Obama, Republicans See Terror Threat Differently

Where the president sees a problem to manage, Republicans imagine a civilizational struggle.

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama talks with his advisors in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington DC, December 5 (White House/Pete Souza)

While Republicans have ramped up their war rhetoric in the wake of recent Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks in America and France, President Barack Obama insists his incremental strategy is the right one and working.

The reason the two sides are calling for such different courses of action, Peter Beinart argues at The Atlantic, is that they see the militant Islamist threat in fundamentally different terms.

Since George W. Bush, the majority of Republicans have thought of the War on Terror as something of a Third World War. Nine days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush described the perpetrators as “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century.”

Most of the Republicans who seek to replace Obama in 2016 still see the fight against Islamic terror in such epic terms, if not more so.

War of civilizations

Bush’s brother, Jeb, has said that the Islamic State declared “war against Western civilization” when it claimed responsibility for a series of shootings and suicide bombings in Paris that left more than 130 dead.

Marco Rubio, another presidential hopeful, believes America is at war with militants who “literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future.” As Rubio sees it, “either they win or we win.”

Obama thinks that’s absurd.

The sort of fanaticism the self-declared Islamic State — also called ISIS — represents is but a “toxic strain within Islamic civilization” to the president’s mind, according to Beinart; “not a civilization itself.”

And unlike Republicans, he doesn’t consider it a serious ideological competitor.

In the 1930s, when fascism and communism were at their ideological height, many believed they could produce higher living standards for ordinary people than democratic capitalist societies that were prone to devastating cycles of boom and bust. No one believes that about “radical Islam” today. In Obama’s view, I suspect, democratic capitalism’s real ideological adversary is not the “radical Islam” of ISIS. It’s the authoritarian, state-managed capitalism of China.

This website has similarly argued that Obama’s overriding strategic priority is defending and, where possible, expanding the liberal world order America built in the aftermath of World War II — and prevent the emergence of a competing, authoritarian world order led by the likes of China and Russia.

Or, as The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle has put it, “Managing the rise of China is a structural concern.” Everything else — including a few thousand murderous fanatics in Iraq and Syria — has lower priority.

Different priorities

That’s not to say it’s irrelevant. But Obama had made clear he does not believe another ground war in the Middle East will solve the problem.

He maintains that gradually reducing the territory the Islamic State holds with airstrikes as well as support for the Iraqi army and other rebels in Syria will reduce the group’s ability to stage attacks and diminish its appeal to would-be jihadists in the West.

“Terrorists,” he declared on Sunday, now “turn to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society,” like the one in San Bernardino, California where two self-radicalized Muslim Americans killed fourteen people last week.

But if Obama sees weakness, Republicans panic.

“They believe defeating the Islamic State requires some dramatic, if vaguely defined, new military and ideological exertion,” writes Beinart.

Bush and Rubio have been oddly short on specifics. Texas senator Ted Cruz is more concrete. Apparently oblivious to the fact that millions of civilians are living under the Islamic State’s yoke, he recently called for a carpet bombardments, saying, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”

As we argued a few days ago, such talk is reckless. And it is unlikely to help Republicans win the next election.

War-weary public

Fearmongering may work in the short term. Conservative activists who vote in the Republican presidential primaries are disproportionately hawkish. But the American electorate at large favors the Obama approach.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has found that more Americans now believe Islamic extremism is a threat to their country than at any point since 2001.

Yet only 38 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of self-declared independents want America to play a “dominant” role in the world. By far most would rather share the burden, like the president.

The Pew Research Center, for its part, has found that only 38 percent of Americans trust Republicans to run foreign policy better against 41 percent who want a Democrat in charge.

Neither the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting nor the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon made Americans more eager for another war in the Middle East. It seems unlikely the attack in San Bernardino will. If Republicans keep rattling their sabers, they could easily overreach and find themselves punished at the polls.