The Skeptics

Obama, 9/11, and the Group That Shall Not Be Named

Most Skeptics readers have likely seen the White House guidelines for U.S. government commemorations of 9/11. According to the New York Times story that revealed their existence, the declared goals for the guidelines include:

    • · Honoring the memory of those who died on 9/11 from the United States and elsewhere
    • · Presenting a “positive and forward-looking narrative”
    • · Warning U.S. citizens to be prepared for another attack
    • · Making it clear that 9/11 was not just about the United States but about violent extremism more  
    •   broadly
  •       · Praising foreign governments for cooperating with the United States in fighting violent extremists

                                                                                                                                                         More generally, the guidance stresses the importance of considering the many audiences around the world who will be tuned in to official U.S. remembrances. Specifically, the guidelines instruct officials to minimize mention of al-Qaeda and to downplay the importance of the terrorist group.

Frankly, this crazy quilt of themes is too much work for any speech, commemoration or presidential address to manage. And in the effort to be sensitive to other nations, the administration immediately convinced many conservative commentators that Obama is trying to revise history and does not care enough about the Americans who died on 9/11. Responses range from disagreement to disgust.

If Obama and his advisors are the skilled communicators they appeared to be during his 2008 presidential election campaign, they must have a plan here, right?

Given the current context and Obama’s track record, the guidelines suggest that Obama has at least two major strategic goals in mind; one domestic and one international.

On the domestic front, Obama has to be mindful of the Republican presidential hopefuls, who will all scour the administration’s 9/11 speeches for campaign fodder. The last thing Obama wants is to be accused of playing politics with 9/11. But of course Obama is the president and everything he does and says is political; his only choice is how to play it. As a Democrat, having solid foreign-policy credentials can be nice, but it pales in comparison to the importance of jobs and the economy for mobilizing Obama’s base. With more to lose than win, the first goal of the guidelines is to keep the anniversary relatively low key and to minimize Obama’s exposure to GOP attacks.

On the international front, the president’s goal is to continue the reframing of the war on terror that he began soon after taking office. As many will recall, in 2009 the administration officially dropped the Bush era phrase “Global War on Terror” and replaced it with “Overseas Contingency Operations.” In Obama’s mind, the war on terror frame was not only inaccurate (how can you fight a strategy?) but also divisive and inflammatory. Obama’s multilateral instincts told him that the United States would find more support in the Middle East and elsewhere by downplaying the notion that the United States saw the world in terms of good vs. evil, and that any nation not “with the United States” was against the United States and might be treated as such. By downplaying the word terrorism, by downplaying al-Qaeda, by forgoing his predecessor’s fiery rhetoric about bringing evildoers to justice, Obama may also aim to reduce the amount of recruiting material available to jihadist organizations.

The logic here is easy to see and it certainly sounds compelling to liberal-internationalist types and Democratic voters. Unfortunately, however, the logic is flawed. Words and frames do matter, but not when the audience already has an overwhelmingly strong set of prior convictions about what is going on and especially not when you try to convince people that you’re doing one thing when you are actively doing the opposite. In this case, actions speak louder than words both at home and abroad.

Obama wants the rest of the world to believe that the United States is not at war with Islam, that Washington is going to fight “violent extremism” in cooperation with its allies in a manner that respects international law, norms of sovereignty, mutual interests and all that good stuff. What the rest of the world actually believes is that the United States will intervene around the globe in order to reduce the terrorist threat to Americans. The reason that the rest of the world believes this, of course, is that it is true. Obama has talked like a liberal but continued to act like a realist. No amount of 9/11 anniversary speechifying will convince people otherwise. As Jimmy Carter used to say, “Just because you call it a bathtub doesn’t mean it will hold water.”