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Bush and “Islamic fascists”: a rhetorical shift or a blip?

August 11, 2006

Numerous updates below the fold.

The AP quotes Bush’s address on the foiled airline bombing plot:

“This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation,” President Bush declared.

Anyone who reads blogs or listens to right-wing talk programs knows that “Islamic Fascists”–and its clumsy neologistic spinoff, “Islamofascists”–has long been a staple of right-wing rhetoric. While Bush has made numerous comparisons between militant Islamicists and fascists, I couldn’t remember him actually using the phrase “Islamic Fascists” before. So I searched on, and the earliest reference they have is from Bush’s joint address with Tony Blair on 26 May 2006:

You know, al Qaeda has made it clear what their intentions are in Iraq. I’m sure you’ve read some of the intercepts that are laid out there for people to see. And they have made it clear that it’s just a matter of time for countries like Great Britain and the United States to leave. In other words, if they make life miserable enough, we’ll leave. And they want us to leave because they want a safe haven from which to launch attacks, not only on us, but on moderate Muslim governments, as well. These people are totalitarians. They’re Islamic fascists. They have a point of view, they have a philosophy, and they want to impose that philosophy on the rest of the world. And Iraq just happens to be a — one of the battles in the war on terror.

A quick serach of Lexis/Nexis also turned up this as the earliest hit for “Bush” and “Islamic Fascism” that wasn’t a letter or editorial. So I tried “Islamic fascism” and “Bush.” Nothing earlier there either. Nothing for Cheney either.

So it looks like Bush has only been using the phrase in major addresses for less than six months. I’m not really sure what to make of this. I’m also not confident that I’m right. But if I am, my initial instinct is that this signals a change in frame for the Bush administration: they no longer view the costs of associating Islam and fascism so closely as being significant enough to avoid using the phrase.

(Technically, of course, “Islamic” modifies “fascism,” rendering the phrase something less than a swipe against Islam; but it should be clear that the phrase, like the term Islamofascism, builds a much tighter association between “Islam” and “fascism” than the Bush administration seemed willing to contemplate when they focused a great deal on trying to combat the “clash of civilizations” interpretation of 9/11 and its aftermath.)

Two non-exclusive explanations:

1) We’re seeing the “mobilize the base” playbook begin to unfold, with the very good news about the foiled plot providing a great opportunity for them to start pushing the message. We have every reason to believe that terrorism is only issue the Republicans think they have going for them; even though the numbers don’t even look good for them on terrorism, we also have seen a wealth of evidence that fear of terror rebounds to the Republican’s advantage.

2) We’re seeing the manifestation of a real shift in thinking about the Middle East, one that suggests the Bush administration is starting to take a more extreme view of the unfolding problems as a clash between Islam and Western Civilization.

I think it would be worthwhile to track this language over the next month or so. This could simply be a “blip”. In their report on the 26 May press conference, David E. Sanger and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times that:

Mr. Bush called the terrorists in Iraq ”totalitarians” and ”Islamic fascists,” a phrase he has used periodically to give the current struggle a tinge of the last great American-British alliance, during World War II. But he acknowledged that the war in Iraq had taken a significant toll in public opinion. ”I mean, when you turn on your TV screen and see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country,” Mr. Bush said.

Yet, as I’ve mentioned, I can’t find an earlier mention of the phrase on Lexis/Nexis, which suggests that reporters either weren’t doing their jobs or that Sanger and Rutenberg are wrong.

It strikes me that if the Democrats want to combat this message, they need to get moving fast on (a) praising the great British police and intelligence work that foiled the plot and (b) pointing out that this is more evidence that the Bush’s adventure in Iraq hasn’t made us any safer.

If this is more than political rhetoric, though, there may be some very serious policy implications.

If any of you can turn up more pre-May 2006 examples, please let me know.

UPDATE: Juan Cole notes Bush’s use of this term in the President’s explanation of the Lebanon crisis.

UPDATE: Rodger’s already on the case with a post about a month ago on his own blog. Bush may not have used “Islamic Fascists” before May in a major public forum, but he did use “Islamo-fascism.” Go read Rodger’s analysis.

UPDATE: My colleague at Georgetown, Tony Arend, notices the same thing. He also provides a comprehensive account of Bush’s recent use of the term.

UPDATE: Predictable reaction from American Muslims (via, of all places, Dailykos). They’re right, which is why I think this has to be calculated. I can’t verify this right now, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen an uptick in the same language in conservative–and particularly neo-conservative–commentary on the Lebanon crisis.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.