How Obama has got radical Islam wrong

Minhaz Merchant
Minhaz MerchantJun 22, 2016 | 16:59

How Obama has got radical Islam wrong

Will United States President Barack Obama be remembered merely as the first African-American president in US history? Or as the president whose wilfully naïve military strategy in Syria and Iraq led to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS)?

Obama was driven last week to defend his Middle East policy. He seethed during a recent speech at the innuendo by Republican party presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump that he was soft on Islamist terrorism.


Many commentators on both the Right and Left in the US have criticised Obama for not using the term "radical Islam" to describe the motivation behind the Orlando terror attack.

Obama says phrases like radical Islam mean little and do nothing to address the problem. He prefers to use the neutral term "violent extremism" for incidents like the Orlando attack.

In recent days, the word is out that Obama wants to prove his critics wrong by driving ISIS out of four key cities.

Charles Krauthammer, the well-known columnist, upbraided the president, saying in a recent television interview: "By choosing not to use the term 'radical Islamic terrorism', thereby downplaying the connection between various terrorist attacks, the president has gone out of his way to avoid using the phrase that is obviously the most descriptive of the enemy. Violent extremism is a completely empty phrase. No one has ever strapped on a suicide vest in the name of extremism. Nobody dies in the name of extremism.

"Obama is deliberately trying to deny, or to hide or to disguise the connection between all of these disparate attacks and groups. And if you want to mobilise a country behind you, you need to tell them who the enemy is, why it's doing what it is. FDR (Roosevelt) did not say the day after Pearl Harbor, 'We were attacked by violent extremists.'"


Beyond language lies policy.

In recent days, the word is out that Obama wants to prove his critics wrong by driving ISIS out of four key cities: Fallujah, Raqqa, Aleppo and Mosul. Iraqi forces aided by American air power have already seized control from ISIS of parts of Fallujah, which lies an hour’s drive from Baghdad.

Meanwhile Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS, is caught in a pincer move between US-backed Kurdish fighters from the north and the Russian-backed Syrian army from the south working in a rare coordinated campaign.

A fierce counter-attack by ISIS fighters on June 20 drove the army back – showing once again how potent a terrorist force ISIS remains despite recent territorial setbacks.

Aleppo is the next target. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and ISIS’s revenue honey pot, however poses the toughest challenge. It has a large civilian population and well-entrenched ISIS fighters. The Iraqi army, trained by US military advisors, is preparing the campaign to liberate Mosul with the help of Iranian Shi’ite fighters.

Whether or not Obama’s suddenly muscular policy to "destroy ISIS", as he recently put it, is a direct consequence of growing criticism of his Middle East policy remains an open question.


There’s little doubt, however, that Obama has erred on Syria and Iraq. He learnt nothing from former president George W Bush’s blunder of invading Iraq in 2003. That set off a chain of events leading to Sunni-Shia conflict in the destabilised Middle East and the eventual birth of ISIS. 

Obama has made exactly the same mistake in Syria. The US armed and funded rebel terrorist groups opposed to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In the ensuing five-year-long civil war, more than 2,50,000 people have died. Millions have become refugees, fleeing the war zone to Europe. Thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean sea during the perilous crossing from north Africa to Italy and Greece.

Europe has taken in millions of Arab refugees. Some of them are hardened terrorists who played a role in terror attacks in France and Belgium.

Meanwhile, in northern Syria’s power vacuum, ISIS seized territory at lightning speed – until Russia stepped in on September 30, 2015. Russian air power has over the past few weeks struck what could prove fatal blows to ISIS in northern Syria. It has also forced the US to recalibrate its Syria policy.

A recently leaked confidential "dissent" note by more than 50 US State Department officials called for the ouster of Assad with stronger US military action. Obama has turned down the demand. He has belatedly realised that ISIS presents a far bigger threat to the world than the Syrian president, however brutal his treatment of his own people, especially the alleged use of the chemical weapon Sarin on civilians.

The tantalising question though remains: why does Obama not condemn radical Islam in the unambiguous way even Hillary Clinton has now been compelled to do?

Obama says you cannot demonise a whole religion because of ISIS. That’s disingenuous. Nobody wants to demonise Islam. Sensible people want to reform Islam.

Radical Islam in fact demonises an entire community. For that reason alone, it needs to be called out as a subversion of Islam.

As Obama prepares to demit office, he has visibly greyed. The clean-cut 47-year-old Chicago attorney of 2008 has aged into an often angry, bitter and defensive president.

Watch this video of Obama in happier days when he and first lady Michelle invited Memphis soul’s greatest musicians to perform at the White House.


The mood in the White House today is a lot more sombre as the president struggles to reclaim his legacy.

Last updated: June 22, 2016 | 18:37
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