The ‘War on Terror’ is not over just because We don’t use that Expression Anymore


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The above silliness is what happens when you pretend Obama’s charisma can stop the GWoT.

If you have read this blog even a few times, you know I thought Bush was a pretty poor president. He got lots of things wrong, and the country is much worse off after W than before. But flagging the post-9/11 anti-terrorism campaign as the ‘Global War on Terror’ was a good rhetorical move, and the expression should kept, if only because no one else has come up with a good alternative – one that rings of the scope, focus, and moral weight of ‘GWoT.’

Getting the GWoT rolling was a success. Getting other states to take terrorism seriously in the wake of 9/11 was foreign policy success. There is no doubt that Islamic jihadists are targeting the US. OBL and the rest believe this is a clash of civilizations. They believe Islam is encircled by non-believers, and they will fight to defend the faith. Americans are the primary threat to it. Bush, for all his flaws, realized this. And he did realize that the enemy is dispersed around the umma. This will be a large, multi-front problem for awhile. That does not mean it must be ‘WWIV,’ but it does mean that terrorism, specifically Islamic terrorism, is the most important national security threat to the US and the West in general for the next decade. (China could change that if she goes belligerent, but so far she is following the rules pretty well.)

None of that brief analysis is very controversial anymore. And the term ‘GWoT’ captured this pretty well. It is a bit indelicate as a term of art. But still it captured the essence of the current struggle pretty well.

So I am disappointed at the continuing, almost ideological unwillingness of the Obama people to utter this concept. I know they loathe W, and I suppose they think the expression simply alienates the rest of the world. But it did bring clarity about this contest to the US population and rally them to sacrifice and commitment. And it does help strategists build ideas within it as a conceptual frame about the future of US foreign policy. (For a good example, see Thomas Barnett’s Pentagon’s New Map.)

Further, it strikes me as willful blindness: the war on terror is past because we just don’t talk that way anymore. Really? The war on terror is over just because W is out of 0ffice and McCain lost? Obama can’t even close Guantanamo or untangle the torture mess. And the jihadists don’t care at all if Obama is black or lived in a Moslem country. You can’t end the war on terrorism with a linguistic sleight of hand; antiwestern terrorism will not be slowed, just because we don’t say it anymore. This strikes me as a rhetorical arrogance, but then the Obama people seem to lay so much emphasis on his ability as a communicator.

In short, it seemed like a pretty good term to nail down an elusive problem and an even more elusive response. Yes, it is open-ended expression, suggesting war that could go and on with no end in sight. But there is not really much else to put in its place. Condolezza Rice once suggested the ‘campaign against global extremism’ or something awkward like that, but that got nowhere. And after 8 months, Obama and H Clinton still have no kinder, gentler replacement. I still use the expression when I teach, even though the new administration does not, because I’ve got nothing else that works so well.

So come on already. Admit that we are still in this thing, even if the O people want to fight it a different way.

13 thoughts on “The ‘War on Terror’ is not over just because We don’t use that Expression Anymore

  1. It’s been often noted, but is true nonetheless, that you can’t wage war on a strategy. Further, the term war supposes a military solution but I think you’d agree that’s only part (and perhaps a small part) of the solution; the larger part will be international cooperation, better police work, better integration among security services, better technology, restricted civil liberties (alas), “dignity promotion” (an intelligent alternative to the belligerent democracy promotion of the Bush era), economic opportunity, and…well, patience (OBL’s potential supporters rather quickly learn of the limited long-term appeal of his program).

    Second, I’m asking honestly: What has the term gained us? What practical benefit has it provided? The war in Iraq was launched under the brand name Global War on Terror, and a fat lot of good that did us.

    There is no doubt that terrorism is our most serious threat (more for the danger of American overreaction, which is the stated purpose of Qaeda’s strategy, than the direct risk of damage to our facilities or commerce). There is also no doubt that the Obama administration has said so over and over. It’s a little unfair of you to say otherwise, to suggest that you believe the Obama administration actually believes a change in rhetoric can solve the problem. You don’t actually believe that, do you?

  2. To be more blunt, I find my amazement growing that you’re engaging in Hannity-style linguistic nitpicking of this sort. Sure, Obama is serious about our strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure he’s increasing military spending, if not as much as defense contractors may feel is optimal. Sure he’s increasing our troop strength in Afghanistan. Sure, the feds have busted two very serious terrorism plots in recent strengths. But he hasn’t actually used the precise phrase Global War on Terror (TM), so he’s a naif? Really? Please.

  3. Thank you. Points taken. I appreciate the comparison to Hannity! Another poster conversely accused me of Bush-derangement syndrome. So I take your comments to mean I finding some good balance.

    1. You have not explained what rhetorical and strategic frame you would put in its place. GWoT is not just some hollow expression, some silly term of art. It helped bring strategic clarity to US CT efforts after 9/11. It helped capture the weird nature of the asymmetric terrorist threat to the US, which otherwise feels so unsettling, because the US is a superpower. It helped rally the US population to this strange ‘new war’ (CNN’s initial expression). The GWoT helped frame the debate about future options. For all the dislike of the term, everyone uses it, both in policy debate and IR theory. No one has a good alternative. What is yours?

    2. I certainly agree that you can’t make war on a strategy, although I think it is better to call terrorism a tactic, a ‘weapon of the weak.’ More precisely, this is a conflict against radical Islam. But Obama and W before him were loaths to say that for obvious reasons. It sounds too much like a war on Islam. GWoT was a nice PC substitute.

    3. I do think Obama puts too much faith in rhetoric. The O people are falling for the European illusion that soft power is somehow equal to hard power (cue the faux Nobel Peace Prize). At best though, it is a complement. The GWoT put a little iron in the glove. That was useful, although W seemed to want to dispense with the glove altogether.

    4. I think I would put Afghanistan in the COIN, not CT, category now.

  4. Well, your larger point is right there at the end, where you ask the Obama administration to admit we’re still in this thing. Do you really think they haven’t “admitted” it? Didn’t he just jet over to Europe and chastise our allies for thinking that just because a new guy is in office, the problem has disappeared? Hasn’t he, in other words, done exactly what you want him to do other than invoke the mantra Global War On Terror? And I don’t agree that the GWoT phrase helped bring strategic clarity to US CT efforts after 9/11 – it helped bring strategic clarity to the decision to invade Iraq, enrage our allies, reduce our moral credibility, and open the gate to travesties like Abu Ghraib and Gitmo that set back our efforts to divide radical Islamists from ordinary Muslims than all our efforts in Iraq. We need less of that kind of strategic clarity, in my opinion.

    No, I don’t have a nice new phrase to replace the tired, discredited, disingenuous, and dangerous old one. I’m not sure a slogan or catchphrase is necessary. The War On Drugs is catchy, but that didn’t help. The War On Poverty is memorable, high Q factor, but that didn’t do any good either. The war paradigms in both cases lead us off in bad directions – the solution to the drug problem is probably legalization, not warfare. The solution to poverty is more complex, but disastrous Democratic policies taught us that spraying cash at poor people – the most direct assault on poverty I can think of, the most warlike response – can, on its own, make things worse.

    How about we just tackle both the causes for terrorism and the terrorists themselves, and not presume for all eternity what the solution should look like? Most of the things we have to do – certainly not all, but most – have nothing at all to do with making war.

    As for terrorism as a tactic not a strategy – I was thinking of that when I posted. I’ve never understood that, but people who are far smarter than me seem to so I’m probably wrong. But it seems to me that AQ and friends have terrorism as a strategy, not just a tactic. The strategy is to goad us into unwinnable wars in Muslim lands that weaken us, drain our treasury, alienate our friends, and convince us to withdraw from the world. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems to me that for them terrorism plays a far bigger role for them than some brigadier general deciding to blow up a few bridges. I am out of my depth on that point, though.

    I’ve seen no evidence that the Obama people believe rhetoric is a substitute for hard power. The meme is sticking because (a) Obama is a gifted speaker and (b) he hasn’t accomplished very much yet. Attributing this to a belief that rhetoric is a replacement for other tools seems like a stretch but maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

    I agree that the real conflict is against radical Islamists, and that we can’t really call it that without turning off the wrong people (the Muhammad six-pack who will either tolerate and support radicals or, alternatively, will rat them out to the police if he feels he has a stake in the global system).

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  8. Of course there hasn’t been another 9/11 dummy, the muslim brother hood have who they want in office -Obama, now through his grants and compassion for islam, they will make their way onto our turf set up shop! Start planning their next jihad and it will be so easy because they will all ready be here!!

  9. It won’t ever end! They hate our freedoms and way of life, and they are trying to bring Sharia Law to North America! So wake up now, before you never wake up at all!!!

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