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White House trapped in word game
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Why has the Obama administration tied itself in knots over what to call Islamic terrorism? We know the president has rejected the term in favor of "violent extremism," ordering his administration not to refer to Islamic terrorists like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as Islamic. "No religion is responsible for terrorism," Obama declared.
Obama's semantic preferences have left his spokesmen struggling to find words to describe one of the United States' top national security concerns.
In his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama referred to "Islamic-based terrorism" and "Islamic militants" and "militant Islamic organizations." But at other times, Obama was deeply reluctant to connect the words "Islamic" and "terrorism."
The president's aversion to the phrases "Islamic terrorism" and "Islamic extremism" has made it difficult for top U.S. government officials to discuss world affairs without becoming caught in word games.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest fell into a variety of holes recently as he tried to navigate the president's vocabulary requirements. Earnest's contortions left some listeners baffled. "You just won't call it militant Islam or anything like that?" asked a reporter. "Well, I think we've been very clear about what we call it," Earnest replied.
Later, another reporter asked about a statement Earnest released a few days earlier condemning the Islamic State's beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. The statement referred to the victims as "Egyptian citizens," rather than "Egyptian Christians." Why was that?
Earnest quickly conceded the victims were killed not just because they were Egyptian, "but also because they were Christian." When asked why he didn't just say that last weekend, Earnest answered, "I can't account for that specific line in the statement." The statement, of course, was his own.
Still later, yet another reporter asked about a comment from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who during a TV interview discussed the Lord's Resistance Army in Africa. "That's a Christian militant group," Harf said, correctly. The question for Earnest was: Why does the administration refer to a Christian militant group as Christian when it won't refer to an Islamic militant group as Islamic?
"Well, I did not see my colleague's comments on this topic," Earnest said, "so I don't want to sort of weigh in and try to explain what she meant."
At that moment, the administration's self-created confusion became total. The men and women who face reporters each day, trying to explain the president's policies, simply don't know what to say when it comes to terrorist attacks.
Obama has said Americans "can't shy away" from discussing the true nature of terrorism. And yet that is what his White House is doing every day, to the utter confusion of those whose job it is to deliver the president's message.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.