The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.
Question and Answer
Bottom Story of the Day
“Sarah Silverman Comes Out in Support of Bernie Sanders”—headline, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, March 29
Obama’s Case Against ‘Moral Clarity’
The president of late has been highly critical of the leading Republican contenders to succeed him, and the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg is out with a new Obama apologia titled “Obama on What Trump and Cruz Get Wrong About Islam.” Our initial thought is that there’s less difference between Obama and Donald Trump on the question than either of them, or Goldberg for that matter, likely realizes.
According to Goldberg, Trump “is given to descriptive imprecision, and to a bluntness that can be terrifying.” His supporting example:
In a semi-forgotten 2011 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, a friendly interlocutor asked Trump about a statement he had made about Islam on Fox. Trump said, in response, “Bill O’Reilly asked me if there is a Muslim problem. And I said, absolutely, yes.” Trump went on to say, “Many, many, most Muslims are wonderful people, but is there a Muslim problem? Look what’s happening.” He added, in reference to the Koran, “A lot of people say it teaches love . . . but there’s something there that teaches some very negative vibe.” Trump’s commentary on Islam since that interview has not gained depth or nuance.
“Descriptive imprecision” and “bluntness” are fair enough characterizations of these remarks, and far be it from us to dispute the assertion that Trump’s view is lacking in “depth.” But is it really, as Goldberg suggests, devoid of “nuance”?
Consider Goldberg’s description of his own, and the president’s, view:
It is true, contra the apologists, that ISIS is a Muslim problem (read my colleague Graeme Wood on this subject). Those who have read “The Obama Doctrine” [Goldberg’s lengthy cover story on the president’s approach to foreign policy] know that the president believes this to be true, and that he has called on Muslim leaders and clerics to examine the causes of extremism in their community. But it is also true that Islam is the solution to the ISIS problem. The great mass of the world’s billion-and-a-half Muslims are not ISIS supporters, nor sympathizers, and it is also true, of course, that most of ISIS’s victims are Muslim. Only Islam can truly defeat this movement.
So, Trump says “most Muslims are wonderful people.” Goldberg more or less agrees: “The great mass of the world’s billion-and-a-half Muslims are not ISIS supporters, nor sympathizers.”
Trump asks: “Is there a Muslim problem?” His answer, “Look what’s happening,” is meant to be understood as a yes. Goldberg, too, answers in the affirmative—“It is true, contra the apologists, that ISIS is a Muslim problem”—though it’s not clear if Obama agrees with the latter point or Goldberg means to count the president among the “apologists.”
What about Trump, then, does Goldberg find so “terrifying”? He offers no further explanation except to suggest it’s a matter of tone: It’s Trump’s “bluntness.” Our surmise is that Goldberg finds Obama’s detached rhetoric—what he elsewhere calls “Spockian rationality”—reassuring. But Goldberg also criticizes Obama for overdoing that “rationality”: “It is important for a president to acknowledge the legitimate fears of American citizens before he sets about castigating the fearmongers.”
The most interesting part of the Goldberg essay concerns Obama’s rebuttal to the argument that countering the threat of Islamic terrorism requires “moral clarity.” After praising Ronald Reagan’s “moral clarity about communism,” Goldberg reports, the president drew this distinction:
The danger comes, Obama told me, when people apply lessons of the struggle against communism in the struggle against Islamist terrorism.
“You have some on the Republican side who will insist that what we need is the same moral clarity with respect to radical Islam. Except, of course, communism was not embedded in a whole bunch of cultures, communism wasn’t a millennium-old religion that was embraced by a whole host of good, decent, hard-working people who are our allies. Communism for the most part was a foreign, abstract ideology that had been adopted by some nationalist figures, or those who were concerned about poverty and inequality in their countries but wasn’t organic to these cultures.”
He went on to say, “Establishing some moral clarity about what communism was and wasn’t, and being able to say to the people of Latin America or the people of Eastern Europe, ‘There’s a better way for you to achieve your goals,’ that was something that could be useful to do.” But, he said, “to analogize it to one of the world’s foremost religions that is the center of people’s lives all around the world, and to potentially paint that as a broad brush, isn’t providing moral clarity. What it’s doing is alienating a whole host of people who we need to work with us in order to succeed.”
One may doubt the sincerity of Obama’s praise for Reagan, but let us elide that point by simply stipulating that we agree with Obama’s stated premise: Reagan was right.
Further, Obama is correct in drawing a distinction between communism and Islam. The former was (and is) an abstract ideology, and an evil one; the latter is a religion that takes different forms in different cultures, many of them benign. To recognize communism’s evil was an exercise in moral clarity; to paint Islam “as a broad brush” is a confused approach—and potentially a dangerous one.
But Obama himself often paints Islam with a broad brush, albeit in cheery tones rather than dark ones. In August 2014, he declared: “ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday [the decapitation of American journalist James Foley], and for what they do every single day.”
Hillary Clinton struck a similar note last November, when she told the Council on Foreign Relations: “Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.”
Based on my own conversations at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community, I can say with reasonable certainty that there are no senior-level national security professionals in the U.S. who believe that it is in America’s best interest to risk making Islam itself the enemy. The two leading Republican candidates for president are currently out of step with this conclusion.
But he never supports that last assertion. Neither Trump nor Cruz, nor John Kasich nor any of the 14 candidates who’ve dropped out, argues that “Islam itself is the enemy.” Nor should they, for it is not. But moral and strategic clarity does require acknowledging—as even Goldberg does—that the enemy is Islamic.
For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.