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Politics & Government

'Atlantic' Article Explores How Obama Thinks About Terrorism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's pose a question. Is President Obama serious about fighting ISIS? The president says he is, of course. His critics argue he is not - among them, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, heard yesterday here on MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TED CRUZ: What we're seeing is photo op foreign policy. We see a missile here, a bomb there - looks good on CNN. This is nonsense. This is not a strategy of a serious commander in chief.

INSKEEP: Not serious - that's the common phrase. The analyst Peter Beinart says it really depends on what you mean by serious. He says the president really does see the threat from ISIS differently than his critics. He's written about this in The Atlantic, and he's on the line. Welcome to the program.

PETER BEINART: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: OK, is the president serious?

BEINART: He's serious about wanting to defeat ISIS, but paradoxically, he believes the best way to defeat ISIS is not to exaggerate the threat that it poses. So he doesn't see it as serious a threat as his Republican critics do.

INSKEEP: How could it be less serious? We've got this organization that is declaring the caliphate and linked to attacks around the world.

BEINART: As he said in his speech on Sunday night, he believes - he could be right or could be wrong about this - that ISIS has shown the capacity now to inspire the kind of loan wolf attacks that we saw in San Bernardino, but not to create in the United States the kind of complex attacks that would take the organization necessary to produce anywhere near the kind of scale that we saw on 9/11, perhaps even that we saw in Paris. So...

INSKEEP: Meaning that it's not as bad as 9/11.

BEINART: In that we've gone 15 years, and there's been nothing close to 9/11. And although killing 14 people is horrific, I think Barack Obama has at the back of his mind - or maybe the front of his mind - that given the gun violence in the United States, this is something which is happening all the time and Americans actually factored into their daily lives, in a certain kind of way. I also think it's very important to understand that I don't think Barack Obama sees ISIS and violent jihadism as anywhere near the kind of ideological threat that George W. Bush and the current Republicans do. They describe it as a kind of successor to Nazism and communism. I think Barack Obama doesn't see that analogy as correct at all because Nazism and communism, at their height in the '30s, convinced many people that they could actually do a better job of creating better living standards for millions of people around the world than Depression Era capitalism. Nobody believes that the Islamic State has a kind of vision for prosperity for people. And that's why I think Obama sees violent jihadism as ideologically weak, whereas his Republicans critics see it as ideologically quite compelling and seductive.

INSKEEP: So does this mean that Obama actually is less serious about the threat than his Republican critics?

BEINART: No, I think that he is more optimistic about American power, ideologically, whereas his conservative critics, I think, have a more alarmist and apocalyptic vision which suggests that unless we rally ourselves in some massive exertion, we are the weaker of the two forces. And this discrepancy, by the way, really does echo certain debates that took place in the Cold War. People don't remember this, but Dwight Eisenhower was under relentless attack for not being willing to take the fight to the Soviets. And he genuinely believed that taking the fight to the Soviets would weaken the United States and backfire. But the bad news for Obama is the fact that the United States has more money because the budget deficit has declined and the fact that we are now further away from the trauma of Iraq means that we are moving into a more hawkish cycle - a cycle that I think he suspects could lead to dangerous overreaction which could strengthen our enemies.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Peter Beinart of The Atlantic - also a professor at the City University of New York. Thanks very much.

BEINART: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.