In his Sunday night speech, President Obama sought to ease the growing public anxiety following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, last week that brutally killed 14 innocent people and injured many more.
Speaking to the nation from the Oval Office, the president deplored the anti-immigrant hysteria and expressed sorrow over the senseless attack, but he minced no words in saying that the two killers were home-grown terrorists. They were inspired but not directed by a terrorist organization overseas such as ISIS. And they were not “part of a broader conspiracy here at home,” he said. They were acting on their own.
He went on to say that the attacks were the latest evidence that “the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase … It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009; in Chattanooga earlier this year; and now in San Bernardino.”
But while “the threat from terrorism is real” and evolving, he declared, “we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”
In what was an obvious (and appropriate) swipe at the Republican Party and its presidential contenders, Obama asserted that eradicating terrorism “will take more than ‘tough talk,’ or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL[ISIS] are hoping for.” Instead, it will be achieved by “being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.”
Most of the steps that the president proposed to fight ISIS are familiar and nothing new. But it is noteworthy that in speaking about Syria he acknowledged Russia as a player and didn’t make the removal of Syria’s much maligned and demonized president, Bashar al-Assad, a precondition for negotiations among the parties to end the Syrian civil war.
Not unexpectedly, President Obama made the case for the umpteenth time for sensible gun control legislation, but with a new urgency born from yet another horrific mass killing. While every would-be mass shooter “can’t be identified, what we can do – and must do – is make it harder for them to kill,” he said.
If common sense guided lawmakers in Congress, these measures would pass tomorrow, but the likelihood of that happening is close to zero. Short of a demonstrative and sustained public outcry, the Republican Party’s far-right ideological disposition, hatred of the president, and reflexive loyalty to the gun lobby and manufacturers has made these modest proposals dead on arrival.
The president also repeated what he has said before: “we should not be drawn into another costly ground war,” which would only benefit terrorists who can turn a drawn-out occupation to their advantage, and provide fertile ground for recruitment.
And in what was probably the best moment of the speech, he responded forcefully to his Republican adversaries who are poisoning the atmosphere with anti-Islam and anti-immigrant vitriol and hatred. “[J]ust 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. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. ”
“Because when we travel down that road, we lose,” Obama continued. “That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL. Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes – and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.”
It is obvious that the president’s prime time address wasn’t designed to outline a significant shift in how the United States should fight terrorism. Apart from some tweaking here and there, Obama made it clear he thinks the current strategy – airstrikes, Special Forces, diplomacy, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country – will lead to a “more sustainable victory.” The latter term is an oblique retort to and criticism of the current advocates of a “boots on the ground and regime change strategy” – a strategy that turned the Middle East into an inferno of war, death, dislocation, instability, sectarian strife, and breeding ground for terrorist activities and organizations.
Nor was the purpose of Obama’s speech to convince Donald Trump and the rest of the motley crew running for the Republican presidential nomination of the folly and danger of their ways. Yesterday, in fact, Trump, in response to Obama’s address Sunday, called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
What the president hoped, I suspect, is that his prime time speech would ease growing public alarm over terrorism and regain the narrative as to the best way to fight it. He correctly sensed that the events in San Bernardino had shifted the ground on which people go about their daily lives and form their opinions. Public anxieties about safety and security – their own, their families’, and their communities’ – had ratcheted up; fear had become more palpable.
All of which could turn politics generally in a direction that gives advantage to right wing extremism.
In these circumstances, it is imperative that public figures, liberal and progressive legislators, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and the broader people’s movement join the conversation as well. Silence isn’t an option, but a recipe for political marginalization and a nasty turn in our nation’s politics to the right. On the other hand, what to say about it requires sensitivity and thoughtfulness as well as courage.
This isn’t a moment, in other words, for the people’s movement and candidates to the left of center to look for “safe” political ground, to hope that the question of terrorism doesn’t come up. To the contrary, this is the moment to frontally reject xenophobia, nativism, militarism, and endless wars, to appeal to the better angels of the American people, and to challenge the reactionary, hypocritical positions of the Republican Party and its presidential candidates.
What is more, it is a moment to go beyond the president’s strategy, while supporting his administration’s positive initiatives and defending him against bizarre and racist political attacks from the right.
On every venue democratic, progressive, and left voices should argue with facts and convincing arguments for a strategy that heavily accents diplomacy, restraint, nonviolence, smart intelligence work that is mindful of privacy rights and civil liberties, full cooperation with countries like Russia and Iran, political settlement of sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Syria, reining in Saudi Arabia that is funding sectarian violence and civil war, statehood for the Palestinian people, and a global New Deal with a focus on the countries of the global South and communities of immigrants in the global North.
Another overarching task is to intensify the push for nuclear disarmament of big and small powers alike.
At the same time, it is naïve and wrongheaded to rule out in advance any military responses to ISIS and similar real threats, But when they occur, such actions should be measured, specific, and broadly supported and led by the international community – Muslim and Arab countries in the first place.
Furthermore, these actions must have the support of the Congress and American people. In his speech on Sunday, Obama noted that Congress is mandated to do what it conspicuously hasn’t done: debate and decide on whether to authorize the continued use of military force in the Middle East. “For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of airstrikes against ISIL targets,” he said. “I think it’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united, and committed, to this fight.”
Thus, a debate in Congress should be welcomed even if the outcome is uncertain. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has been saying for months that it’s time for “ending the blank checks for endless war.”
Finally, it is plain that the imperative of defeating right-wing extremism, that is, the Republican Party, in next year’s elections takes on new significance in the light of recent events.