Donald Trump demanded Sunday on Twitter that President Obama “finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism” in connection to the massacre in Orlando or “immediately resign in disgrace.” Obama didn’t use that language, and almost certainly won’t in the future.
Obama called the slaughter “an act of terror and an act of hate” but said authorities have “reached no definitive judgment on the precise motivations of the killer.”
“I’ve directed that we must spare no effort to determine what — if any — inspiration or association this killer may have had with terrorist groups,” he said Sunday afternoon from the podium of the White House.
Amid news reports indicating that the alleged shooter pledged loyalty to ISIS, as the terrorist army is also known, in a 911 call, Obama’s remarks sounded like authorities were looking into whether the group inspired or directed the attack — even though the president did not mention it by name or as “ISIL,” as the U.S. government tends to call it.
A close look at Obama’s rhetoric shows he has not referred to the “Islamic State” by that name since he plunged the U.S. military into an undeclared but escalating war against the group two years ago. Obama, who tends to stick with “ISIL,” explained his thinking roughly one month after the first U.S. airstrikes against the group.
“ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim,” he said on Sept. 10, 2014. “And ISIL is certainly not a state. “
Obama went on, “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.”
Senior administration officials say the president’s reasoning has not changed: Why needlessly alienate Muslim partners in the war on ISIS? Why lend any credence to the group’s claim to uphold Islamic tenets, helping it cloak violence in religion?
Obama’s critics — mostly Republicans, but also some Democrats — have charged that his refusal to describe the threat as originating in extremist Islam reflects politically correct naiveté that risks hampering the war effort.
There’s a political dimension too.
In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, Trump suggested on NBC’s “Today” in March that his own rhetoric on terrorism, including his call for a halt to Muslim immigration and tourism to the United States, was “why I’m probably No. 1 in the polls.”
He may not have been wrong. A February 2016 poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP wanted the next president to “speak bluntly even if critical of Islam as a whole.”
For Democrats and independents who lean left, it was just 22 percent.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s reaction to the attack in Orlando roughly tracked with Obama’s: She called it an act of terror but stopped short of explicitly diagnosing a direct connection to ISIS.
Still, the former secretary of state said in a written statement, keeping America safe “means defeating international terror groups, working with allies and partners to go after them wherever they are, countering their attempts to recruit people here and everywhere, and hardening our defenses at home.”
It’s not just an argument about words. Obama asked Congress last year to explicitly authorize him to use military force against ISIS and loosely defined “associated forces.”
How those forces are defined — whether by name, geography, allegiances, tactics or goals — may shape the war on terrorism’s global battlefield for years. Defining the global conflict, America’s enemies and victory (or at least progress) carries enormous weight in that sense because it will determine how, when and where young Americans will fight, and against whom.