrificing much substance.

“Radical Islamism” is close enough to “radical Islamic” that it inoculates her against Republican attacks for not using the litmus-test phrase. She is right to tread carefully because the terrorism issue represents treacherous waters for Democrats. Terrorist attacks often make people turn to the political right for security and retribution. Psychological studies find that terrorism makes liberals become more conservative, display more national loyalty, and exhibit more distrust of Muslims. The share of the American public that sees terrorism as the most critical issue facing the country recently reached 16 percent, the highest level in a decade—and that was before Orlando. In a recent Bloomberg poll, Clinton leads Trump by 12 points. But when asked which candidate they have more confidence in if there’s a repeat of the Orlando attack, Americans picked Trump by 4 points—suggesting a potential opening for the presumptive Republican nominee.

Obama is right that the United States systematically exaggerates the terrorist threat—but hardly anyone has won an election by being “weak on terror.” In his Atlantic article on the “Obama Doctrine,” Jeffery Goldberg wrote that the president’s advisers “are fighting a constant rearguard action to keep Obama from placing terrorism in what he considers its ‘proper’ perspective, out of concern that he will seem insensitive to the fears of the American people.”

At the same time, however, the phrase “radical Islamism” is different enough from “radical Islam” to mean this is no surrender. “Islamism” implies a political movement to implement Islamic values, rather than the religion itself. Therefore “radical Islamism” is a far more specified term that refers to a small minority—of a minority—within Islam. And now that Clinton has used “radical Islamism” once, she doesn’t need to keep repeating it and can employ other more effective labels.

Is “radical Islamism” the same as “radical Islam”? As Bill Clinton might have said: It depends on what the meaning of “ism” is.