Oval Office the latest setting for Obama's mixed messages on terrorism

US President Barack Obama speaks about counterterrorism and the United States fight against the Islamic State during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Dec. 6, 2015.

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US President Barack Obama spoke to his people last night.

He stood in the Oval Office, a setting American presidents use when they want to talk really seriously about something. He reminded the small fraction of Americans who weren’t watching Sunday Night Football of all the ways his government was countering the threat posed by the Islamic State.

He talked about the airstrikes on Iraq and Syria. He said he would intensify those. He spoke about the coalition of dozens of countries that had joined the United States in this fight. He said they’ve started bombing the oil tankers that provide the Islamic State with much-needed cash. He talked about the “Vienna process,” a diplomatic effort to resolve the civil war in Syria so that everyone could focus on the Islamic State.

Obama also responded to calls for ground troops. The president has so far resisted that, acknowledging that an invasion would play into the hands of the Islamic State. He is, however, allowing 100 special operations soldiers to operate inside Iraq and Syria, which some fear is a kind of “mission creep.”

The United States has been bombing Iraq and Syria since the fall of 2014. Since then, little has changed. The Islamic State continues to control major cities and large areas of both countries. And while the focus is mostly on Iraq and Syria, using social media the terrorist group is inspiring people all over the world. It has now successfully inspired or launched attacks on three separate continents.

The Oval Office speech was a reaction to the shootings in San Bernardino, California last week. The shootings appear to have been inspired by the Islamic State, though not planned or directed by it. That attack actually seems to be rooted in some odd combination of extremist ideology and workplace anger. Some have actually blamed the bigotry of one of the shooter’s co-workers.

Obama spoke to this kind of discrimination in his speech. Addressing the very scary rise in anti-Muslim sentiment around the country, he told Americans that they shouldn’t let these terrorist acts divide them. “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” Obama said.

They were wise words.


Unfortunately the president followed them up with these two sentences: “That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.”

It was a surprising thing for the president to say. He didn’t feel moved to make the same demands of the Christian community, after the attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last month, which was at least in part inspired by extremist Christian ideology. There was none of the solemnity and importance of an Oval Office speech after that shooting. There were also no Oval Office speeches after all the other domestic terrorist attacks over the last few years that involved people who were not Muslim.

The language Obama used also suggests that he holds Muslims at least partly responsible for halting the spread of extremism. Yet, again, he has never called on mainstream American Christians to confront extremist Christian ideology. And many Muslims, especially in the Middle East, would probably argue that it is the United States and its allies — like Saudi Arabia — that are responsible for the rise of the Islamic State.

The United States, after all, is pretty wrapped up in both the roots of Al Qaeda (think Soviet Afghanistan) and the roots of the Islamic State. It was the US war in Iraq — as well as its support of authoritarian rulers around the region — that helped create an atmosphere that was ideal for terrorist groups to set up and recruit. This reality is not lost on many people in the Middle East.

Obama gave another speech about fighting terror earlier this year. It was at a major counterterrorism conference in Washington, DC. In that speech he acknowledged the need to address some of the roots of terror, the core problems that inspire terrorism and allow terrorist leaders to recruit so easily: like poverty, hunger, displacement, and oppression, to name a few examples.

There was no mention of all that in his speech last night.


Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to freely bomb his own people into oblivion. A quarter of a million Syrians, probably far more, have been killed during the conflict. Government forces have destroyed whole cities. Every day civilians are killed in large numbers.

Obama has carefully avoided a confrontation with Syria. US warplanes have so far targeted only the Islamic State. But Obama has said that Assad needs to go if the Islamic State is every going to be truly defeated. But that effort is progressing through diplomatic channels.

That all said, when you have dozens of countries bombing a single territory, accidents are bound to happen. Syria says the US coalition bombed one of its army camps on Sunday night, killing three of its soldiers. If confirmed, it would be the first known instance of the United States hitting a Syrian government target.