On Sunday, standing behind a lectern in the Oval Office, President Obama spoke to Americans about the fight against ISIS and, more specifically, about last week's shooting in San Bernardino, California. He started by talking about his plans for continuing air strikes over Iraq and Syria and for continuing to train forces in those countries to fight ISIS in their own territories. Then, Obama spoke about what he won't do in the fight against ISIS — and what he doesn't want his fellow Americans to do, either.
Obama declared early in his address that Wednesday's shooting at a holiday party in San Bernardino "was an act of terrorism, designed to kill innocent people." At the same time, though, he made it clear that no connection between the shooters and the Islamic State has been found. Rather, he said that the two shooters could have gone down that path of radicalization on their own. Still, the attack has reignited a sense of urgency among the American people to fight back against ISIS and to address the problem of gun violence within our own borders. Obama's what-not-to-do strategy addresses both the home front and the foreign fight in overcoming what he calls a "new phase" in the terrorist threat.
First, Obama does not want to involve the United States in another "long and costly ground war" in the Middle East. It's not what the American people want and, as the president said on Sunday, it is what ISIS wants. According to the president, groups like ISIS know that "if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits." Avoiding a ground war with ISIS is nothing new: We've heard officials say it before and we've heard the American people express their hesitancy to sending more troops abroad than necessary.
But what Obama stressed during this portion of his speech was the need for Americans to separate the Muslim community from the terrorist community in their minds. (FYI, this doesn't seem like something the president should have to say in the first place, but I guess we should be glad he did.)
"We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam," Obama said. "That, too, is what groups like ISIL want." The president reminded Americans that "ISIL does not speak for Islam," calling the radicalized terrorists "thugs and killers, part of a cult of death."
There are more than one billion Muslims around the world, and just a tiny fraction of them align with groups like ISIS, according to the president. Also, a disproportionate number of Muslims are victims of terrorist attacks. Obama addressed the type of hatred and suspicion that Muslim-Americans have often encountered since the days of 9/11, and he encouraged the country to instead embrace Muslim allies.
The president didn't place all of the responsibility on non-Muslim Americans, though. He charged Muslim Americans and Muslim leaders around the world to continue to reject the radical, terrorist version of Islam that groups like ISIS promote, so that they can continue to work with the U.S. on combating the terrorist threat. Ultimately, it's up to all Americans to reject discrimination, the president said — an important message with respect to all religious, ethnic, and racial groups, not just those most often affiliated with ISIS.