Trump, governors exploit politics of fear after Islamic State attacks

Suppose a small war-like country attacked a larger one in the belief that it would expand its territory while the larger country, demoralized and panicked by the attack, would react only with fear. Instead, the larger country, motivated more than frightened by the attack, counterattacked, leading to its victory.

Something like that is the story of the Japanese 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the American response. The rest, as they say, is history.

Much the same could be true of the U.S. and the Islamic State. There can be no doubt: the Islamic State sees itself as a new country (the Caliphate) in formation and not merely a terrorist group. It has declared war on the U.S. and other countries.

The answer should be a response appropriate to the times. Committing massive American forces to ground and sea combat, as was done in response to Pearl Harbor, is almost certainly not the right response now to the Islamic State. But neither is fear.

In his famous First Inaugural address in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of fear. He described it as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” In other words, a fearful response to terrorism could be “unjustified terror,” not defiance.

The attacks in Egypt and France and elsewhere, sponsored by the Islamic State, have brought out far more appeals to fear than leadership in developing a strategy to defeat it. In short, until now, more of the American response has been about the politics of fear than of national resolve.

Donald Trump, a man seeking the presidency with little background in international affairs and little apparent understanding of the purpose and history of the American republic, has lashed out at an entire religious group, revealing his fear of it and apparently trying to gain the support of other fearful people.

He has made recent statements calling for singling out Muslims. He would place their mosques under surveillance and perhaps even dismantle some of them. Without the least bit of evidence, he claims Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

There’s no evidence that most American Muslims are anything other than completely loyal to their country. There’s no evidence of support for the Islamic State or terrorism by most of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, who mainly live outside of the Middle East.

Such a broad-brush attack on any group could serve to alienate Muslims. But the U.S. needs and wants good relationships with countries where Muslims are the majority. Of the top 10 countries in population, three have Muslim majorities, are not in the Middle East and are larger than either Russia or Japan.

Trump goes too far. President Obama and some GOP presidential hopefuls have objected to his remarks. But it seems to remain politically acceptable for the GOP to advocate clamping down on admitting Syrian refugees, because one of them might be a terrorist.

Republicans make it a practice to reject virtually any Obama position. If he’s for allowing a small number of Syrian refugees, they must oppose it. That has resulted in polls saying that a vast majority of Republicans are against admitting Syrian refugees and a vast majority of Democrats are willing to admit them after serious screening.

GOP governors, including Maine’s Paul LePage, (plus one Democrat) quickly climbed on the “no refugees” bandwagon. They must know that no state can exclude a person lawfully admitted to the country. That makes their statements pure politics.

But Obama’s approach raises some real concerns. The world expects the U.S. to lead in putting down the Islamic State. After the Paris attacks, French President Francois Hollande has been trying to rally a unified response, but the world looks to the Americans for leadership.

A combined effort by major powers is complicated by Russia’s incursions into the Ukraine, conflicting U.S. and Russian objectives in Syria, differences within the Muslim world, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. These issues get in the way of needed coordinated action against the Islamic State.

It’s obvious a single and timely resolution of all of them is impossible. But it is also obvious that the Islamic State threat is immediate and affects many countries, making delay dangerous.

The politics of fear, promoted by Trump and some other Republicans, could be the only voice of America unless Obama speaks out and assumes the risks of leadership, assigning the highest priority to defeating the Islamic State, laying out a plan and heading the combined international effort.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.