President Obama frequently railed against the Bush-era “politics of fear” on the campaign trail. In his inaugural address, he said, “We got here because we have chosen hope over fear.” President Obama also earlier made the comment in March 2008 that “we need to break the politics of fear that uses 9/11 to scare up votes.” This offensive, below-the-belt criticism insinuated that his opposition didn’t see 9/11 in the context of blood and misery, but in the context of check marks next to their names on Election Day.
But he has had no trouble issuing fear-inducing warnings himself. President Obama has simply exchanged his predecessor’s fear-inducing rhetoric on national security for fear-inducing rhetoric on the economy. When warning what would happen if his stimulus package was not passed, President Obama said that the economy would suffer a “catastrophe” and that “our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.”
Being lectured by President Obama on rejecting the “politics of fear” is about as valuable as receiving a lecture from Chris Brown on having patience with women. This hypocrisy has transformed his past statements into prepackaged attack ads, examples of the type of doublespeak that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report should (but won’t) lampoon.
Apparently not viewing political discourse influenced by overseas threats as legitimate, the Obama administration is introducing a new, meaningless, vague lexicon to discuss its equally meaningless and vague foreign policy strategy. The guiding philosophy of the administration appears to be that its primary concern is threat-causing fears and not fear-causing threats.
His statement in May 2008 best illustrates this philosophy: “There are rarely purely ideological movements out there. We can encourage actors to think in practical and not ideological terms. We can strengthen those elements that are making practical calculations.” There’s a part of everyone’s brain that responds to the diplomacy of meeting half way, he seems to believe. In the administration’s mind, the terms “moderate” and “Taliban” are not mutually exclusive.
The mindset that the “politics of fear” had exaggerated, even instigated, threats to our security is clear in the new language being used in the federal government.
The global war on terror is now an “overseas contingency operation” or, for those with a full breath, “a campaign against extremists who wish to do us harm.”
The terms “radical Islam” and “Islamic extremism” and the like have been deleted from the government’s dictionary and have not been used by the highest public officials.
Suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay are no longer defined as “enemy combatants.”
Terrorism is now described as a “man-caused disaster,” by Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security.
This is not picking away at semantics. As President Obama has said, “Words matter.”
When Secretary Napolitano, whose post was created directly in response to 9/11, was confronted about not even mentioning the word “terrorism” in her first official remarks to Congress, she said, “That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear towards a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”
If we aren’t supposed to be afraid of radical Islam, then what are we supposed to be? Mildly concerned? Do we respond aggressively and decisively to concerns that are on par with “all risks that can occur”?
If radical Islam and terrorism aren’t threats warranting specific mention, then it appears we’ve adopted the viewpoint of Fareed Zakaria, who recently offered a lesson on “learning to live with radical Islam” as if it’s a force that can be contained, a murderer confined to the lonely bed of a jail cell.
Sure, some will argue that President Bush’s warnings of a nuclear 9/11 and rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction were also the “politics of fear,” but there’s one key difference. President Bush never condemned issuing dire warnings as the “politics of fear.” It is the responsibility of the president to explain why he is pursuing his strategy, and explaining the threat was, and is, not unnecessary or unwarranted.
This hypocrisy comes with a cost.
With each warning of economic doom, another group of investors hold onto their wallets; another CEO refuses to hire and makes layoffs, fearing for the future and concerned that the government will take more out of his paycheck; another group of civilians refuse to spend, believing that tougher times are ahead. If President Obama’s regulation of his government’s vocabulary resembles anything like the regulation and intervention he plans, then their worries are understandable.
And no, that’s not the “politics of fear”; that’s the “politics of realism.”