For years, Republicans have been telling us that the key to eradicating the threat of terrorism was to utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” More powerful than any spell taught at Hogwarts, once it was spoken by a president this magical incantation would emanate across the planet like a shock wave of righteousness and turn terrorists to dust where they stood.
Donald Trump didn’t invent this dumbest of all semantic obsessions. He inherited it from other Republicans. But with the zeal of the converted, he took up the critique of Barack Obama’s linguistic weakness and vowed that once he became president, he would wield the glorious phrase in America’s defense. So it was probably a surprise to him when he learned that his new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has the same position on “radical Islamic terrorism” that Obama did.
What happens now? Let’s see:
President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, advised him in a closed-door meeting last week to stop using a phrase that was a frequent refrain during the campaign: “radical Islamic terrorism.”
But the phrase will be in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, according to a senior White House aide — even though McMaster reviewed drafts and his staff pressed the president’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, not to use it.
This is a relatively minor disagreement, but it’s a demonstration of a larger dynamic we’re likely to see in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. There are a few voices of sanity in the administration, people who actually have the experience and knowledge to do their jobs well and aren’t pursuing some maniacal vision of a global clash of civilizations — particularly McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But they’re likely to be overcome by a trio of forces working against reason, caution and thoughtfulness.
The first force is the other power centers in the White House, including Miller but particularly Stephen K. Bannon, who arrived in the White House with a vision of a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. “You could look in 1938 and say, ‘Look, it’s pretty dark here in Europe right now, but there’s something actually much darker. And that is Islam,'” he once said. Bannon may be the single most powerful aide to the president, and he’s not exactly going to be counseling forbearance whenever the next Middle East crisis arrives. Indeed, he believes the war has already begun. “Some of these situations may get a little unpleasant,” he said in 2015. “But you know what, we’re in a war. We’re clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East again.”
The second force aligned against the voices of sanity is the Republican Party; not just Republicans on Capitol Hill, but the party more broadly. While there are a few members of Congress (such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina) who may be willing to criticize the administration, in foreign policy the party and its base are going to be pressing for the most aggressive action in every situation, at least when it comes to the Middle East. For the past two years, Trump has promoted and then fed off the fears and hatreds of the GOP base in a feedback loop of anger. With his daily diet of Fox News shows, Trump is intensely attuned to what the base is saying and is always eager to give them what they want — which is not even to mention that he is in regular communication with people like lunatic conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. That puts those advocating restraint and appreciating nuance at a disadvantage.
The final force working against the sane members of the administration is, of course, the president himself. We know that Trump is impulsive and ill-informed, which dramatically increases the risk of terrible decision-making in a crisis. We also know that his natural inclinations move him in the direction of simplistic thinking, bellicosity and overreaction. While much was made during the campaign of his disinterest in the kind of nation-building the George W. Bush administration advocated, it would be a mistake to believe that Trump is less militaristic than other Republicans. As he said himself, “I am the most militaristic person you will ever meet” — he just doesn’t want to stay around and clean up after dropping the bombs. This is someone who has advocated stealing oil from Iraq and murdering the families of suspected terrorists, and whose “plan” for combating the Islamic State consisted of “I would bomb the s— out of them.”
Despite what McMaster told him, it looks like Trump is not yet dissuaded from his belief that repeating the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is vital to any effective terrorism strategy. One can’t help but wonder how Trump handled the cognitive dissonance that arose when McMaster explained why he’s mistaken on this point. On one hand, Trump knows that saying “radical Islamic terrorism” is tough and strong, and there are few things more important to him than looking tough and strong. On the other hand, McMaster — an obvious tough guy — is telling him the opposite.
Trump is obsessed with appearances, and frequently mentions his appointees’ appearance as evidence of their qualifications. “I see my generals,” he said at one event on Inauguration Day, pointing to Mattis. “They’re going to have a lot of problems, the other side. They’re gonna look at, they’re gonna look at, a couple of ’em, these are Central Casting. If I’m doing a movie, I pick you, General.”
By some accounts, Trump asked Mattis to be defense secretary in no small part because Mattis has a cool nickname (“Mad Dog”). So Trump was shocked when Mattis told him that torture doesn’t work. “I was surprised,” Trump said, “because he’s known as being like the toughest guy.” He may have been equally surprised when McMaster told him to cool it with the “radical Islamic terrorism.” But in neither case did he really change his mind.
So in a moment of crisis, when a few people around Trump are advising careful restraint and others are urging him to go off half-cocked, what’s going to happen? We don’t yet know. But there’s little reason to be reassured.