Last night’s Democratic debate was supposed to center on domestic policy, but after the attacks in Paris, it was altered to focus in large part on terrorism and foreign policy. On one hand, that was necessary — when sudden and important events happen in the world, the people who want to lead our country have the chance to show why they ought to be in charge and give some sense of how they’d handle crises. On the other hand, without a lot of time for reflection, chances were high that the discussion would produce more heat than light.
And so it was that a significant portion of the debate’s terrorism section centered on the question of whether the candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton, have used the appropriately belligerent terminology in discussing terrorism. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley got involved, but the critical exchange was between moderator John Dickerson and Clinton:
DICKERSON: Secretary Clinton, you mentioned radical jihadists. Marco Rubio, also running for president, said that this attack showed and the attack in Paris showed that we are at war with radical Islam. Do you agree with that characterization, radical Islam?
CLINTON: I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists who have —
DICKERSON: Just to interrupt. He didn’t say all Muslims. He just said radical Islam. Is that a phrase you don’t…
CLINTON: I think that you can talk about Islamists who clearly are also jihadists, but I think it’s not particularly helpful to make the case that Senator Sanders was just making that I agree with, that we’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries.
We’ve got to have them be part of our coalition. If they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam, that was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a Mosque in Washington, we are not at war with Islam or Muslims.
We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression. And, yes, we are at war with those people. But I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.
In case it isn’t clear: saying “radical jihadists” makes you weak, while saying “radical Islam” makes you strong. “The critique is that the softness of language betrays a softness of approach,” Dickerson said. Overall, Dickerson did a good job moderating the debate, asking substantive questions and trying to pin the candidates down when they attempted to evade. But this was definitely his low point.
Not surprisingly, Republicans pounced. Nearly all the candidates tweeted out some version of “Yes Hillary, we’re at war with radical Islam!” Conservative media outlets today are full of articles with headlines like “Clinton Refuses to Say the U.S. Is at War With Radical Islam” and “Hillary Clinton won’t describe Islamic State as ‘Islamic.'”
And it wasn’t just Republicans themselves. In some quarters of the media, the candidates’ failure to say we’re at war with “radical Islam” is being treated as some kind of gaffe, supposedly because Republicans have “crisper answers.”
But before we get consumed with the politics of this argument about word usage, we should ask a simple question: To quote something Clinton herself once said, what difference does it make? Do the words “Islamic terrorism” constitute some kind of magical incantation that once spoken will drive our enemies from the earth? I’m not saying language never matters, but what exactly is this particular language choice supposed to accomplish?
Republicans have been making this criticism of Barack Obama for years, endlessly saying, “How can he defeat radical Islam if he won’t call it by its name?!?” Even for them, this is an uncommonly stupid argument. Let’s say Obama or Clinton came out tomorrow and said, “Hey, you know what? You guys are right. We are at war with radical Islam.” Then what? Would that make anyone any safer?
I’ve yet to hear any conservative give a substantive reason why it would be preferable to have the president say “We’re at war with radical Islam,” other than that doing so would prove that he or she is tough and strong. And as Clinton pointed out, George W. Bush was careful to emphasize that we’re not at war with Islam; I don’t think there are many conservatives who think Bush’s problem when it came to terrorism was that he was weak.
But the Democrats do have a good reason why they think it’s a mistake to feed into the idea that this is a religious war. They argue that in order to stop terrorism, we need the help of the world’s Muslim populations, and the last thing we want to do is drive them away by implying that they’re all our enemies. The terrorists want Muslims everywhere to believe the West is at war with Islam. Should we really be helping them make that case?
Consider that the kind of attacks we saw in Paris would be simple to pull off in the United States, where acquiring all the guns and ammunition you want is easier than getting your hands on a box of Sudafed. Why have there been so few terrorist attacks in the U.S. by home-grown Muslim radicals? It’s not that someone who wants to kill a bunch of people faces some kind of practical impediment to doing so. It’s because American Muslims are much more integrated into the broader American community than their counterparts in Europe. American Muslims are less alienated and more patriotic, even despite the kind of harassment and surveillance so many of them have been subjected to in the last 14 years.
Sadly, the Republicans probably have the politics right on this question. When people are fearful, they often turn to leaders who will offer the most simplistic analysis of events and play to the basest emotions. You don’t get a lot of applause for saying that the situation we confront is complex and requires us to be not just strong but thoughtful and careful as well. As Republican consultant Alex Castellanos told the Post: “We want a president equal to our fears, big scary fears about holding the world together and survival.”
So it’s more important than ever to force those who would be president to be as specific as possible about what they would do, not just what they would say. The truth is that both the Democratic and and Republican candidates have been vague on that score, which tells you just how difficult the situation is. But there’s one thing we know for sure: it won’t be solved by figuring out who’s using the toughest words.