It has become commonplace, among Republican candidates for the presidency, to criticize President Obama and his administration for their almost pathological refusal to identify any violence as terrorism and to describe terrorists as “Muslim terrorists” or “Islamic terrorists” or “Islamist terrorists” even when it has become obvious that they are. One refers not only to Benghazi and San Bernardino, but to many other incidents. But it has become almost as commonplace, to the point of making it a cliché, to base such criticism upon the aphorism that one must name one’s enemy in order to defeat him.
The etymology of that aphorism seems pretty clear. It is a corruption of a quotation from “The Art of War,” by Sun Tsu: “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” Obviously, there can be a difference between becoming your enemy, and naming him. Not only that, some have pointed out that if you choose to become your enemy in order to know and defeat him, you run the risk of becoming just as wicked as your enemy. It seems self-evident that one can defeat an enemy without having either named him or become him; all you need to do is identify and locate him and then kill him.
It is likely that the “name the enemy” approach will eventually become so tired a cliché’ that it will lose whatever political appeal it might have had. But there is a deeper point to be made, beyond the wisdom of ending the debate about whether to label terrorists as Muslim or Islamic or Islamist. Even if the Obama White House were willing to appease its critics by adding the terms “Muslim terrorist,” “Islamic terrorist,” and “Islamist terrorist” to its political vocabulary, there would be no reason to expect that the White House would make any substantive changes to its policies for dealing with terror inspired or directed by ISIS, Al Qaeda, or Iran. The awful truth, alas, is that this President, though willing to talk trash to – and deliver the occasional drone strike against – terrorists in general, does not intend to defeat anyone or anything that is Muslim, regardless of whether the population or the leadership of the potential adversary practices the extreme version of Islam referred to in the West as Islamism. This is not just a matter of pandering to domestic voting blocs. It is a policy that indicates that this is a war he does not really want to win.