President Obama’s week has been thrown off message by a debate over whether the White House should be labeling its battle against terrorists as a fight with radical Islam.
With the GOP Congress out of town a little more than a week before a possible shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, Obama’s three-day summit on countering violent extremism has been overshadowed by accusations of political correctness, forcing the administration to play defense.
“You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is,” Cruz added.
Questions about the administration’s refusal to label the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a fight with radical Islam have been raised not only by familiar critics at Fox News, but also on CNN, which has covered the debate heavily.
And it hasn’t just been Republicans criticizing the White House.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs panels, slammed the president on CNN’s “The Situation Room” just minutes after his Wednesday speech at the White House summit had ended.
“If you look at this broad focus on countering violent extremism, which is very hard to define, it’s a diversion away from the actual threat coming from this radical Islamic ideology that exists,” said Gabbard, a combat veteran who has previously criticized Obama on the issue.
“It’s so important that we recognize that these people are being motivated by a spiritual, theological motivation, which is this radical Islamic ideology,” she said.
The administration wanted the summit to highlight Obama-backed efforts in major U.S. cities to stomp down on radicalism. The White House believes the programs in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Los Angeles and Boston could be emulated in foreign capitals such as Paris and Copenhagen that have been hit by local terror attacks.
But that message has been repeatedly drowned out by the debate over whether the U.S. is in a fight with radical Islam.
Public comments by administration officials have only hemmed in Obama further.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s remarks Monday on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” in particularly, have been widely criticized.
Harf said the United States “cannot kill our way out of this war,” and called for efforts to improve foreign economies so that would-be terrorists would find jobs rather than take up arms against the United States.
“We have to stop them and kill them first, and then we can worry about social reasons,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) responded Tuesday on CNN's “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”
In his first public appearance at the summit, Obama seemed eager to explain the reasoning behind the administration’s semantics.
“They’re not religious leaders, they’re terrorists,” Obama said of ISIS. He argued the terrorist group refers to itself as the Islamic State because it wants to present itself as representing a religion.
“We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” he said.
There is also a substantive reason why the administration is treading carefully with its message on radical Islam.
Obama is seeking to build a lasting coalition against ISIS that will include states where Islam is the dominant religion, and wants to cooperate with religious leaders at the street level to try to turn people around the world against the radical group.
As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest put it Wednesday, the administration is “very mindful of the fact that a particularly virulent strain of extremist ideology has tried to insert itself in the Muslim community.”
Earnest bucked calls to define the terror as militant or radical Islam, characterizing terrorist groups as outside the true fabric of Islam.
Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist and contributor at The Hill, pushed back against the notion that the controversy is distracting from the White House's agenda.
“The fear is that once you begin to demonize Islam and Muslims, you get 1.5 billion people out there that aren’t too happy about that,” he told The Hill.
“The fastest way to move people into becoming radicals and terrorists is for the 'great American president' to come out swinging, so I think this shows an important amount of restraint.”
American Islamic groups aren’t happy with the summit, however.
A coalition of groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement expressing “our grave concerns with the framework of [the summit], which almost exclusively focuses on Muslim communities in the United States and abroad.”
Some protestors outside the White House on Wednesday held signs that said “Resist Islamophobia” and “Innocent until proven Muslim.”
Earnest pleaded with the media on Wednesday to wait for the summit’s end before declaring it a failure.
“Before you pass judgment on the summit, is let’s wait until the summit concludes,” he said. “And then I’d encourage you to follow up with those who participated to see whether or not they found it to be worthwhile.”