Opinion: Obama said the right things about terrorism, but he waited too long to say them

President Obama

President Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office about the fight against Islamic State.

(Getty Images)

In his speech on Sunday asking Americans to be united but patient in the fight against Islamic state, President Obama said all the right things. But he waited too long to say them. I don’t mean merely that Obama waited almost five days after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino to brand the incident an act of terrorism; the FBI had made that announcement already.

More important, the speech reflected Obama’s seemingly unhurried approach to the battle against Islamic State since the group roared out of the Syrian desert in 2014: cautious, incremental, and only now escalating to meet the growing scope of the threat.

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That’s one reason, along with partisan polarization, that many Americans have concluded that he doesn’t have a strategy in this war. They’re wrong. He does have a strategy, but it’s been slow to produce much in the way of results. And that’s a problem.


 On Sunday, Obama’s rhetoric was appropriately tough. “We are at war with ISIL,” he said, using the government’s acronym for Islamic State. “They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death.”

[Obama] does have a strategy, but it’s been slow to produce much in the way of results.

He noted that he has ordered several new measures to help defeat the group: more airstrikes, more advisors and trainers, and special operations teams – “boots on the ground,” albeit in small numbers and not yet on the ground – to target Islamic State leaders.

Those would have been seen as bold decisions two months ago. They could still turn out to be turning points in the war, as I wrote in my column on Sunday – a point military analyst Thomas E. Ricks also made in Foreign Policy.


But two months ago, before the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, Obama was reassuring Americans that Islamic State had been “contained” on its home turf. A year before that, he dismissed the group as the junior varsity of terrorism.

So it’s no wonder many voters have concluded that the president doesn’t have his heart in this fight. And that’s dangerous, because they needed to listen to the most important message in his speech:

“We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” the president said. “If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.

“That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. It’s a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse,” he continued. “But just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans, of every faith, to reject discrimination.”

The FBI can’t prevent domestic terrorism unless Muslim Americans, knowing they are welcome in their own country, pitch in to help. And the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria can’t be won if Americans and Europeans help the group recruit more fighters by sending the message that the West is hostile to all Muslims.

Was anyone listening?

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @doylemcmanus and Google+



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