Bob Schwartz

Obama Speech: Is It ISIS, ISIL or IS, and What is a True Religion?

Obama ISIS Speech

This is not a comprehensive review of last night’s speech by President Obama about ISIS/ISIL/IS. But if you asked me to join the millions of reviewers, descriptors that come to mind are lukewarm, vague, uninspiring, insufficiently informative, tactical (the speech, not the plan), and blah-blah-blah.

Here is one paragraph that stuck out, because it reflects two issues that may not get enough attention:

And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

What Is the Name of This Enterprise That We Are at War Against?

Is it ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State? This is much more significant than whether the English transliteration of the name of the Egyptian President was Morsy, Morsi, or Mursi or the Libyan dictator was Gadhafi, Qaddafi, Kadafi, Gaddafi, or Gadafy. This is our new mortal enemy, and besides, all these IS names are in English.

Different nations and different news media have different approaches to this. The BBC, for example, has settled on Islamic State, apparently opting for whatever the organization chooses to call itself. What is totally strange about the “official” U.S. nomenclature is that at the highest levels, there is no consistency. The President prefers ISIL, while those in his cabinet regularly use ISIS.

One small matter about ISIL does deserve note. The full name is the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant. I challenge many in the administration, and many in Congress, and many in the media, to explain—without Google or cheat sheet—what the Levant is. For five hundred years or so it has described the land of the eastern Mediterranean, now roughly comprising Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and contiguous countries. The word comes from the French word for “rising”, as in the east where the sun rises. It isn’t much in use any more, outside of scholarly circles and, of course, in our latest war.

So please, President Obama, if you are gathering the support of dozens of nations and hundreds of millions of Americans, let’s all decide on what to call this organization that, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, we will pursue to the Gates of Hell.

What is a True Religion?

“No religion condones the killing of innocents,” the President said. Without going into historic and contemporary detail, this is patently false. I believe the President knows better, but he didn’t want to get into a deep discussion, and instead just wanted to make a rhetorical flourish. If he doesn’t know, there are thousands of histories he can read and scholars he can consult, or even easier, news reports from the past few weeks, months, and years he can read.

If, however, he really did mean it, he has disqualified the majority of world religions from being classified as such. Which, by the way, plenty of critics of religion would applaud.

The President doesn’t have to be the Teacher in Chief, the Scholar in Chief, the Explainer in Chief, etc. Being Communicator in Chief is enough of a job, but if he just wants to say stuff for effect, without regard to its making sense or being true, we’ve already had plenty of that in years past, from those less smart or thoughtful than you. We get enough nonsense from many in Congress. Speak as if some of us are actually thinking about what you say. Because some of us are.

The Abstract Perpetual War Is Real

Rome

Consider this: If you have a child or grandchild age 12 or younger, they have lived their lives with America at war.

And this: In six years that child will be old enough for military service, but will not necessarily have to serve because we have no mandatory universal service. So even if we are still at war, that child is probably not at risk.

And this: Why don’t we have mandatory universal service, especially if we are in perpetual war? Do we have perpetual war because we don’t have mandatory universal service?

Michael Auslin, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a fascinating piece in Politico about the prospect of a perpetual war footing, Don’t Do As the Romans Did… His politics may not be yours, but his analysis is compelling and worth reading in its entirety:

For Washington, which has already spent at least $2 trillion on relatively limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of decades more competition, deterrence and fighting at an unknown cost represents the greatest security challenge since the Cold War, and perhaps since World War II. It is just as much a domestic political issue, and will figure as prominently in the debates over the future direction of the country, as do the battles over Obamacare, the regulatory burden or the transformation of the economy. Yet so far, it does not seem that either the country’s political elites or ordinary citizens have fully appreciated both the scope and, more importantly, the nature of America’s new two-front conflict. They soon will, as the country’s economic health and domestic political stability will be directly affected by rising global risk. To quote Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Americans must accept the fact that, while their country may not be engaged in daily fighting, neither will it know peace for the foreseeable future. The world will become far more insecure and unstable over the next decades, and the amorphous yet crucial idea of global “order” will be strained, perhaps to the breaking point.

America’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The spirit of can-do, roll up your sleeves, and in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “get ‘er done” is a model for the world. But a related failure to think things through, apply broad and deep vision, and act deliberately and more slowly, can neutralize or outweigh the benefits of that spirit.

Living in the moment, in the now, is a great way for people to not be mired in the mistakes of the past and not be intimidated by the hypothetical misfortunes of the future. That is, unfortunately, not a luxury that nations, particularly super powerful ones, have. When you can spend trillions of dollars of your citizens’ money, send thousands of citizens to their deaths, and have the potential to blow up cities and the whole world, we expect you to think twice or more before you roll up those sleeves and get ‘er done.