Americans looking for a Snuggy Bear and a blankey to ease their anxieties about the Islamic State will have to become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
From President Obama’s recent terrorism speech in the Oval Office to Donald Trump’s terrifying, race-baiting, religion-testing rebuke in South Carolina, there is little to console those seeking either instant gratification from Obama or sanity from the leading Republican presidential candidate.
While Trump speaks to fear with anti-Muslim rhetoric that builds a wall around our national essence, the president attempts to soothe with reason and inspirational rhetoric more befitting a nation that hasn’t just suffered a horrific terrorist slaughter.
Obama’s speech was never going to satisfy critics and those convinced they know the better route. But the fact of the speech alone — appropriately solemn in recognition of the fact that the killings in San Bernardino, Calif. , and Chattanooga, Tenn., and at Fort Hood, Tex., were terrorist attacks — spoke volumes. And though he identified the California terrorists as Islamic State-inspired, he surely disappointed those insistent in their own cultish fashion that Obama refuses to name the enemy and, therefore, can’t defeat him. An absurdity. A dead terrorist is a dead terrorist by any name.
Obama’s further reiteration of his current course left wanting those longing for the more comforting certitude of the cheerleader with a megaphone. And those hoping for a declaration of the usual sort of war — thousands of ground troops in Syria and Iraq — were doubtless disappointed, as well as affirmed in their belief that Obama doesn’t get it. Or that he’s only trying to preserve his legacy as the non-war president, a trope favored by the right.
But realistically, what president chooses to ignore a necessary war? Who wants to be remembered as the cowardly commander in chief who allowed the world to slip into darkness and despair? No one, and certainly not Obama.
The problem for the president is that the war he is waging feels like a long-term strategy without benefit of the short term. If not ground troops, then what? There is no good answer. This is a new kind of war requiring fresh approaches. The old templates don’t apply because they actually work against us. As soon as we put boots on the ground, the Islamic State is rewarded with the war it wants, with the propaganda machine it can’t otherwise replicate and with the martyrdom its members welcome. Are Americans really ready to watch their military men and women beheaded and burned alive?
Thus, Obama and his advisers have focused on alternative means of defeating a monster that feeds on atrocity and hate. Strategic hits, special operations, counterterrorism propaganda and so on. At home, Obama seems to say, fight hate with love, fear with resilience, monsters with the superior force of good. By comparison, admittedly, Trump sounds both decisive and definitive.
But — this is no joke — Trump is also the most dangerous person to emerge on the U.S. political scene in decades. As president, he would be the most dangerous man on the planet.
I’ve often objected in my column to invoking Hitler as popular analogue because it trivializes the suffering and slaughter of the Jews. Now I’m not so sure. Remember that before there could be a Holocaust, there was the identification of the Jewish race as the enemy. Trump’s apparent identification of Muslims as “ a problem,” with his threat of a Muslim registry and a religious test at the border, sounds terribly familiar.
Two facts to consider: First, we need the help of the world’s 1.6 billion — and this nation’s 3 million — Muslims if we hope to defeat terrorists who justify their barbarism with their interpretation of Islam. Second, our best defense against radicalization of Muslim Americans is inclusiveness. By marginalizing our own Muslim community through rhetoric, we vastly increase the risk of radicalization and recruitment.
Obama understands this. He also understands that another ground war in the Middle East risks our becoming entrenched in endless battle against an enemy that can inspire insurgencies indefinitely.
Few doubt that we could easily take over Iraq and Syria in a replay of shock-and-awe, but then what? Invading another Muslim country feeds right into the Islamic State’s playbook and installs a Crusader vs. Caliphate narrative for millennia — or whatever foreshortened era we invent.
Again, ambiguity and uncertainty are our companions for now and probably for a while. In the meantime, our internecine squabbles about our own nation’s principles couldn’t be a better holiday gift to the butchers-in-waiting. And Trump, by dividing us from within, is the enemy’s hero.
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