WH Grapples With Terrorism Language 01/31 11:33
Twice this month, the White House has publicly grappled with the politically
fraught language of terrorism.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Twice this month, the White House has publicly grappled
with the politically fraught language of terrorism.
In the days after a deadly terror spree in Paris, President Barack Obama was
criticized for purposely avoiding calling the attacks an example of "Islamic
extremism," settling for the more generic "violent extremism." This week, the
White House struggled to explain why the administration sometimes classifies
the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist organization --- and sometimes does not.
The rhetorical wrangling underscores the extent to which a president who
pledged to end his predecessor's war on terror is still navigating how to
explain the threats that persist to the American public, while also being
mindful of the impact his words can have abroad.
"They do believe that the part of the roots of terrorism comes from the way
the United States acts and talks and is perceived globally," said Trevor
McCrisken, a professor at Britain's University of Warwick who has studied
Obama's foreign policy rhetoric.
The early January attacks on a French satirical newspaper and kosher deli
put a fresh spotlight on what Obama's supporters see as his appropriately
careful language and his critics see as overly cautious.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the attacks that left 17 people dead
suggested the world was "waging a war against Islamist extremists." And British
Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to Washington two weeks ago, said
Europe and the U.S. face a "very serious Islamist extremist terrorist threat."
Obama, however, assiduously avoided associating the attacks with Islam, a
decision White House spokesman Josh Earnest said was made for the sake of
"These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later
tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and
their own deviant view of it," Earnest said. "We also don't want to be in a
situation where we are legitimizing what we consider to be a completely
illegitimate justification for this violence, this act of terrorism."
Obama's conservative opponents quickly seized on the president's rhetorical
choice and cast it as an example of the White House downplaying the root cause
of the terror threat. At least one Democrat --- Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an
Iraq war veteran --- agreed, saying the president's terror terminology matters,
particularly as Congress weighs a new authorization for military action in Iraq
"By his not using this term 'Islamic extremism' and clearly identifying our
enemies, it raised a whole host of questions in exactly what Congress will be
authorizing," Gabbard said on Fox News. "Unless you understand who your enemy
is, unless you clearly identify your enemy, then you cannot come up with a very
effective strategy to defeat that enemy."
Similarly, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who until last year was director
of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a conference in Washington last week
that "you cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists."
The president has long tried to shift his administration's terror rhetoric
away from what he saw as the hyperbolic terminology used by his predecessor,
George W. Bush, particularly his declaration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks that the U.S. was engaged in a "war on terror."
In a high-profile national security address in 2013, Obama declared, "We
must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror,' but rather as
a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of
violent extremists that threaten America."
Under Obama's narrower definition, his advisers say the U.S. is at war with
terror groups like al-Qaida and its affiliates, as well as the Islamic State
Given the U.S. policy of not making concessions to terrorists, the White
House has refused to negotiate with Islamic State militants to free American
hostages and opposes Jordan's ongoing efforts to orchestrate a prisoner swap
with the group. However, the U.S. did negotiate with the Taliban through an
intermediary last year to free American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five
Afghan detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The White House insisted anew this week that those negotiations did not
violate U.S. policy because the administration does not classify that Taliban
as a terrorist organization --- though officials said there are overlapping
"They do carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism. They do pursue terror
attacks in an effort to try to advance their agenda," Earnest, the White House
spokesman, said. The difference, he said, is that the Taliban threat to the
U.S. is mainly confined to interests in Afghanistan, while a group like
al-Qaida has broader ambitions.
Yet even the administration's classifications of the Taliban have some
The Afghan Taliban is not on the State Department's list of Foreign
Terrorist Organizations, thereby allowing the White House to engage in the
negotiations for Bergdahl. Yet the Treasury Department does list the Afghan
Taliban on the list of specially designated terrorists, giving the U.S. the
ability to freeze the assets of the group and its members.