Obama’s ‘Crusades’ controversy highlights war on terrorism’s rhetorical minefield

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
U.S. President Barack Obama takes the stage to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, February 5, 2015. Flanking Obama are Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey (L) and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

President Barack Obama this week hosts a White House summit on combating violent extremism, searching for strategies beyond just military action for countering terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State or al-Qaida. The long-planned event arrives right as Obama is emerging from his latest skirmish with critics who say his reluctance to tie terrorists publicly and directly to Islam shows he does not understand the threat — and therefore cannot adequately respond.

At the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month, Obama suggested people get off of their “high horse,” reminding his audience that the West had its own history of “terrible deeds” in the name of religion, including the Crusades, the Inquisition and slavery. The remarks touched off a predictable firestorm, and his critics pounced.

“There’s a set of words, it’s almost as if they’re given a card — a do-not-speak card,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Texas) said last week at the conservative Center for Security Policy think thank. “The words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ do not come out of the president’s mouth. The word ‘jihad’ does not come out of the president’s mouth. And that is dangerous.”

“The words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ do not come out of the president's mouth. The word ‘jihad’ does not come out of the president's mouth. And that is dangerous.” lorem ipsum – Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

The verbal onslaught is coming mostly, but not entirely, from Republicans.

“You look at the vast majority of terrorist attacks that are being committed around the world, there's one common element here and it is this radical Islamist ideology,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D.-Hawaii), an Iraq combat veteran, told CNN. “This war cannot be won, this enemy and threat cannot be defeated unless we understand what’s driving them, what is their ideology.”

Some have even taken issue with the conference name, arguing that the only kind of extremism that threatens America grows out of radical strains of Islam.

The White House has made it clear that the summit grew out of recent attacks in Ottawa, Ontario; Sydney; and on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris — all perpetrated by people either identified as Islamist extremists or who claimed kinship with them.

But administration officials are walking a fine line; they are avoiding sweeping characterizations of the source of the threat while making clear they know who the enemy is. The summit “will not focus on any particular religion, ideology or political movement and will, instead, seek to draw lessons that are applicable to the full spectrum of violent extremists,” White House national security spokesman Ned Price told Yahoo News.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: An injured person is evacuated outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Police official says 11 dead in shooting at the French satirical newspaper. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

 Still, added Price, “there is no question that we are at war with those who carry out acts of terrorism in service to a corrupted version of the Muslim faith. These groups include al-Qaida and its affiliates, ISIL, al-Shabab, and others.” Price went on, “Whatever others call these individuals, we call them our enemies, and we will continue to treat them as such.”

Obama’s critics say his refusal to brand groups like the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) “Muslim extremists” smacks of politically correct naiveté. His supporters say the president wants to avoid needlessly alienating Muslim allies and to deny extremists the ability to cloak violence in religion and win over fresh converts.

“What you’re trying to do in using language that is very specific — this is a war against al-Qaida, this is a war against ISIL — is trying not to allow your words to be used for propaganda that will convince people all over the Muslim world that we’re actually at war with Islam,” according to Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council.

Obama “has a tendency to try to speak and sort of try to understand where the other person is coming from,” Vietor continued. “It’s not a crazy thing to say it could help you understand their motivation or the enemy’s motivation, which could help you defeat them.”

Since 2012, Obama aides have argued that Osama bin Laden himself proved their case, citing documents seized in the raid on his hideout in Pakistan. CIA Director John Brennan, while still at the White House, pointed out that the al-Qaida mastermind said his terrorist organization’s brand was hurting and that recruitment was down because “U.S. officials ‘have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,’” Brennan said.

“Bin Laden himself thought Obama’s language made it hard to recruit. You would think that this would sort of end the debate.” lorem ipsum – Former Obama National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor

“Bin Laden himself thought Obama’s language made it hard to recruit,” said Vietor. “You would think that this would sort of end the debate.”

The Islamic State does not appear to have the same recruiting shortfall, however. And its rise has rekindled a charged and, at times, nasty debate over the fraught language of terrorism. It is a battle almost as old as the 9/11 attacks themselves, one that has proved equally challenging to George W. Bush and Obama, who inherited the fight over the rhetoric of terrorism as surely as he inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It sometimes feels, even to Republicans, like a shallow substitute for serious debates about policy. “Are [some Republican critics] under the impression that an American missile kills you differently if the president has called you an ‘Islamist terrorist’?” one former national security aide to George W. Bush told Yahoo News. The official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, complained that the media doesn’t give enough attention to criticisms about how Obama has handled world affairs. “Instead of talking about chaos in Libya, you’re copy editing your way through foreign policy.”

But it’s not a completely sterile, inside-the-Beltway argument. Obama just asked Congress to retroactively bless his six-month campaign against the Islamic State, and greenlight military strikes on loosely defined “associated forces.” How those forces are defined — whether by name, geography, allegiances, tactics or goals — may shape the war on terrorism’s global battlefield for years. Defining the global conflict, America’s enemies and victory (or at least progress) carries enormous weight in that sense because it will determine how, when and where American forces will be deployed.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: In this undated file image posted on Monday, June 30, 2014, by the Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group, a Syrian opposition group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, fighters from the Islamic State group parade in Raqqa, north Syria. (AP Photo/Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group)

From the outset, Bush tried to calibrate his rhetoric. Not quite 12 hours after the 9/11 attacks, he had declared a “war against terrorism.” But he took pains not to mention Islam. He hurried to The Islamic Center in Washington a few days later to hammer home the point that al-Qaida did not represent Islam — a message to an overseas audience of nervous Muslim allies and a domestic audience that, his aides worried, might include some willing to target American Muslims.

“Immediately after 9/11, we could not gauge the public reaction in the U.S., nor the reaction in the Muslim world when we began to go after [al-Qaida] and the Taliban,” Elliott Abrams, who advised Bush on Middle East policy, told Yahoo News. “It seemed important to separate those particular actors from all other Muslims, first to head off any possible anti-Muslim backlash at home and second to head off an anti-American backlash in the Islamic world.”

For years, Bush worked to separate al-Qaida from Islam in the public consciousness. It’s a message he sent clearly as early as Sept. 20, 2001.

“Are they under the impression that an American missile kills you differently if the president has called you an ‘Islamist terrorist’?” lorem ipsum – Republican former national security official

“The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself,” he said. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.”

There were times when Bush was accused of the kind of political correctness that Obama stands accused of today. In August 2004, he even suggested that his administration had misnamed the “war on terror.”

 “It ought to be ‘the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies and who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world,’” he said in a speech. He was mocked, notably in the media. He went back to “war on terrorism.”

 But at other times, Bush used language that reinforced perceptions that his war was a good-vs.-evil clash of civilizations. Bush invoked rough Wild West justice for bin Laden, saying he wanted him “dead or alive.” Some of his rhetoric was tinged with Biblical zeal, like when he branded the terrorists as “evildoers.” He later twice referred to the war on terrorism as a “crusade,” a bland term in the West that remains loaded for Middle Eastern Muslims. He expressed regret for both remarks. Aides said first lady Laura Bush rebuked him for his “dead or alive” comment, and they described him as annoyed with himself for saying “crusade.”

U.S. President George W. Bush addresses U.S. Army soldiers and their families at Fort Hood, Texas, January 3, 2003. Bush addressed the rising tensions with North Korea and the possiblity of military action against Iraq. (REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell)

The war in Afghanistan briefly carried the name “Operation Infinite Justice,” which was quickly scrapped because many Muslims believe only God can dispense “infinite justice.” And “Operation Iraq Liberation” lasted only a moment before officials realized that they did not want a war for OIL.

In 2006, Bush started to refer publicly to “Islamic radicals” or “Islamic fascists,” a term that appears to have originated in a 1979 article in The Washington Post. In that piece, an anonymous State Department official in the Carter administration wondered whether the Iranian Revolution was sweeping an “Islamist fascist” to power.

The message was poorly received in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s cabinet declared one week later that the expression was wrong because “terrorism has no religion or nationality.” The “Islamic fascist” comments dwindled to a trickle.

Shortly after taking office in January 2009, Obama started to play down the “war on terrorism,” arguing that you don’t go to war against a tactic. In March of that year, The Washington Post reported that the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had directed other agencies to abandon the term in favor of the bureaucrat-speak “overseas contingency operations.” The report drew swift denials from the Pentagon, the OMB director, and an OMB spokesman who blamed an “over-exuberant” mid-level bureaucrat.

At this month’s National Prayer Breakfast, Obama touched off controversy by invoking ties between Christianity and the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery and Jim Crow. He added a layer of controversy by saying the Jews killed at the kosher supermarket in Paris were “randomly” slain. Aides initially stuck to their guns, then recanted

Conservatives denounced Obama’s reference to the Crusades as outdated and an inappropriate moral equivalence. The intensity of the response surprised the White House.

“We knew it would be thought-provoking,” said one Obama aide, who requested anonymity. “But no, we didn’t think the reaction would be a ‘crap storm.’”

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: A security officer directs released hostages after they stormed a kosher market to end a hostage situation, Paris, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. Explosions and gunshots were heard as police forces stormed a kosher grocery in Paris where a gunman was holding at least five people hostage. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Obama “made it clear to us he wasn’t suggesting any equivalence,” the aide said. “He wanted to make the point that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen faith perverted, and it won’t be the last.”

Obama’s rhetorical posture may have been influenced by a recent encounter with Muslim-Americans who told the president about their experiences with bigotry, some recounting to him how they had to pull their kids out of school. “That affected him deeply,” an aide said.

Obama seems to face an uphill fight. A Pew Research Center poll from September found that 50 percent of Americans say Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence by its followers, the highest level since 2002. That was up from 43 percent in July and 38 percent in February, roughly tracking with the Islamic State’s military gains and its use of graphically violent videos, including some showing the beheadings of Americans.

“We didn’t think the reaction would be a ‘crap storm.’” lorem ipsum – Obama aide

“I think we went too far in claiming we knew what ‘real’ Islam was and saying the actions of such terrorists ‘have nothing to do with Islam,’” Abrams told Yahoo News. “And that’s the mistake Obama keeps making now, 14 years later.

A career national security official who advised Bush echoed that message, saying, “I am struck by the fact that both administrations spent so much time agonizing over what to call the enemy and not enough on what to call the allies in the region.”

Extremists “prey on Muslim women, children and homosexuals more than Christians and Jews. They are evil, but the reason the world should get involved is not to kill them. The world should get involved to protect and help those who can’t help themselves. Those are the people we should be speaking to and recruiting,” the official said.

In a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama appeared to take that point to heart — even as he tied terrorist attacks directly to Muslim communities in a way his critics accuse him of not doing.

President Barack Obama listens as British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. In a show of trans-Atlantic unity, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a joint effort on Friday to fight domestic terrorism following deadly attacks in France. They also strongly urged the U.S. Congress to hold off on implementing new sanctions on Iran in the midst of nuclear talks.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“The United States has one big advantage in this whole process,” Obama said in little-noticed remarks. America’s approach to immigration and assimilation means U.S. Muslims “feel themselves to be Americans.” Europe does not do as well with integrating Muslims in the fabric of society.

“That’s probably the greatest danger that Europe faces,” the president said. Europe is too quick to fall back on “a hammer and law enforcement and military approaches,” he said. “There also has to be a recognition that the stronger the ties of a North African, or a Frenchman of North African descent to French values, French Republic, a sense of opportunity — that’s going to be as important, if not more important, over time in solving this problem.”

At a time when the world relies heavily on American military might, it remains to be seen whether U.S. allies will accept Obama’s criticisms and embrace his remedy. But this week’s conference should dispel some of those questions.


Related Yahoo Original stories:

Preventing homegrown terrorism within the United Statesby Bianna Golodryga/Yahoo News

Minnesota tries softer approach in battling Islamic State – by Liz Goodwin/Yahoo News

Terror Inc.: How the Islamic State became a branding behemoth by Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo News

Twitter under pressure to act more aggressively against terrorists – by Michael Isikoff/Yahoo News