What Obama Actually Thinks About Radical Islam
The president does not suffer illusions about the pathologies afflicting the broader Muslim world.
It is not a new practice for critics of President Obama to question his commitment to the fight against Islamist terrorism, but Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has cast doubt on Obama’s commitment to this struggle in uniquely florid and bizarre ways. On Tuesday, he claimed that Obama “prioritizes” America’s enemies over the American people; on Monday, he insinuated that Obama is sympathetic to the Islamic State terror group. (Read the previous sentence again and ask yourself: How has it come to this?)
Trump’s recent statements about Obama grow from a neurotic belief in the president’s malevolent otherness: On ISIS, Trump said, Obama “doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands.” Barack Obama, to Donald Trump, is, and will forever be, the Manchurian President—Manchuria, by way of Kenya, with a detour in Raqqa.
Over the course of many conversations with Obama about the Middle East, terrorism, Islam, and the role of religion in fomenting extremist behavior, I’ve developed at least a partial understanding of his thinking on these subjects. Suffice it to say that I find neither the right’s nor the left’s interpretations of Obama’s policy and rhetorical predispositions to be particularly satisfying or comprehensive.
Early in his first term, Obama believed (rather too naively, in my opinion) that he could, in fact, make a substantive difference. He delivered a speech in Cairo that was meant to reset relations with Muslims, but was also meant, he later told me, to challenge Muslims to cease manufacturing excuses for problems of their own making. He told me recently, in reference to the Cairo speech, “My argument was this. Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel. We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”
He gave the Cairo speech in 2009. By 2012—as the revolutions of the Arab Spring were curdling, and as Libya drifted toward chaos, despite a partial U.S. intervention—Obama developed strong antibodies to what I call the Carly Simon Syndrome, which is an affliction affecting American policymakers so vain that they probably think Islamist extremism, and everything else, is about them. Obama, unlike many American analysts, does not suffer from this delusion. He sees the problems affecting parts of the Muslim world as largely outside American control. At its best, this belief keeps him from rushing into disasters not of America’s making; at its worst, it keeps him from taking steps that stand a chance of making things better.
It is not only Obama’s seven-year war against jihadist organizations that calls into question Trump’s claim that he is working to advance the interests of ISIS (or, to put it another way, if Obama is indeed an ISIS agent, he’s doing a very bad job of it). It is also his publicly and frequently articulated demand, made of all Muslims, to fight harder against those who refract their faith through the prism of arid and merciless textual literalism. “There is … the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society,” Obama told me.
He immediately pivoted from this statement, though, by addressing Donald Trump—not by name, but his target was obvious. “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate,” he said, “if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.”
The fundamental difference between Obama and Trump on issues related to Islamist extremism (apart from the obvious, such as that, unlike Trump, Obama a) has killed Islamist terrorists; b) regularly studies the problem and allows himself to be briefed by serious people about the problem; and c) is not racist or temperamentally unsuitable for national leadership) is that Trump apparently believes that two civilizations are in conflict. Obama believes that the clash is taking place within a single civilization, and that Americans are sometimes collateral damage
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