Jacquelyn Martin/AP

White House Struggles with the Language of Terrorism

"We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie," Obama says. "They are not religious leaders. They're terrorists."

President Obama and the White House came out aggressively Wednesday against those who have attacked his often-careful use of words to describe the battle against terrorists. The defense came after a week of being battered—mostly by conservatives—for a reluctance to talk about "Islamic terrorism" and a hesitation to label victims as Jewish or Christian.

In his keynote address to the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, the president acknowledged the furor, which has played out largely on the cable news shows, where critics objected to the title of the summit because it did not single out Muslims for blame.

"Leading up to this summit," he said, "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. So I want to be very clear about how I see it."

What he sees, he explained, are terrorists such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State who are "desperate for legitimacy" and "try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam."

But he said he is determined not to give them that legitimacy because that would help them gain recruits. "We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie," he said, adding: "They are not religious leaders. They're terrorists."

To applause, he added firmly: "And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam."

In saying that, the president is repeating almost word for word statements made by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, when he first declared the war on terror in the wake of the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001. In his address to the nation on September 20, 2001, Bush said the terrorists were on "the fringe" of Islam. "The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself," he said. In later remarks, Bush repeatedly said, "Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith." He added, "We do not fight Islam; we fight against evil."

But those sentiments never brought Bush the withering criticism faced by Obama for saying the same thing 14 years later. In part, that is because Bush at the same time was sprinkling his remarks with doses of bluster, such as wanting terrorists "dead or alive." And in part, it is because Obama has bewildered even his supporters by the reticence of his White House to state what seems obvious. In the last week, that means the obvious facts that Jews were targeted in the Paris attack on a kosher deli and that Christians were targeted in the horrific mass beheadings by the Islamic State militants in Libya last weekend.

At Wednesday's White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest denied he had "tip-toed" around the reality. But when pressed, he replied, "We'll put an end to the tip-toeing to the extent that there's been any." He added, "If people assume that I've been tip-toeing, let me just try and be as clear as I can and we'll see how this works."

In fact, Earnest and the White House had been more guilty of tripping over their own words than tip-toeing around the facts. Every White House tries to be cautious when talking about international affairs. They understand that diplomats—and enemies—will be parsing each syllable, eager to pounce on poorly chosen words. Bush was a victim of that in 2001 when he twice described the war on terror as a crusade, using a word that even centuries later is heavily laden with symbolism and bad memories for the Muslim world.

In Obama's case last week, it was seeming to suggest that the deli victims in Paris were chosen "randomly" and not because of their faith. Instead of immediately correcting the misimpression, Earnest and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki struggled to answer questions. Only later in the day did Earnest send out a tweet to correct the record.

In the case of the Coptic Christians slaughtered by the Islamic State, an initial statement by Earnest said all the right things—except that it described the victims as Egyptian "citizens" instead of Christians. The critics ignored the fact that the president, in his op-ed written for the Los Angeles Times, wrote openly about "Egyptian Christians." Or that Earnest quickly offered assurances that he was not trying to ignore why they were killed.

The critics were too busy trying to find deeper meaning in the original statement. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, appearing on Fox News, called it "troubling" that the White House statement did not refer to the victims as Christians. Charles Krauthammer, also on Fox, complained that "we have an administration that is truly pathological in its inability to actually state what's going on." Columnist George Will, on the same show, lamented, "Why can't they say what specifically happened?"

Earnest tried again to clarify at his briefing.

"As I tried to make clear ... last week and I've made clear in a tweet following, there is no doubt about the motivation of the individual who carried out this attack against a kosher market in Paris," he said. "He was motivated by anti-Semitism. And he went to that market, hoping that he could kill Jewish people. And he was targeting them because they were Jewish."

Turning to the beheadings in Libya, he cited the statements of the killers "that they were killing Egyptians because of their Christian faith. And we have been crystal clear in the statement that we put out from the president on Friday, and the president's prayer breakfast remarks earlier this month, that it is wrong and completely unacceptable and unjustifiable to target people, particularly with acts of violence, because of who they are, because of who they worship, because of what their last name is or because of what they look like."