The Limits of Language

Obama's rhetoric alone can't change the opinions of Muslims abroad—or Americans at home.

One of the most defining aspects of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy has been its effort to change America’s rhetorical approach to the threat of terrorism, particularly Islamic terrorism. “The language we use matters,” President Obama told the Arabic satellite television station al-Arabiya in an interview during his first week in office. Scrubbed were George W. Bush–era terms like “war on terrorism,” “radical Islam,” and “jihadist.” The White House’s 2010 National Security Strategy formally replaced the term “Islamic terrorism” with “violent extremism.”

The purpose of the shift in semantics was twofold. First, to repackage the fight against terrorism as a specific fight against al-Qaeda, not against Islamic extremism, which Obama believes contributed to a post-9/11 perception that America was “at war with Islam.” Indeed, the new rhetoric has gone hand in hand with Obama’s personal outreach to the Muslim world to build “new partnerships” based on “mutual respect and mutual interest.” Second, it was part of a broader effort to soften the American public’s fear of Islamic terrorism, which Obama officials believe plays directly into the hands of extremists.

Nearly two years into his presidency, it is fair to ask whether Obama’s use of language regarding terrorism has proven effective. Two startling new polls suggest it has not. The first, by the Brookings Institution, shows that between May 2009 and May 2010 the number of Middle Eastern Arabs expressing optimism in Obama’s approach toward their region dropped from 51 percent to just 16 percent, with those describing themselves as “discouraged” by the Obama presidency rising from 15 percent to 63 percent. The second, by the Pew Research Center, shows that in August 2010 fewer Americans held a favorable view of Islam (30 percent) than five years earlier during the Bush administration (41 percent), with more Americans (35 percent) saying Islam encourages violence more than other religions than in 2002 (25 percent).

These starkly negative trend lines suggest the limited utility of language in fighting terrorism. Yes, terrorism is a propaganda-fueled activity—an ongoing battle to win hearts and minds and attract new recruits to fight for the cause. And of course the language used in combating terrorism is vitally important—the counterproductive “smoke ‘em out” rhetoric of the Bush administration is a case in point. But if rhetoric does not match policy, or appears to discount or downplay threats, the credibility—and thus effectiveness—of overall counterterrorism strategy may be undermined. It appears the Obama administration has dug itself into just such a hole.

For example, when looking beyond the nuanced language and appealing promises, what Muslims around the world see is an administration that has ramped up the war in Afghanistan, is killing scores of Muslim civilians with drone strikes, continues to hold thousands of Muslim detainees in Guantanamo, Bagram and other prisons, and maintains seemingly unconditional support of Israel. This is not to critique these policies, but to point out that they certainly do not match the raised expectations of the Muslim world, and have only muddled Obama’s oft-stated goal of turning Muslims toward America and away from extremist movements.

A large price is also being paid domestically for disconnected rhetoric. Despite maintaining nearly all of Bush’s hard-line tactics—Patriot Act, warrantless surveillance, indefinite detentions—the White House has consistently downplayed the threat, even in the face of a clear uptick in terrorism activity. For example, the administration did not call the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting a terrorist attack, despite the suspect's outspoken support of violent jihad. And following the failed 2009 Christmas Day airline bombing, Obama described the suspect as an "isolated extremist," despite his ties to al-Qaeda. The administration's initial response to the failed May 2010 Times Square bombing by an American Muslim trained in Pakistan was to call it a "one-off" event. Attorney General Eric Holder stated in congressional testimony that he believed these and other recent Islamic terror plots were unconnected, and unrelated to radical Islam.

There is little doubt that the administration’s unwillingness to speak candidly about Islamic terrorism has taken a toll on the American public’s trust in its ability to confront the threat. A Gallup poll released in early September shows Americans favoring Republicans over Democrats on the issue of terrorism by 55 to 31 percent—up from 49 to 42 percent last September.

President Obama entered office promising to fight a smarter and more effective war on terrorism, and in many ways he has. His instincts to maintain aggressive tactics while toning down needlessly inflammatory rhetoric were certainly sound. Yet his administration seems to have overlearned a key lesson of the Bush years—that overhyping the threat of terrorism has costs attached. So, too, does rhetoric that understates the threat; especially when detached from policy.

It is not too late to reverse this troubling trend. The White House can begin by focusing less on overly reassuring rhetoric—which has not paid dividends at home or abroad—and more on a candid accounting of the threats faced and the policies employed to confront them.

(Image by Jonathan Ruchti)