WASHINGTON — Twice this month, the White House has publicly grappled with the politically fraught language of terrorism.
In the days after a deadly terror spree in Paris, President Barack Obama was criticized for purposely avoiding calling the attacks an example of "Islamic extremism," settling for the more generic "violent extremism." This week, the White House struggled to explain why the administration sometimes classifies the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist organization — and sometimes does not.
The rhetorical wrangling underscores the extent to which a president who pledged to end to his predecessor's war on terror is still navigating how to explain the threats that persist to the American public, while also being mindful of the impact his words can have abroad.
"They do believe that the part of the roots of terrorism comes from the way the United States acts and talks and is perceived globally," said Trevor McCrisken, a professor at Britain's University of Warwick who has studied Obama's foreign policy rhetoric.
The early January attacks on a French satirical newspaper and kosher deli put a fresh spotlight on what Obama's supporters see as his appropriately careful language and his critics see as overly cautious.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the attacks that left 17 people dead suggested the world was "waging a war against Islamist extremists." And British Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to Washington two weeks ago, said Europe and the U.S. face a "very serious Islamist extremist terrorist threat."
Obama, however, assiduously avoided associating the attacks with Islam, a decision White House spokesman Josh Earnest said was made for the sake of "accuracy."
"These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it," Earnest said. "We also don't want to be in a situation where we are legitimizing what we consider to be a completely illegitimate justification for this violence, this act of terrorism."
Obama's conservative opponents quickly seized on the president's rhetorical choice and cast it as an example of the White House downplaying the root cause of the terror threat. At least one Democrat — Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran — agreed, saying the president's terror terminology matters, particularly as Congress weighs a new authorization for military action in Iraq and Syria.
"By his not using this term 'Islamic extremism' and clearly identifying our enemies, it raised a whole host of questions in exactly what Congress will be authorizing," Gabbard said on Fox News. "Unless you understand who your enemy is, unless you clearly identify your enemy, then you cannot come up with a very effective strategy to defeat that enemy."