On MSNBC's Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell last night, The Atlantic's Graeme Wood succinctly summarized the nature and goals of the Islamic State, or ISIS: they're Islamic. They're eschatological. They want to fight against Crusaders and redeem the power and authority of Sunni Islam.
Islam. Islamic. Islamist. There is just no way to avoid using the proper adjective. On the same show, Michael Weiss noted that it would be ridiculous to ignore what ISIS says about its own motivations and objections, and how it creates its mindmap of the world in explicitly religious terms, even if — and Weiss finds this inexplicable — President Obama will not.
From what I gather, Weiss thinks that the fact that the Obama administration won't label a weed a weed is hurting its efforts to weed out the weeds. It hurts the fight, he thinks. There is no clarity in strategy because, first, there is no clarity in language.
Does Obama really believe that the character of Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam? Clearly he does not. He knows that most Americans believe that Islamic terrorism is the appropriate way to describe Islamic terrorism. I think Obama is trying to make two points, one historical and aimed at American audiences, and one rhetorical, aimed at the enemy itself.
Calling terrorism Islamic terrorism might serve the purposes of commentators and polemicists, but it doesn't serve the purposes of a president who has to work with countries that have a studiously complicated relationship with the purveyors of terror. Obama believes, further, that the radicalized Islam of ISIS itself is a catalyzer, attractive in its own right, and doesn't want to dignify that movement by calling it what it calls itself.
(Here, comparisons to communism and socialism are both apt and uncomfortable: political religions they both became, although the philosophy was invented by a secularist and there is no real evidence that the people of the former Soviet Union held these ideologies in nearly the same reverence as many Muslims do.)
But the main reason Obama won't call Islamic terrorism Islamic terrorism is because he thinks he doesn't have to. His strategy would still be the same, except he would have to spend more time explaining why fighting the terrorists wasn't tantamount to fighting their religion.
David Frum suggests that Obama does not believe that the Islamists' core beliefs, such as they are, are inherently Islamic in any sense, or that they need to be condemned as beliefs:
The Obama administration believes the problem is violent extremism. Of course it's wrong, in this view, to kill cartoonists who caricature Muhammad. But wishing such cartoons suppressed by non-violent means does not present a similarly urgent threat. Indeed, those who wish such cartoons suppressed by means short of violence may be our best allies in the struggle against violence, precisely because they have the most credibility with the people who might otherwise turn to violence. [The Atlantic]
This is, I think, correct. It is not especially comforting, however. It makes Obama (as Frum notes later) an arbiter of what it means to be Islamic precisely because he is defining what it means not to be Islamic. It also suggests a relativity about religious values and modernism that refuses to make distinctions between pre-modern and modern beliefs so long as the former do not have any direct, insoluble connection to an act of violence.
I do think, though, that Obama is a step beyond relativism. Tommy Vietor, who has spent hours discussing the issue with Obama in private, suggests that the president thinks the fight against Islamic terror would be harder if he called it what it was. Osama bin Laden himself said that Obama's refusal to join the language fight made it more difficult to generate recruits.
So — is it a problem that Obama has decided to be more careful? Or is it a media-driven tic, an irritant, but nothing more? Hard to say. It gives his political opposition ammunition, which won't help his request to Congress for its blessing over his policy. It does help him (marginally) work with allies in the region.
If I had to make an educated guess as to what's going on inside the president's brain, it would be this:
It does not matter if I publicly acknowledge that your goal is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate or a protest against American foreign policy; so long as I understand your strategy, I can array forces against it, and I can use the power of words to try to limit its appeal.