President Obama has faced intense criticism from Republicans for his reluctance to label ISIS an “Islamic” group. But that’s not particularly remarkable.
More noteworthy is that a member of the president’s own party – from his home state – has taken repeated shots at him: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
“The administration is misidentifying the enemy and their motivation,” Gabbard said on CNN earlier this week, calling the president’s emphasis on economic aspects of terrorism a “diversion.”
Known as a rising political star, the Hawaii Democrat is one of the first two female combat veterans elected to Congress. She did tour tours in Iraq, and doesn’t hesitate to make her opinions known when it comes to defense issues. For instance, in 2013, she broke with the Obama administration by refusing to support airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Perhaps because of her military background – and her political affiliation – Gabbard’s comments on ISIS have reverberated. The Republican National Committee was quick to release a statement this week saying, “even Democrats … aren’t buying what the President is selling.”
Obama acknowledged the debate on Wednesday.
“There’s been a fair amount of debate in the press and among pundits about the words we use to describe and frame this challenge,” he said. “I want to be very clear about how I see it: al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam ... We must never accept the premise they put forward.”
Administration officials say focusing on extremists’ Islamic ideologies would only bolster the terrorists’ narrative that the U.S. is at war with Islam.
But Gabbard doesn’t appear to buy that argument. She has leveled criticism similar to this week’s more than half a dozen times.
“The administration still has not accurately identified our enemy,” she said in January after the president’s State of the Union address. “We must acknowledge that 9/11, as well as the recent violent attacks in Paris and elsewhere around the world, are rooted in Islamic extremism.”
A few days later, she asserted that the president and his cabinet are “completely missing the point of this radical Islamic ideology that’s fueling these people.”
In a Fox News appearance, she called Obama’s mentality toward the extremists, “mind-boggling.”
Some say it’s just semantics. Gabbard doesn’t agree.
“This is not just about words,” she said last month on Fox News. “It’s really about having a real, true understanding of who our enemy is.”
At an Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this month, Gabbard repeatedly pushed Defense Intelligence Agency Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart to identify terrorist intent.
“I think it’s important… that this identification of their motivation of this radical Islamic ideology is made very distinctly,” she told Stewart.
Although Gabbard has explicitly rejected the notion of a “religious war,” she said she believes labeling terrorists “Islamic extremists” could help non-Muslims see the divide between the peaceful Muslims and the radicals.
“This is clearly a war against this very specific faction of radical Islamic ideology,” Gabbard told Fox News.
Not everyone agrees with the congresswoman’s analysis – even on her own home turf. The editorial board of the Hawaii Civil Beat, an online newspaper founded by eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar, accused her of promoting “a few dubious ideas” devoid of “serious policy arguments.”
“The president’s public description of ISIS (or anything else, for that matter) serves as no necessary predicate for successful action of any kind,” the editorial board wrote this week.
Gabbard, who declined through a spokesman to comment to ABC News, has said publicly that her attitude toward Obama’s rhetoric is just a natural outgrowth of her military background.
“Military 101,” she said on Fox News. “If you are at war - which we are - you have to know who your enemy is to defeat them.”