During both Republican debates on Thursday, the issue of how, specifically, to combat terrorist groups like ISIS took a backseat to how they should be labeled. This semantic debate has been one several Republicans have engaged in to criticize President Obama’s record on combating militancy. In doing so, however, the Republican presidential hopefuls seem to have forgotten the last Republican president’s measured words on terrorism.
As ThinkProgress reported during the first primary debate of this elections season, candidates zeroed in on Islam when asked about what they would do to confront those inspired by the terrorist organization ISIS:
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has a long history of making inaccurate pronouncements about Islam, replied he would solve the problem by declaring religion the enemy: “Unlike President Obama, I’ll actually name the enemy that we confront,” he said. “We’ve got a president who cannot bring himself to say the words radical Islamic terrorism. How can we beat them if our Commander in Chief doesn’t have the honesty and moral clarity to say that problem is radical Islam?”
In a later debate hosted by FOX News, Megyn Kelly asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) what he would do to “destroy ISIS in 90 days.”
“Megyn, we need a Commander-in-Chief that speaks the truth,” Cruz said. “We will not defeat radical Islamic terrorism so long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words, ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’”
It’s true that Obama tends to refer to members of groups such as ISIS with words that are more secular in nature. He has tended to say “violent extremists” or simply “terrorists” instead of adding the religious specificity that Cruz or Jindal insist on using.
Obama made clear his reasons for his more careful word choices at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February.
“All of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like [ISIS] somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative,” he said.
“We are not at war with Islam,” Obama added. “We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
That distinction was not a partisan one — until very recently.
“Ours is not a campaign against the Muslim faith. Ours is a campaign against evil.”
In fact, former President George W. Bush made a very similar remark in a speech he delivered to airline employees just weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
“Americans understand we fight not a religion,” he said. “Ours is not a campaign against the Muslim faith. Ours is a campaign against evil.”
Although the two have taken very different approaches to combatting terrorism, it’s strikingly hard to tell the difference between their statements on the divide between the majority of those who practice Islam and those who invoke the faith to carry out violence.
“There are thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans, and they know what I know — that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion,” Bush once said.
Echoing that sentiment, Obama said in February, “The terrorists do not speak for over a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology.”
The similarity in rhetoric to his Republican predecessor has not saved Obama from scorn from Republicans.
Even Fran Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to Bush, called Obama’s careful semantical choices “ridiculous.”
“I think this is political correctness over accuracy. Look, these are not Buddhists or Hindu extremists,” he told CNN in February. “These are Islamic extremists.”
In resurrecting the debate over word choice, the Republican presidential contenders are forgetting about how those before them have addressed the connection between Islam and terrorism. The fact that so many are taking this jab, however, suggests that much has changed since the last time a Republican was America’s Commander-in-Chief.