Say It! Say It!

Peter Beinart addresses an issue that’s been rattling around in the back of my mind for a good while: the incessant conservative demands that Obama say the word “Islam” in describing the source of terrorist threats. It makes no real sense.

In reality, denouncing “radical Islam” offers little guidance for America’s actual policy dilemmas. How does calling the enemy by its “real name” help determine whether the United States should take a harder or softer line toward the government in Baghdad? We need its help to retake central Iraq from ISIS, but its Shia sectarianism drives Sunnis into ISIS’ arms. Or how would this linguistic pivot help determine whether the best way to weaken ISIS in Syria is by backing Bashar Assad or seeking his ouster?

After 9/11, hawks backed up their aggressive rhetoric with aggressive policies. At their behest, America invaded and occupied two Muslim countries. Today, by contrast, with land invasions effectively off the table, the rhetoric has become largely an end in itself. 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.

But it’s worse than that. Because far from providing the moral clarity Republicans demand, saying America is at war with “radical Islam” actually undermines it. How can a term provide clarity when it’s never clearly defined? If America is at war with “radical Islam,” does that include Saudi Arabia, a key US ally that for decades has both practiced and exported a radically illiberal Wahhabi creed? Does it include Iran, a semi-theocracy that has sponsored “radical Islamic” terror against the US but is our de facto ally against ISIS? Does it include Muslim Brotherhood parties like the one that briefly held power in Egypt, which run in democratic elections but want a government based on Islamic law? Listening to some GOP rhetoric, you might think the answer is yes. But to suggest the US is at “war” with key allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt strips the term of any real meaning.

As Beinart suggests, the real purpose of these demands seems to be a sort of defiance of “political correctness”–a test of the president’s willingness to offer unnecessary and counter-productive offense for the sheer hell of it. Some conservatives, of course, wish to wage war on Islam in its entirety, which would require a degree of unilateralism and bottomless resources that might daunt even Dick Cheney. Others are simply intoxicated with the alleged power of “moral clarity” involved in insulting people. Any way you look at it, though, it’s an irresponsible obsession.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.