President Obama has heard the Republican reactions to Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, and it seems safe to say he's unimpressed
“When candidates say we shouldn’t admit 3-year old-orphans, that’s political posturing,” Obama said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Manila -- making a veiled reference to GOP candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “When people say we should have a religious test, and only Christians, proven Christians, should be admitted, that’s offensive, and contrary to American values.” He added, taking another jab: “These are the same folks often times that say they’re so tough that just talking to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin or staring down ISIL (ISIS) or using some additional rhetoric will solve the problem -- but apparently they’re scared of widows and 3-year-old orphans.”
Obama added, "At first they were worried about the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they're worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn't sound very tough to me."
And while these comments were no doubt emotionally satisfying for those who've grown tired of watching Republicans try to exploit fear and ignorance to advance their own demagogic agenda, the president's comments were also constructive on a specific front.
"We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks," Obama said
. "I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate. They’ve been playing on fear to score political points or to advance their campaigns and it’s irresponsible. It needs to stop because the world is watching."
This wasn't just empty rhetoric. The point about ISIS "recruitment tools" is of particular importance because it offers American political leaders a timely reminder: if you're making things easier for ISIS, you're doing it wrong.
The enemy is not some inscrutable foe with a mysterious worldview. As they've made clear many, many times, ISIS leaders want to be described in explicitly religious terms. They want to be characterized as a "state" and an existential threat to the West. They want to turn the West against refugees. ISIS leaders have a narrative -- that Western leaders hate their faith -- and they're desperate to have their enemies reinforce that narrative as often, and as enthusiastically, as possible.
And in response, Republicans want to describe ISIS in explicitly religious terms. American conservatives keep describing ISIS as a "caliphate" and an existential threat to the West. The right has turned against refugees. Some Republicans have gone so far as to suggest Christians should explicitly be given preferential treatment over Muslims, effectively providing fodder for the very ISIS narrative the terrorists are eager to push.
Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting for a moment that Republicans are somehow deliberately trying to bolster ISIS's agenda. That's absurd; there are no ISIS sympathizers in mainstream American politics.
Rather, the point is that Republicans are inadvertently making things easier for ISIS when they should be doing the opposite. The Washington Post
's Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, went so far yesterday as to argue
that American conservatives are "materially undermining the war against terrorism" and making a challenging situation worse.
All our efforts are undermined by declaring Islam itself to be the enemy, and by treating Muslims in the United States, or Muslims in Europe, or Muslims fleeing Islamic State oppression, as a class of suspicious potential jihadists. [...] [I]f U.S. politicians define Islam as the problem and cast aspersions on Muslim populations in the West, they are feeding the Islamic State narrative. They are materially undermining the war against terrorism and complicating the United States’ (already complicated) task in the Middle East.
Vox's Zack Beauchamp added
that turning away Syrian refugees specifically helps ISIS.
ISIS despises Syrian refugees: It sees them as traitors to the caliphate. By leaving, they turn their back on the caliphate. ISIS depicts its territory as a paradise, and fleeing refugees expose that as a lie. But if refugees do make it out, ISIS wants them to be treated badly -- the more the West treats them with suspicion and fear, the more it supports ISIS's narrative of a West that is hostile to Muslims and bolsters ISIS's efforts to recruit from migrant communities in Europe. The fewer refugees the West lets in, and the chillier their welcome on arrival, the better for ISIS.
I'm not blind to the complexities of national-security policy in this area, and I'm reluctant to be blithe in over-simplifying matters, but I'd ask U.S. policymakers and candidates to consider a straightforward test:
1. Are you doing exactly what ISIS wants you to do?
2. If the answer is "yes," stop.