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When Fareed Zakaria asked President Barack Obama in an interview broadcast February 1st, “Are we in a war with radical Islam?” it touched off a new round of a rhetorical spat that occasionally erupts in Ameircan political discourse. The issue is finding accurate definitions of terms to describe and discuss organizations like Al Qaeda, ISIS (Daesh) and their ilk. Obama responded that he doesn’t “quibble with labels” and seeks not to conflate violent extremism with the faith followed by over a billion Muslim adherents, saying, “It’s very important for us to align ourselves with the 99.9 percent of Muslims who are looking for the same thing we’re looking for – order, peace, prosperity.” Meanwhile a choir of voices in opposition — who can fairly be described as ready to admonish Obama on almost any position he adopts — expressed support for using language such as “radical Islam” and “religious war.”
The Zakaria Q&A gave rise to commentary that illuminated President Obama’s position. Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic deconstructed the “radical Islam” debate saying that, “The rhetoric has become largely an end in itself,” adding, “What Republicans are really declaring war on is ‘political correctness.’ They’re sure that liberal sensitivities about Islam are hindering the moral clarity America needs to win. Just don’t ask them how.” Beinart went on to note that unlike the notion of “radical Islam” as an identifiable enemy ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are actual organizations. He said, “Reasonable people can delineate where they begin and end, and thus craft specific strategies for fighting them. Good luck doing that with ‘radical Islam.’”
Ambassador Richard LeBaron, founding Coordinator of the US Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Strategy, wrote another thoughtful contribution to the conversation. LeBaron, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, served a 30-year diplomatic career abroad and in Washington including numerous “Near East” assignments, such as Ambassador to Kuwait and posts in Tel Aviv (DCM) and Cairo. LeBaron laid out sound reasons for eschewing the “radical Islam” label and, importantly, provided answers to the tough question, “So what can we do?” Today we are pleased to share his essay with you here.
Declaring War on Radical Islam Is Not a Counterterrorism Strategy
Some members of Congress and noisy portions of the media and blogosphere are vexed by President Barack Obama’s refusal to declare war on “radical Islam.” Their distress seemed to be only exacerbated by the President’s measured and sensible response to Fareed Zakaria during a CNN interview last Sunday when asked, “Are we in a war with radical Islam?” The President’s response, worth rereading in full, was just what it should be: a serious discussion with the American people about a complex problem with no easy solutions, including a clear explanation of why terminology can be dangerous.
ZAKARIA: Lindsey Graham says that he’s bothered by the fact that you won’t admit that we’re in a religious war. There are others who say that the White House takes pains to avoid using the term “Islamic terrorists.”
So my question to you is are we at – are we in a war with radical Islam?
OBAMA: You know, I think that the way to understand this is there is an element growing out of Muslim communities in certain parts of the world that have perverted the religion, have embraced a nihilistic, violent, almost medieval interpretation of Islam. And they’re doing damage in a lot of countries around the world.
But it is absolutely true that I reject a notion that somehow that creates a religious war because the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject that interpretation of Islam. They don’t even recognize it as being Islam.
And I think that for us to be successful in fighting this scourge, it’s very important for us to align ourselves with the 99.9 percent of Muslims who are looking for the same thing we’re looking for – order, peace, prosperity – and so I don’t quibble with labels. I think we all recognize that this is a particular problem that has roots in Muslim communities, and that the Middle East and South Asia are sort of ground zero for us needing to win back hearts and minds, particularly when it comes to young people.
But I think we do ourselves a disservice in this fight if we are not taking into account the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject this ideology.
ZAKARIA: Others say that you downplay the importance of terrorism. You want to downgrade it as a threat to the United States.
OBAMA: Look, I have to talk to the families of those who are killed by terrorists. I have to talk to the families of soldiers of ours who fought to make sure that Al Qaeda couldn’t carry out attacks against us again.
So I think I’m pretty mindful of the terrible costs of terrorism around the world.
What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order.
You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what’s, you know, what’s the essence of who we are. That means that we don’t torture, for example, and thereby undermine our values and credibility around the world.
It means that we don’t approach this with a strategy of sending out occupying armies and playing whack-a-mole wherever a terrorist group appears, because that drains our economic strength and it puts enormous burdens on our military.
What’s required is a surgical, precise response to a very specific problem. And if we do that effectively, then ultimately these terrorist organizations will be defeated because they don’t have a vision that appeals to ordinary people. It is – it really is, as it has been described in some cases, a death cult or a entirely backward-looking fantasy that can’t function in the world. When you look at ISIL, it has no governing strategy. It can talk about setting up the new caliphate, but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually in a sustained way feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work.
And so we can’t give them the victory of overinflating what they do and not – and we can’t make the mistake of being reactive to them. We have to have a very precise strategy in terms of how to defeat them.
Here are three more reasons not to declare a “war on radical Islam”:
- There is no consensus on the definition of “radical Islam.” ISIS or al-Qaeda or al-Shabab provide an easy answer to this question and it is clear that we are at war with these groups. But being in a fight with specific groups and specific people in those groups is a lot different from being at war with a certain nebulous space on the spectrum of Muslim belief. Who will be the authority in the United States who will decide what is acceptable for Muslims to believe and what is not? Americans have never been comfortable with government making judgments about religious belief, but at the same time, a considerable body of conservative opinion appears to believe that Islam in any form is sympathetic to violence against non-believers. Will US Muslims be subjected to loyalty tests? Will we close our borders to Muslim students who wish to study at our universities? Who will provide guidance to the US military and intelligence apparatus on identifying the “enemy”? Will we rely on authoritarian regimes in Egypt or the Gulf to define “true Islam”?
- There is no implicit change to US foreign policy after having declared a war on “radical Islam.” Could we deal with Jordan, which tolerates elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, but at the same time has been subjected to the butchery of ISIS? How about Saudi Arabia, a country wedded to a form of Islam that many Muslims find extreme? Would we need to reject any notion of reaching agreements with Iran because of their official religious stands? Would the millions of Egyptians who believe in a very traditional form of Islam become the enemy along with the jihadists attacking Egyptian institutions? Do we put a new list of countries on the terrorism list? Would we only deal with so-called “moderate Muslims,” whatever that may mean?
- Declaring rhetorical wars would be a victory for the terrorists we want to defeat, as the President said in his interview. Their objective is to be seen as the legitimate face of and defenders of Islam. For a superpower like the United States, or even a power like France, to declare war on radical Islam serves to legitimize a group of people that we should be making every effort to marginalize. The Western media—not to mention politicians—have an obligation to treat the topic with a greater degree of seriousness and less vacuous name-calling. Media outlets need to think through how their dramatic descriptions of ISIS murders (and not just whether to show the acts) may act to encourage these publicity-hungry terrorists. Fear mongering is terrorism’s oxygen and their recruitment tool. They need to be pushed to the margins in all possible ways.
So What Can We Do?
The United States and its allies are in a conflict with certain groups who would like to convince the world that they are the true representatives of Islam. We will succeed in that war only if we stay focused on the key element of counterterrorism strategy: excellent intelligence gained through maintenance of a first-rate intelligence community and sharing of intelligence with others; the ability to project deadly force when needed against specific groups and targets who wish us harm; and enlistment of Muslim and non-Muslim countries and communities around the world to do their fair share in combatting terrorism and addressing its root causes—be those poor governance, weak states, religious incitement, or psychologically marginalized individuals looking for outlets for their rage.
Preventing the attraction to terrorism, as opposed to attacking known terrorists, is a long-term project that requires a serious approach. The contrived debate about labelling terrorism is both counterproductive and at odds with an American value system that separates religious belief from political considerations. Those actually doing the fighting against terrorists deserve better than bumper sticker slogans to guide their actions. They should not be asked to fight a dimly understood religious war.
Richard LeBaron, US Ambassador (ret.) was the founding Coordinator of the US Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Strategy. He is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
About Amb Richard LeBaron
Richard LeBaron is a Nonresident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East with a special focus on the Gulf region.
Ambassador LeBaron is a career diplomat with over thirty years experience abroad and in Washington. His most recent overseas posting was as deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in London from August 2007 to August 2010. Ambassador LeBaron served as chargé d’affaires in London from February to August 2009. Previous to his assignment to London, Ambassador LeBaron served as the US ambassador to Kuwait (2004 to 2007). From September 2001 to July 2004, Ambassador LeBaron served as deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of the United States in Tel Aviv, Israel. Ambassador LeBaron was minister-counselor for political and economic affairs at the Embassy of the United States in Cairo, Egypt from 1998 to 2001. While posted in Washington from 1991 to 1998, he served in three positions related to the Middle East: director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, director of the Peace Process and Regional Affairs Office in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State, and public affairs adviser for the Near Eastern Bureau. From 1991 to 1993, Ambassador LeBaron was political officer in the State Department’s Office of European Community Affairs. Ambassador LeBaron’s earlier overseas diplomatic postings included: Lisbon (1989-91), Tunis (1986-89), New Delhi (1982-84) and Managua (1980-82). Before he entered the Foreign Service, the Ambassador held a two-year consultancy in Brazil working on science policy issues. Ambassador LeBaron studied at the University of Colorado (BA) and The George Washington University (MA).
More by Amb. Richard LeBaron:
- Three Elements of the NSS that Deserve More Attention – LeBaron – Atlantic Council – Feb 6, 2015
- Is America at War With Radical Islam – Peter Beinart – The Atlantic – Feb 5, 2015
- LeBaron: “Saudis Have to be Part of the Solution to the Problem of ISIS and the Iran Problem” – LeBaron – Atlantic Council – Jan 27, 2015
- New Saudi King, Same Old Kingdom – Atlantic Council – Jan 26, 2015
- Hagel’s Meeting with GCC Defense Ministers: How to Measure Results – LeBaron – SUSRIS – May 20, 2014
- LeBaron and Gause Discuss President Obama’s Riyadh Visit – Video – SUSRIS – Mar 28, 2014
- Moving the New US-Saudi Relationship Beyond Reassurance – LeBaron – SUSRIS – Mar 13, 2014
- GCC Union or Lack of Unity: A Conversation with Amb Richard LeBaron – SUSRIS Exclusive – Mar 10, 2014
- Building a Better US-Gulf Partnership – LeBaron – SUSRIS – Jan 21, 2014