President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, advised him in a closed-door meeting last week to stop using a phrase that was a frequent refrain during the campaign: “radical Islamic terrorism.”
But the phrase will be in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, according to a senior White House aide—even though McMaster reviewed drafts and his staff pressed the president’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, not to use it.
What the president decides to say from the House floor will be an early indication of McMaster’s clout within the administration. In his first remarks to the National Security Council last week, McMaster told his new staff he considered the term “radical Islamic terrorism” unhelpful, according to a second White House aide. “Even a small change like referring to radical Islamist terrorism would be an improvement, in his view,” said this aide.
At the same time, the president’s political advisers fear any sudden change in his rhetoric could open him to charges that he’s abandoning his promise to speak plainly and openly to the American people. Both sides say a gradual shift in the president’s rhetoric over time is possible.
In recent years the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” become a rallying cry for conservatives. President Barack Obama, following the example of President George W. Bush before him, pointedly avoided saying it—citing expert opinion that the wording risks alienating moderate Muslims who hear it as an indictment of their religion.
Obama preferred the phrase “violent extremism,” which makes no reference to a specific religion.
McMaster expressed “great disdain” for that approach, according to a senior National Security Council official. “He understands that pretending that it’s not something within Islam that’s causing this—you can’t pretend that, but you can enlist the people within Islam who agree with you,” said the official.
Fighting in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, McMaster pioneered a counterinsurgency strategy that required him and his troops to live amongst Iraqis, gaining their trust and cooperation. “There’s no question that H.R. was very successful as a counterinsurgent in Tal Afar in 2005 and 2006,” said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Invisible Armies, a history of guerilla warfare. “Unlike Steve Bannon, H.R. has actually fought insurgents and knows what it takes to fight and prevail. You have to actually work with Muslims and get them to trust you and fight alongside you.”
“We could stay in our F.O.B. [Forward Operating Base] and eat mini pizzas and ice cream and redeploy in a year, but that won’t win the war,” McMaster told the Washington Post at the time.
As the war on terror shifted under Obama, his opponents latched onto his refusal to say “radical Islamic terrorism” as evidence that he failed to understand the nature of the terrorist threat and how best to combat it—and in some cases used Obama’s resistance to the phrase to falsely suggest the president was himself Muslim.
Trump made the phrase a core theme of his campaign, culminating in an August 15 speech in Youngstown, Ohio, entitled “Understanding the Threat: Radical Islam and the Age of Terror.”
“Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country,” Trump said. “Anyone who cannot condemn the hatred, oppression and violence of radical Islam lacks the moral clarity to serve as our president.”
The speech made five references to “Radical Islamic Terrorism”—capitalized in the original text—and seven more to “Radical Islam.”
Sebastian Gorka, a White House advisor with a background in counter-terrorism, told a crowd at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference that the president’s remarks in Youngstown were key to understanding his foreign policy.
Trump also used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in his January inaugural address. “We will … unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth,” he said.
Gorka assured National Public Radio earlier this month that Trump was ushering in a new era in which – free from the political correctness that the president believes shackled the previous administration – the U.S. would identify its enemies forthrightly.
“What is the phrase [Trump] uses again and again and again? It’s not Islam. It’s not a discussion about Islam as a religion or not a religion. It’s about radical Islamic terrorism,” Gorka said. “We are prepared to be honest about the threat. We’re not going to white it out, delete it as the Obama administration did.”
McMaster’s appointment as national security adviser and reports that he endorses the past rhetoric of Obama and Bush has already alarmed members of the self-proclaimed “counter-jihad” community, which views Islam as an inherently violent religion.
Uttering the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is “central to the promises [Trump] made to the American people,” said Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, who backs hardline policies against Islamist influence at home and abroad.
Gaffney said he’s skeptical of reports that McMaster has declared his opposition to using the phrase.
“It just seems kind of incredible that a guy would come into this job knowing the importance that the president has assigned to this, and start out his tenure by fundamentally departing from that direction,” Gaffney said. If true, he added, “I think this would be getting off to a very bad footing.”