Obama right to call for cool heads, not xenophobia, in battle against Islamic State and other terror groups

Vilifying all Muslims will only serve to push some of them into the hands of militants, whose aim is to sow discord

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2015, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2015, 12:00pm

By sticking with the politics of reason in the face of fierce criticism from hawkish opponents, US President Barack Obama has struck the right note in his historic address to the nation from the Oval Office following the San Bernardino, California, terrorist massacre. Without trying to play down the scale of the threat from Islamic State, he insisted that success in fighting IS did not depend on tough talk, abandoning values or giving into fear.

Republicans responded by portraying Obama as preoccupied with new gun control laws to which they are opposed, with presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz comparing his “weak” leadership with that of former president Franklin Roosevelt after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. However, the president rightly refused to be drawn into a ground war because “that’s what groups like [IS] want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield ... but they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years”. It remains to be seen whether Obama can maintain this stance if there is a significant escalation of the Islamic terrorist threat.

He is right but, that said, the tone of his speech reflected increasing concern about the direction the war might take if fear and panic in an election year feed into domestic and foreign policymaking. He sought to reassure Americans that his administration’s approach, spearheaded by coalition air strikes against IS, would reduce the threat of terrorism, and warned against vilification of Muslims. “If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate,” Obama said. Indeed, IS has already effectively exploited the sense of isolation many Muslims feel.

Now Islamic State is a global threat, stopping it ultimately depends on ending the instability that gave it a foothold in Syria and Iraq. And that will happen only if governments genuinely work together, led by the US and Russia.