CNN's Zakaria Presses Obama on Avoiding 'Radical Islam' Term

February 2nd, 2015 5:01 PM

Fareed Zakaria surprisingly pressed President Obama – a man he endorsed in 2008 – on his CNN program on Sunday. Zakaria raised how critics point out that "the White House takes pains to avoid using the term 'Islamic terrorists,'" and that "others say that you downplay the importance of terrorism." The President actually had to answer substantive questions on foreign policy – something he didn't have to do in his recent interviews with YouTube personalities.

The serial plagiarist, who also advised Obama during "face-to-face meetings" earlier in his presidency, led his hour-long interview with the chief executive with the "radical Islam" term controversy and the terrorism issue: [video below]

FAREED ZAKARIA: Lindsey Graham says that he's bothered by the fact that you won't admit that we're in a religious war. There are others who say that the White House takes pains to avoid using the term 'Islamic terrorists.' So my question to you is, are we in – are we in a war with radical Islam?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I think that the way to understand this is there is an element growing out of Muslim communities, in certain parts of the world, that have perverted the religion – have embraced a nihilistic, violent – almost medieval interpretation of Islam; and they're doing damage in a lot of countries around the world.

But it is absolutely true that I reject a notion that somehow, that creates a religious war, because the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject that interpretation of Islam. They don't even recognize it as being Islam. And I think that for us to be successful in fighting this scourge, it's very important for us to align ourselves with the 99.9 percent of Muslims who are looking for the same thing we're looking for – order, peace, prosperity.

And so, you know, I don't – I don't quibble with labels. I think we all recognize that this is a particular problem that has roots in Muslim communities, and that the Middle East and south Asia are, sort of, ground zero for us needing to win back hearts and minds – particularly when it comes to young people. But I think we do ourselves a disservice in this fight if we are not taking into account the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject this ideology.

ZAKARIA: Others say that you downplay the – the importance of terrorism. You want to downgrade it as a threat to the United States.

OBAMA: Why – look, I – I have to talk to the families of those who are killed by terrorists. I have to talk to the families of soldiers of ours who fought to make sure that al Qaeda intifada couldn't carry out attacks against us again. So I think I'm pretty mindful of the terrible costs of – of terrorism around the world. What I do insist on is – is that we maintain a proper perspective, and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance – and suggesting, in some fashion, that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order.

You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what's – you know, what's the essence of who we are. That means that we don't torture, for example, and thereby undermine our values and credibility around the world. It means that we don't approach this with a strategy of sending out occupying armies and playing whack-a-mole wherever a terrorist group appears, because that drains our economic strength, and it puts enormous burdens on our military. What's required is a surgical, precise response to a very specific problem. And if we do that effectively, then ultimately, these terrorist organizations will be defeated, because they don't have a vision that appeals to ordinary people. It is – it really is, as has been described in some cases, a death cult, or an entirely backward looking fantasy that can't function in the world.

Zakaria also pressed Mr. Obama on his controversial policy towards Iran (and how it affects bilateral relations with Israel) and an apparent flip-flop on his approach towards authoritarian regimes in the Middle East:

ZAKARIA: Last week, it was announced that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is going to come to Washington and do a joint session of Congress at the invitation of the Republican Speaker of the House. Many people, I think, this is a rebuttal of your arguments about negotiations with Iran – the possible deal with Iran. Do you think it's appropriate for him to come in this manner at this time to Washington?

OBAMA: Well, I'll let Mr. Boehner answer that and Mr. Netanyahu. I speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu all the time. You know, we're declining to meet with him – I'm declining to meet with him – simply because our general policy is we don't meet with any world leader two weeks before their election. I think that's inappropriate – and that's true with some of our closest allies.


To the broader issue, Fareed, I don't think there's been any rebuttal of my argument. I haven't heard a persuasive rebuttal of my argument that we crafted very effective sanctions against Iran –  specifically, to bring them to the negotiations table to see if we could resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic means. By all accounts – including the accounts of Israeli intelligence – Iran has abided by the terms of this interim agreement. They have not advanced their nuclear program. They have actually rolled back their stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium. And so, we have lost nothing during this period of negotiations. Iran's program has not advanced, and we had the chance of providing a mechanism where we can verify that Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon, and Iran has the ability over time to reenter the community of nations as a responsible player.

Now, I don't know that we're going to be able to get that done. But my argument is for the United States Congress to insist on imposing new sanctions that all our partners, as well as the Iranians, can interpret as a violation of the interim agreement – for us to undermine diplomacy at this critical time for no good reason is a mistake.


ZAKARIA: But if you listen to what people are saying in Congress about the prospective deal – and I think everyone knows where it is – somewhere in the range of 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges – it seems almost any deal you're going to bring to this Republican Senate – they're not going to go for. So doesn't it doom the negotiations?

OBAMA: Well, I think it's important for us to actually have a deal in place; and then, make an argument for what the deal is. I've said before that we will take no deal over a bad deal. But if I can prove that the deal we've put in place assures us – through indisputable verification mechanisms – that Iran cannot achieve breakout capacity; if I've got a bunch of scientists and nuclear experts saying this assures us that Iran is not on the brink of being a nuclear weapons power – then that's a public debate we should have. And I will then ask every member of Congress to ask why would we reject that deal, and prefer a potential military option that would be less effective in constraining Iran's nuclear program, and would have extraordinary ramifications at a time when we've already got too many conflicts in the Middle East. And I'm pretty confident I can win that argument.

ZAKARIA: In 2011, during the Arab Spring, you said that authoritarian regimes offered the illusion of stability, but they actually produce a lot of problems – in fact, breed terrorism. Now, Secretary of State Kerry praises General Sisi of Egypt. You affirmed the relationship with Saudi Arabia. The administration works with dictatorships in Central Asia; absolute monarchies in the Middle East. Is the theory of authoritarian stability back?

OBAMA: Well, no, I don't think so. I think that if you look at all my statements, what I've always said is that in applying U.S. foreign policy, we can never operate as if the world as it is doesn't exist. We've got friends and allies, who help us with strategic interests, who also engage in practices that don't meet our test of human rights or democracy. And what we can do is encourage them to move in a new direction. But, you know, oftentimes, we're going to have to make decisions based on the here and now, and our strategic interests.

What I continue to believe is that an authoritarian model, in this day and age, is going to be less and less sustainable. And I think we've seen evidence of that around the world. Part of it is just the flow of information. Authoritarianism, to some degree, depends on the ignorance of people. And the Internet and social media means people have access to information. Authoritarian regimes rely, to a large extent, on tamping down people's expectations. People's expectations are constantly rising today – especially among young people. And so, a government model that does not rely ultimately on legitimacy and consent – but rather, relies on force – is not ultimately going to be effective.

The CNN host did toss three softball questions near the end of the interview regarding the President's supposed accomplishments in office:

ZAKARIA: Clare Boothe Luce once wrote that great men get one line. History has only time enough for one line for them, and it's usually a line with an active verb. So, Lincoln freed the slaves. Reagan won the Cold War. What do you think your line will be?

OBAMA: Oh, I think – you know, one of the things I've learned – because I've gotten this question from the day I first took office, I'm going to let somebody else answer that question – somebody probably more articulate and pithy than I am. But I can tell you that-

ZAKARIA: What are you most proud of?

OBAMA: Well, I'm proud of saving the American economy, and we still have a long way to go. Essentially, what we did was stabilize it – lay a new foundation to move forward. As I said in the State of the Union address, that gives us now the capacity to tackle what was an overriding theme of my campaign way back in 2008 – and that is to restore middle-class economics, and the capacity for people to get into the middle class, and start seeing higher wages and a broader shared prosperity inside the United States. And I think we've moved the trend lines in the right direction, but we've still got a long way to go on that.

Internationally, I'm proud of the fact that we've responsibly ended two wars. Now, people will say, well, you're back in Iraq, but we're not back in Iraq with an occupying army. We're back with a coalition of 60 countries who are helping to stabilize the situation. We are working with Afghan national security forces to help stabilize the situation there. But we don't have 180,000 troops who are deployed in – in those two countries.

And I think that what we have also done is reflected the best values of America in trying to nurture this nascent democratic movement inside of Burma; in ending what I believe had become a counterproductive policy in Cuba; in strengthening alliances with countries like India, where there's just enormous potential, and sometimes, we don't pay a lot of attention to it. But I've been paying a lot of attention to it, because I think that our future prosperity and security is going to be tied up with how are we doing with 1.2 billion aspiring Indians who share our values and share democracy with us. How are we doing – how are we doing in Latin America with countries that generally are more favorably disposed towards the United States than they've been in a very long time – in part because of the actions that we've taken. You know, there are big chunks of the world – Asia-Pacific region, where my commitment to rebalancing has led to – not only concrete agreements and actions with ASEAN countries, for example – but has also sent a clear message to China that we want to be their partner, but that they have to be part of a rule-based system, rather than free riders or bullies because of their size and strength.

And so, you know, one of the things that I've learned in this job over the last six years is that sometimes, progress is incremental. But when I look at, overall, the steps that we've taken, I believe they're the right ones. And I've – I am very confident that America is stronger, more prosperous, safer, and more influential today than it was when I took office.


ZAKARIA: We usually end the show, Mr. President, with a book of the week. I recommend a book to the viewers. I thought I'd hand it over to you. You are a voracious reader. What book have you read in recent months that you would recommend?