- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.
President Barack Obama was right to attack Donald Trump’s latest foray into the morass of racism that has become his political home. But the president made one serious error: He should have employed the term “Islamic extremism.” Had he done so, he could have turned the tables on Trump.
Trump has argued that he is “politically incorrect” when he employs the term. Indeed, he makes a virtue of his political incorrectness. He asserts that the president’s reluctance to articulate the two words reflects the weakness of his administration. It is as if the phrase is some sort of abracadabra, the utterance of which would wipe the Islamic State off the map. Far worse than Trump’s fantasies are his dark hints at other presidential motives. He needn’t explicitly articulate that the president sympathizes with radical Islam — circumlocutions are enough to get the message across to those of his supporters who know only how to hate.
The president himself made the strongest argument for using the term. He rightly pointed out that calling out Islamic extremists would not contribute one iota to the success of America’s anti-Islamic State strategy. Leave aside for a moment the question of whether the current strategy is effective or even exists (I would argue that its effectiveness is questionable because its existence is in doubt): America is indeed pursuing a war, acknowledged or no, against Islamic extremists. By failing to accede publically to that grim reality, the president undermines his own case that it is critical to differentiate between the vast majority of peaceful Muslims and the extremists who are destabilizing countries and besmirching their religion.
The president should have used the opportunity to head off Trump’s insinuations. Had Obama employed the term, Trump could hardly allege that the administration does not recognize the Islamist terror threat for what it is, nor could he let on with a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” that the president is really in league with the killers.
Trump is bringing out the worst in far too many Americans. It is for everyone who has any responsible position of authority or influence to demonstrate that this is not what America is all about. As president, Obama should be taking the lead in making that position absolutely clear. And it is not enough for him to excoriate Trump in what looks to many like nothing more than political pushback. Certainly that is how Trump wishes to portray whatever the president says.
Instead, the president, and the leading figures in his administration, must beat Trump at his own game without sinking to his level. Identifying Islamic extremism for what it is, instead of using the mealy-mouthed “violent extremism,” would be an excellent way to do so. For her part, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton appears to be on the verge of using the term. It happens to be a more accurate representation of the threat that all Americans, including Muslim Americans, are facing together. And on this issue, there should be no daylight between Democrats and Republicans, excluding, of course, Trump.
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