President Obama has been criticized throughout his presidency for his calm demeanor during times of crisis. While his supporters view his response to attacks like that in Brussels as measured and reassuring, his opponents (like Ted Cruz) accuse him of underestimating the threat groups like Daesh pose to the United States. While Republican presidential candidates talk of armed intervention in Syria, President Obama has avoided this course of action in favor of continued drone strikes on Daesh and peace talks between Syrian rebels and the Syrian government facilitated by John Kerry. But why this difference in approaches to Daesh? Why does President Obama not appear to be as worried as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are about Daesh?
The point of terrorism is to spread fear that is disproportionate to a group’s actual capabilities.
Attacks like the ones in Brussels are scary, and such attacks inform how we think about simple things like going to the airport. One attack is one too many, but that being said, the odds of someone being killed in a terrorist attack in the U.S. is still less than the odds of you being killed by falling furniture. However, the threat of falling furniture isn’t really on your mind as much as the threat of terrorism.
President Obama recognizes terrorism for what it is: a scare tactic used by people who use random acts of violence to give the impression of strength to hide their weakness. To quote your Dad’s favorite move from last year, Bridge of Spies, “Would it help [the situation if President Obama freaked out over terrorism like Trump and Cruz]?” No, it would not. By not overreacting, President Obama is not giving into the whole terror aspect of terrorism.
President Obama is not running for re-election.
As Frank and Claire Underwood conclude on the final episode of season four of House of Cards when they are backed into a corner by a seemingly career ending scandal, “We can work with fear.” Fear of terrorism is a great motivator for Trump and Cruz voters who feel that President Obama has not responded sufficiently. It seems that the more scared people are of terrorism, the more likely they are to vote for someone who advocates for direct armed action against groups like Daesh.
President Obama does not want to play in to the “clash of civilizations” logic.
Especially during President George W. Bush’s tenure, policymakers subscribed to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory about the near inevitability of armed conflict between the West and “Islam” due to irreconcilable beliefs about religion and society. I put Islam in quotes above because there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, so one can hardly talk about Islam as one monolithic entity. Subscribing to this logic means:
(1) such a conflict can never be solved and
(2) you ignore the political, economic, and social environments in which these terrorist groups thrive.
Rough estimates put the number of committed members of Al-Qaeda anywhere from 200-1,000 and for Daesh between 20,000 and 200,000 according to various sources. These statistics are hard to pinpoint for obvious reasons, but considering that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, if terrorism was solely motivated by Islam, than under Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory, these numbers would be much, much higher and terrorism would be a much bigger problem than it is today. While Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country and Cruz’s statement concerning increased surveillance on Muslim communities reflect an affinity for Huntington’s ideology, President Obama seems to be moving away from this dated and widely critiqued theory.
President Obama’s response to Daesh attacks have not been out of character. He is a calm and measured man reacting to crises in a calm and measured manner. While Trump and Cruz can make inflammatory comments and play on the public’s fear, President Obama leads.