WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's advisers will remove religious terms such as "Islamic extremism" from the central document outlining the US national security strategy and will use the rewritten document to emphasize that the United States does not view Muslim nations through the lens of terror, counterterrorism officials said.
The change is a significant shift in the National Security Strategy, a document that previously outlined the Bush Doctrine of preventative war and currently states: "The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century."
The officials described the changes on condition of anonymity because the document was still being written, and the White House would not discuss it. But rewriting the strategy document will be the latest example of Obama putting his stamp on US foreign policy, like his promises to dismantle nuclear weapons and limit the situations in which they can be used.
The revisions are part of a larger effort about which the White House talks openly, one that seeks to change not just how the United States talks to Muslim nations, but also what it talks to them about, from health care and science to business startups and education.
That shift away from terrorism has been building for a year, since Obama went to Cairo, Egypt, and promised a "new beginning" in the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. The White House believes the previous administration based that relationship entirely on fighting terror and winning the war of ideas.
"You take a country where the overwhelming majority are not going to
become terrorists, and you go in and say, 'We're building you a
hospital so you don't become terrorists.' That doesn't make much
sense," said National Security Council staffer Pradeep Ramamurthy.
runs the administration's Global Engagement Directorate, a four-person
National Security Council team that Obama launched last May with little
fanfare and a vague mission to use diplomacy and outreach "in pursuit
of a host of national security objectives." Since then, the division
has not only helped change the vocabulary of fighting terror but also
has shaped the way the country invests in Muslim businesses, studies
global warming, supports scientific research and combats polio.
diplomats go abroad, they hear from Ramamurthy or his deputy, Jenny
Urizar. When officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration returned from Indonesia, the NSC got a rundown about
research opportunities on global warming. Ramamurthy maintains a
database of interviews conducted by 50 US embassies worldwide. And
business leaders from more than 40 countries head to Washington this
month for an "entrepreneurship summit" for Muslim businesses.
you want to think about the US as the nation that fights terrorism or
the nation you want to do business with?" Ramamurthy said.
deliver that message, Obama's speechwriters have taken inspiration from
an unlikely source: former President Ronald Reagan. Visiting communist
China in 1984, Reagan spoke to Fudan University in Shanghai about
education, space exploration and scientific research. He discussed
freedom and liberty. He never mentioned communism or democracy.
Reagan in China, Obama in Cairo made only passing references to
terrorism. Instead he focused on cooperation. He announced the United
States would team up to fight polio with the Organisation of the
Islamic Conference, a multinational body based in Saudi Arabia. The
United States and the OIC had worked together before, but never with
Polio is endemic in three Muslim countries —
Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan — but some Muslim leaders have been
suspicious of vaccination efforts, which they believed to be part of a
CIA sterilization campaign. Last year, the OIC and religious scholars
at the International Islamic Fiqh Academy issued a fatwa, or religious
decree, that parents should have their children vaccinated.
probably entering into a whole new level of engagement between the OIC
and the polio program because of the stimulus coming from the US
government," said Michael Galway, who works on polio eradication for
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Centers for Disease
Control also began working more closely with local Islamic leaders in
northern Nigeria, a network that had been overlooked for years, said
John Fitzsimmons, the deputy director of the CDC's immunization
Though health officials are reluctant to assign credit
to any one action, new polio cases in Nigeria fell from 83 during the
first quarter of last year to just one so far this year, Fitzsimmons
Public opinion polls also showed consistent improvement in
US sentiment within the Muslim world last year, although the viewpoints
are still overwhelmingly negative, however.
Obama did not invent
Muslim outreach. President George W. Bush gave the White House its
first Quran, hosted its first Iftar dinner to celebrate Ramadan, and
loudly stated support for Muslim democracies like Turkey.
the Bush administration struggled with its rhetoric. Muslims criticized
him for describing the war against terror as a "crusade" and labeling
the invasion of Afghanistan "Operation Infinite Justice" — words that
were seen as religious. He regularly identified America's enemy as
"Islamic extremists" and "radical jihadists."
Karen Hughes, a
Bush confidant who served as his top diplomat to the Muslim world in
his second term, urged the White House to stop.
"I did recommend
that, in my judgment, it's unfortunate because of the way it's heard.
We ought to avoid the language of religion," Hughes said. "Whenever
they hear 'Islamic extremism, Islamic jihad, Islamic fundamentalism,'
they perceive it as a sort of an attack on their faith. That's the
world view Osama bin Laden wants them to have."
Hughes and Juan
Zarate, Bush's former deputy national security adviser, said Obama's
efforts build on groundwork from Bush's second term, when some of the
rhetoric softened. But by then, Zarate said, it was overshadowed by the
Guantanamo Bay detention center, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and a
prolonged Iraq war.
Obama's foreign policy posture is not
without political risk. Even as Obama steps up airstrikes on terrorists
abroad, he has proven vulnerable to Republican criticism on security
issues at home, such as the failed Christmas Day airline bombing and
the announced-then-withdrawn plan to prosecute 9/11 mastermind Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed in New York.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University
political scientist and former Bush adviser, is skeptical of Obama's
engagement effort. It "doesn't appear to have created much in the way
of strategic benefit" in the Middle East peace process or in
negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions, he said.
the political risk of seeming to adopt politically correct rhetoric
abroad while appearing tone deaf on national security issues at home,
The White House dismisses such criticism. In June,
Obama will travel to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim
country, and is expected to revisit many of the themes of his Cairo
"This is the long-range direction we need to go in," Ramamurthy said.