During his Oval Office address Sunday night, President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans that his administration's expanding campaign against the Islamic State will succeed in reducing threats of terrorism, and he warned against the wholesale vilification of Muslims.
The speech signaled how worried the White House has become about the trajectory the war against the Islamic State, or ISIS, could take if a sense of widespread panic, turbocharged by election year politics, started shaping domestic and foreign policy. While he didn't unveil new initiatives, Obama called on Americans to reject the impulse to take actions based on fear.
"Even in this political season, even as we properly debate what steps I and future presidents must take to keep our country safe, let's make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional," he said. "Let's not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear." Obama also issued a strong and timely challenge to Congress to approve a new legal authorization for the military campaign that was launched in August 2014. It's time, he said, "for Congress to demonstrate that the American people are united and committed in this fight." The failure of Congress to vote on a new legal framework for the war against the Islamic State has long been a problem, but especially now with the administration deploying elite troops to carry out raids in Syria and Iraq. It has become indefensible in recent days with the British and German parliaments debating and voting to authorize their militaries to join the air campaign against the Islamic State.
A new Authorization for the Use of Military Force should not be open-ended and must be written with greater specificity than the one that remains in effect, which Congress passed with the explicit purpose of targeting the culprits of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Obama once again asked Congress to take on common-sense reforms to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, including barring people on the government's no-fly list from acquiring weapons.
The president said nothing during his remarks about improving the administration's efforts to counter the Islamic State's highly prodigious propaganda operation, which has found a receptive audience among disaffected Muslims around the world. Last week's massacre in San Bernardino, California, which was carried out by a young Muslim couple, should certainly create a new sense of urgency for those efforts.
White House officials said Sunday that they hoped to enlist the help of Silicon Valley executives to stem the reach of Islamic State propaganda. While that seems sensible, the recent attacks in California and Paris should not be used as a pretext to mandate a weakening in encryption technology developed for routine telecommunications.
Obama is right to caution against the risk of further alienating Muslims in the United States and around the world. The Islamic State has ably exploited the sense of isolation many Muslims feel, and stoking hatred toward Muslims would only play into the group's hands. Several Republican presidential candidates and many governors are doing just that by portraying Muslims as inherently dangerous and endorsing draconian policies.
"We cannot turn against one another by letting this war be defined as a war between America and Islam," Obama said. "Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes, and yes, they are our men and women in uniform, who are willing to die in defense of our country."