Trump on Terrorism

Confounding the predictions of pollsters and pundits, Donald Trump won the United States presidential election on November 8. A variety of reasons have been ascribed to the surprise electoral outcome including the flaws of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. Much of the public deemed her untrustworthy and believed she had run a weak campaign. Clinton herself blamed confusing statements by FBI Director James Comey about whether she was still under investigation for improper handling of classified email.

Another barely noticed contribution to her loss was her sparse attention to the threat of terrorism, compared to Trump’s focus on the matter. In July, four months before the election, a Pew survey found that voters considered terrorism more important than almost any other issue. Eighty percent of respondents ranked it “very important,” a figure exceeded only by the 84 percent who felt that way about the economy.

Among the issues less important to the public than terrorism were health care, gun policy, immigration, and education. An analysis of campaign promises by Clinton that “best defined her bid for the presidency” included the economy and the “lesser” issues, though nothing about terrorism. Some surveys indicated a close divide among voters about which candidate would better handle the threat of terrorism. But a September poll showed Trump far ahead with 49 percent on this issue compared to Clinton’s 27 percent.

Trump repeatedly spoke of his concerns about terrorism and its global and local expansion, and he proposed actions to counter the threat. He presented an extended overview of the subject in August. There he listed a dozen terror attacks by radical Islamists on American and European soil in recent years. He noted the concurrent expansion of the Islamic State in the Middle East and the growing number of terrorist operatives in Western countries. Not surprisingly he blamed the “Obama-Clinton” policies for these circumstances. Whether or not his attribution was justified, the fact of heightened terrorism is indisputable. Trump’s sense of urgency apparently had an effect on the voting public.

In the aftermath of the election questions remain both about some unsavory Trump supporters and several of his declared policies. Neo-Nazi David Duke and other “white nationalists” have celebrated Trump’s victory as a win for their cause. The president-elect must absolutely repudiate their loathsome, hate-driven efforts.

As for policy issues, Trump and Republican congressional leaders have promised to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Replace with what exactly, they don’t say. Trump has said he will make Mexico pay for the wall he intends to build along America’s southern border. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto countered that Mexico will not pay for any such wall. We have yet to hear Trump’s response on this.

Several of his proposals regarding terrorism are also unclear, though he offers some trenchant observations on this matter.

Trump has railed against the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Among the deal’s faults, he contends, is the United States’ agreement to release to Iran as much as $150 billion. The United States has designated Iran as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism and portions of that money surely will go to promote terrorism. But attempts to renegotiate the agreement would encounter major hurdles. Signatories of the deal including Russia, China, and European participants—the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—are opposed to renegotiation. Trump’s position appears admirable in principle, though its means of enactment is not clear.

The near-hysterical reaction by some to Trump’s election is, on the issue of terrorism, plainly overwrought. Doomsday predictors are not credible. Some, like CNBC’s Nyshka Chandran, reported that Trump’s victory had enraged Muslim militant groups, which will “fan the flames of global terrorism.” The doubtful presumption here is that terrorist groups are not already trying their best to plan and execute terror attacks.

In one particular area, President-elect Trump’s approach to terrorism will make more sense than Obama’s. Namely, calling terrorism what it is. To the distress of many analysts, when Obama took office he effectively banned administration officials from using certain terms including “jihad,” “Muslim extremism,” and even “terrorism.” Instead, as he instructed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, officials should refer to terror events as “man-made disasters” or “overseas contingency operations.” Still, attacks by jihadi terrorist groups and the newly established Islamic State continued to proliferate.

During Obama’s eight years as president, the administration’s earlier tongue twisters came into disuse and were largely replaced by an equally nonspecific term, “violent extremism.” Obama and his team now occasionally mention the word terrorism but still dissociate it from any ethnic, religious, or ideological connotation. Even columnist Tom Friedman, an Obama loyalist, agrees that the president’s verbal contortions have amounted to “unselfconscious ridiculousness.”

Trump appropriately contends that Obama’s generic descriptions obscure the reality of what we are facing: radical Islamic terrorism.

Israel’s reality-based terminology is instructive. In Israel, Jewish terrorism, though extremely rare, is frankly named and condemned as such. Israelis also recognize that most Palestinians are not terrorists, but when they refer to those who are, Israelis appropriately call those perpetrators Palestinian terrorists. At the least this clarifies who the enemy is.

We may now hope that clarity of description by the United States will also lead to more clear and effective American action.

About the Author
Leonard Cole is an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey, USA, and of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where he is the Director of the Program on Terror Medicine and Security.
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