WASHINGTON — Channel-surfing the nightly cable news, one is reminded that certitude is the enemy of sanity.
On both Fox News and MSNBC, conversation has centered lately on the proposed war against the Islamic State and President Obama’s related summit with religious leaders.
On Fox, the summit was viewed as an exercise in “community organizing” that was divorced from reality. The right is also insistent that Obama call the war something other than a war against extremists who distort Islam, though I’m not sure what this would be.
For clarification, when I wrote recently that we were finally able to admit that we’re fighting a religious war, it was in the context of recognizing that our enemy is fighting a religious war. This acknowledgment is neither to condemn all of Islam nor to ignore the nature of the enemy.
But I certainly don’t expect, nor would I want, the president of the United States to declare war against Islam. This would be utter lunacy. Thus, it isn’t clear what exactly the right is after. The standard argument is that if you don’t name the enemy, you can’t defeat it. This seems at least a non sequitur. You can call a bear a puppy, but this doesn’t change the nature of the beast — nor the way one would approach it.
“Come here you adorable wittle puppy” isn’t going to get your face licked by a bear. Well, at least not right at first.
MSNBC focused on remarks by State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, who earlier had said to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, “We cannot kill our way out of this war,” and that we need to go after “the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it’s a lack of opportunity for jobs … .”
If Republicans and Democrats wanted a clear strategy before they sign off on authorization to use military force against the Islamic State, this probably wasn’t it. Harf’s statement likely needed about 12 pages of context to sound rational. Instead it seemed naive and, frankly, silly.
There is no evidence that the young men who find beheadings conducive to self-fulfillment and eternity among virgins (how do they remain virgins when so many are clamoring to defile them?) are unemployed, uneducated or dissatisfied with family life.
What drives them is ideological/religious zeal, fueled in part no doubt by images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It is no coincidence that the Islamic State’s victims wear the orange pajamas of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Rob Ford, noted to Andrea Mitchell.
For Obama to try to organize the Muslim community through outreach to its religious leaders makes eminent sense. Without their support, we don’t have a chance of stemming the flow of fresh radicals to reinforce the ranks of the Islamic State’s armies.
This is also why Obama speaks of the distortion of Islam rather than referring to the enemy as “Islamists.” The word “Islamist,” not to be confused with “Islamism,” by the way, was thrust into the American lexicon after 9/11 as a way of referring to radical extremists who don’t necessarily distort Islam but rather rely on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
But this is an American invention. Without widespread understanding and global acceptance of what the word Islamist intends, its use can be more inflammatory than enlightening. It is too easy to infer condemnation of entire Muslim nations and about 1.6 billion people. It is surely not a word one should wish a president to use.
But some on the right, apparently delirious from the fevered swamps through which they slog, conflate Obama’s careful wording with lending succor to the Islamic State. In their view, the president doesn’t really want to win the war. This is so irrational it can only be explained as bait for Obama-haters.
Liberals, meanwhile, stub their toes when they try to cover for their own dimmer lights.
More urgent than what to call this war or the enemy is whether we ought to fight it by conventional means. The president promises no boots on the ground; many military leaders say the war can’t be won otherwise.
If we’ve learned anything, it is that you don’t enter a war unless you intend to win it, which leaves just one option. Americans need only imagine our captured soldiers and Marines being burned to death in cages to appreciate the need for a more imaginative, dare I say nuanced, approach.
Ideological certitude obviously has no place in this debate.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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