Former US President George W Bush waged a war on “terror”. Now, US President Barack Obama has convened a summit to wage a war on “extremism”.
But what does that even mean? One former White House national security adviser calls it a tricky question to answer.
On Tuesday, the White House welcomed law enforcement, city mayors, community leaders and policymakers for the opening of a three-day summit titled, “Countering Violent Extremism”.
After months of delays, the summit was announced just days after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris where 17 people were shot dead by radicals with connections to groups fighting in the Middle East.
The White House is steering away from specifics when it comes to who and what constitutes an extremist.
Most analysts agree one of the biggest reasons is the criticism the Obama administration has come under from Muslim leaders inside and outside the US for using the words “Islam” and “extremists” too often in the same sentence even though, according to Ben Friedman of the CATO Institute, “everyone knows that Islamic extremism is the main concern of counterterrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic”.
That includes the campaign against ISIL in the Middle East which the US is involved in.
There are other reasons, according to Gordon Adams, a former White House official who now teaches at the American University in Washington. He says the administration, “does not want to be leading a global military coalition to fight ISIL”, adding “it is a fated enterprise to do so.”
But he admits that fighting “extremism” in a general sense has its flaws, too.
“The problem for the administration is where to draw the line,” he says. “As it is both unwise and impossible to fight terrorists everywhere.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says the language of the summit isn’t uniquely problematic but reflective of a broader discomfort policymakers have in discussing the power of religious ideas. He says the Obama administration simply, “doesn’t take ISIL’s ideas very seriously” and adds that downplaying religion when discussing terrorism avoids a central issue.
“To say that what we like is true and that what we don’t like is a distortion,” he argues, “is to rob it [religion] of its power.”