If past is prelude, then the massacre in Orlando will benefit Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency. As the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has boasted, he gained significant support in December when a husband-and-wife Jihadist duo shot up a government building in San Bernardino, Calif.
Now Trump is crowing. His tweets and interviews since the shooting are a series of told-ya-so’s. He is quite pleased with himself for observing that President Barack Obama doesn’t call these mass shootings “radical Islamic terrorism.”
For Trump’s supporters, this kind of talk makes their guy appear brave and thoughtful. If we cannot name the enemy, the reasoning goes, then how can we defeat it?
But as I wrote in January after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, there are good reasons why Obama — and President George W. Bush before him — did not describe jihadists in explicitly Islamic terms. It was not because they are cowed by political correctness. Rather it was because the wider war on radical Islamic terrorism requires the tacit and at times active support of many radical Muslims.
To illustrate this point, consider the Iraq war counter-insurgency campaign known as the surge. In 2007, the U.S. military formed an alliance with sheiks in Anbar province who had aided al-Qaida’s Iraqi franchise in the first years of the war. These sheiks were pious Muslims. Many believed that apostates should be punished by the state and that fathers had an obligation to arrange marriages for their daughters.
If Bush had been more like Donald Trump and proposed banning all Muslims from entering the U.S., there is a good chance these Anbari sheiks would have concluded that the U.S. was as much of a threat to their villages as al-Qaida. The sheiks who’ve survived the Islamic State today are reluctant to join the fight against them because they see the Shiite militias leading the Iraqi campaign against the Islamic State as a greater threat.
Obama, admittedly, was slow to learn this lesson. He let the U.S. partnership with the Anbari sheiks wither after withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. But is this really something that Trump is going to criticize? He has been on the campaign trail falsely claiming that he opposed the Iraq war all along. Will Trump now say Obama was too quick to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq?
At the end of his second term, Obama is trying to re-create in Syria the success of Bush’s alliance with the Anbari sheiks. This is why the Pentagon has redoubled its efforts to train Sunni Arab fighters for the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces who this month launched a campaign to cut off the supply lines to the Islamic State’s capital in the town of Raqqa. Senior U.S. war planners understand that the prospect of a Kurdish force liberating Raqqa risks alienating the local population the very people the West needs to hold the city after the Islamic State is defeated there.
Finally, in the case of the Orlando mass shooting, there’s much we don’t know about what motivated Omar Mateen to go on a rampage at a gay night club. It’s possible that he had been in contact with terrorist groups for months or years, like the San Bernardino shooters. But it’s also possible that the first time he mentioned his allegiance to the Islamic State was when he called a police operator during the attack. As the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi wrote, the Islamic State intentionally blurs the lines between the acts of terror it plans and the acts of terror it inspires.
None of this is to say that Obama has waged the war on terror with competence. For too long he did nothing as the collapse of Syria and Iraq created a vacuum filled by the Islamic State, which has inspired young loners from all over the world to commit barbarism in the name of their faith.
The best way to stop these terrorists is to enlist as many Muslims as possible in a fight against them. The last two American presidents grasped this lesson. Unfortunately the presumptive Republican nominee has not.