The unseemly and very public semantics battle that U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been waging this year against President Barack Obama had largely been one-sided.

Gabbard, a second-term Democrat, has become a relentless critic over the past month of the president’s restrained characterization of terrorists from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL). And her criticisms have come through some surprising channels: The bright-red Right, where this sort of thinking has long been a staple for Fox News, talk radio and the like.

Gabbard’s argument largely boils down to a few dubious ideas. First, unless the president, in his public characterizations, refers to agents of ISIS and related organizations as “Islamic terrorists,” he is unable to mount an effective military and foreign policy effort to defeat them. Second, only in specifically, publicly tying terrorists to their religious ideology can the White House truly understand where the terrorist organizations recruit, how they think, etc. Lastly, his failure to use Gabbard’s preferred phrasing means he doesn’t “get” any of this in the first place.

Let’s be clear: These are not serious policy arguments.

Tulsi Gabbard American Flag

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard says she wants President Barack Obama to use different language to describe the enemy in the war against ISIS.

Brian Tseng/Civil Beat

The president’s public description of ISIS (or anything else, for that matter) serves as no necessary predicate for successful action of any kind. Measured language from the White House that errs on the side of being tempered and respectful is strategically valuable. It enhances the potential efficacy of diplomatic channels as the United States continues to build a coalition in the war on this terrorist movement. It does so in no small measure by not inflaming the public in nations with large Muslim populations through needless chest puffing that may feel and sound good to some (see above news outlets), but that provides only short-term gratification, at best.

The coalition building made significant strides this week. The Islamic State in Libya earned the wrath of Egypt through the ghastly videotaped beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, prompting cross-border airstrikes and Egypt’s call for a United Nations coalition to fight ISIS there.

Sixty nations are already participating in anti-terrorist coalition work at some level. Obama addressed participants from those nations and others at a Washington summit this week, and the New York Times, among other media, noted the president’s “desire to play the leading role in assembling an international coalition to fight an ideological war against the Islamic State…”

One wonders where Gabbard is going with this. Sure, the Iraq war veteran and rising political star is achieving national prominence in a high-profile discussion. But at what cost?

No leader who seeks such a role would be well served by a lack of verbal restraint, a fact the president well understands. Obama rightly told summit participants, “All of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative,” he said. This supplemented his succinct description of ISIL the previous day: “They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists.”

One wonders where Gabbard is going with this. Sure, the Iraq war veteran and rising political star is achieving national prominence in a high-profile discussion. But at what cost? Popping up in coverage from such media as aligned with such figures as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite, has the potential to lead critics to dismiss all of this as pandering from a young pol with lofty ambitions.

But that also may be where the story gets interesting. Gabbard is widely thought to be preparing to challenge U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in 2016, when he runs for re-election, albeit for his first full term, to the seat of the late Daniel Inouye. As Schatz showed in his election last fall to complete the remainder of Inouye’s term (he had been appointed to interim service following Inouye’s 2012 death), he enjoys broad support among the labor and social progressive groups that dominate Hawaii politics. A candidate looking for traction beyond that core — say, with Republicans and voters aligned with Hawaii’s considerable military presence — might find it partly through such criticism.

It might also prove attractive to the growing number of wealthy, prominent Hindus in Silicon Valley, for whom Gabbard holds special cachet as the first Hindu elected to Congress. Some Indian American Hindus might be sympathetic to such hardline characterizations of terrorists, given longstanding strife caused by some of India’s own extremist movements, some of which are Muslim.

These are only potential political upsides to a debate that Gabbard contends is representative of a serious policy discussion. The problem is this: It isn’t.

At a meeting earlier this week with Civil Beat’s editorial board, Sen. Schatz declined to characterize the remarks of Gabbard, his delegation colleague and potential 2016 challenger, opting instead to focus on the fine points of the war authorization against ISIS that the president requested. But Schatz, who for what it’s worth consistently describes ISIS as “uniquely barbaric,” found his way to an indirect rebuttal toward the end of his discussion.  “I’m not fixated,” he said, “on what language the president uses.”


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