After three days of talking about countering violent extremism, President Obama wrapped up the international conference Thursday with little to show aside from his appointment of a federal czar to wage digital war against terrorist propaganda.
In an address to world leaders on the final day of his summit in Washington, Mr. Obama said poverty and political “grievances” fuel alienation that can lead to extremist killing sprees such as the attacks recently in Copenhagen and Paris. He said the link “is undeniable.”
“When people are oppressed and human rights are denied it feeds violent extremism,” Mr. Obama said at the State Department. “It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.”
The summit sparked heated criticism among conservatives that Mr. Obama was going overboard not to offend moderate Muslims by refusing to characterize terrorists such as fighters of the Islamic State as “radical Islamists.” The president did call on Muslim clerics to reject hateful rhetoric against the West, but he also devoted much of his attention to issues such as jobs for young Muslims and propaganda.
Among the few concrete steps to emerge from the summit, the administration announced this week that one of Mr. Obama’s close aides, Rashad Hussain, was appointed as special envoy and coordinator for strategic counterterrorism communications. The State Department said his job will be “to develop strategic counterterrorism communications around the world” to combat recruiting efforts by al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Some security analysts said the initiative was laughable.
“In Washington, when you don’t want to do something, you describe it as a messaging problem,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “And you resort to promoting messaging czars. The real problem is you have nothing to message. That’s at the heart of Obama’s problem. He doesn’t have a policy or a strategy to message — not with the military, not with the political, not with the economic.”
Mr. Obama said Muslim community leaders are in danger of losing the propaganda war with the Islamic State in part because their communications are too “boring” to prevent young Muslims from becoming radicalized.
“As wise and respected as you may be, your stuff is often boring,” Mr. Obama said to older Muslim leaders. “You’re not connected. And as a consequence, you are not connecting. The high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorists’ Twitter accounts — it’s all designed to target today’s young people online in cyberspace.”
Mr. Hussain, 36, is a son of natives of India who became U.S. citizens. A Muslim who speaks fluent Arabic, he was born in Wyoming and raised in Plano, Texas. He has a law degree from Yale University.
During the summit, the president came close to parroting State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s claim that the U.S. could combat terrorist groups by improving job prospects in the Middle East.
“Poverty alone does not cause a person to become a terrorist,” Mr. Obama said. “But when people — especially young people — feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption — that feeds instability and disorder and makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment.”
The president said the U.S. “will make new commitments to help young people, including in Muslim communities,” by creating job opportunities in science and technology. He also called on nations to focus on jobs “not just for the few at the top, but for the many.”
Ms. Pletka said Mr. Obama’s idea as a counterterrorism strategy is “garbage.”
“Counterterrorism is not a jobs program,” she said. “And the fact that he linked unemployment with terrorism is beyond ridiculous. If that were the case, we wouldn’t see terrorists coming from social welfare states like Denmark or Belgium or the U.K.”
She said Mr. Obama’s call for stronger democratic institutions in Arab countries is undermined by his administration’s funding cuts for such programs started by the George W. Bush administration.
“President Obama is so unhinged on the question of his predecessor that it has paralyzed his administration when it comes to anything other than a military approach to terrorism,” she said. “Where are your democracy programs? Where are your anti-corruption programs? Where are your education programs? Oh, yeah — you defunded all of them because you associated them with the great neocon experiment of George Bush.”
Mr. Obama said Thursday that too many people view Muslims unfairly as terrorists because they don’t socialize with ordinary Muslims.
“Many people in our countries don’t always know personally somebody who is Muslim,” he told foreign ministers at the conference. “The image they get of Muslims or Islam is in the news. That can give a very distorted impression.”
He said people in the U.S. and elsewhere are exposed to “a lot of the bad, like terrorists who claim to speak for Islam, that’s absorbed by the general population, [and] not enough of the good — the more than 1 billion people around the world who do represent Islam.”
Before the summit began, White House aides cautioned that the initiative would take a longer-range approach to the root causes of violent extremism and that solutions would involve coordination with international partners over many years. Administration officials said the effort is merely one part of a multifaceted approach to fighting terrorism, including Mr. Obama’s air war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq with a coalition of partners, including several Arab nations.
As the summit drew to a close, Mr. Obama was criticized roundly for sanitizing his own speech to avoid the phrase “radical Islam.” It was with no apparent irony that he told one audience, “We’re not going to solve this if we’re always trying to be politically correct.”