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Thoughts on Obama's White House terrorism address

Thoughts on Obama's White House terrorism address
Published 7 Dec 2015   Follow @SamRoggeveen

Back in June, when the Abbott Government was stoking fears that ISIS was 'coming for every person and every government with a simple message: submit or die', I wrote an op-ed for the Herald Sun arguing that, by playing to our deepest anxieties, the government was actually making it harder to defeat the terrorist threat. President Obama, I argued, presented an alternative model, as a leader who, rather than talking about anxieties and threats, focuses on 'policies and rhetoric that emphasise steadfastness, stoicism and resilience, a refusal to give in to fear.'

Obama's latest speech on terrorism, delivered just hours ago in response to the San Bernadino terrorist attack (and yes, as Obama said in his speech, we do have to call it that now), reinforces my sense that he is on the right track. Echoing Prime Minister Turnbull's recent remarks that this was not the time for 'machismo', Obama said ' Our success won't depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values or giving into fear.'

Obama is honest about the scale of the threat, but he does not hype it. He insists that the Muslim community is an important ally in the fight, he expresses confidence in American values rather than fear that they are in peril. And he refuses to be drawn into a self-defeating ground war because:

That's what groups like ISIL want. They know they can't defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.

The big question is whether this policy stance can survive a further rapid escalation of the terrorist threat. What if we have two or three more Paris-style incidents, one of them in a major US metropolis? I still think the course laid out by Obama in this speech would be the right one, but the clamour for overwhelming military action, including through the deployment of ground forces, would be strong in such an event. The question is whether Obama would resist it.

A final note: in the closing stages of his speech Obama refers to ISIS as a 'cult of death'. When it comes to terrorism, Obama's policy instincts are much closer to those of Malcolm Turnbull than Tony Abbott, but at least the former PM's signature phrase lives on in Obama's rhetoric.

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