The War of the Words

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

How long will the war on ter­ror last? Decades, most peo­ple as­sume. Af­ter all, the threat of Sept. 11-style at­tacks per­sists, and as long as it does, Amer­ica will work might­ily to pre­vent them. But the “war on ter­ror” — as a phrase — could be near­ing its fi­nal days. When the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion goes, it may, too.

Start with the word “war.” From the be­gin­ning it was de­signed to con­trast with crime, which many Repub­li­cans said had been the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion’s frame­work for fight­ing al-Qaeda. Democrats al­legedly saw anti-ter­ror­ism as po­lice work. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, by con­trast, would un­leash the mil­i­tary. Lurk­ing be­hind this di­chotomy was the as­sump­tion that ji­hadist ter­ror­ists were mainly crea­tures of their state spon­sors. If the real threat was not ter­ror­ist net­works but gov­ern­ments, then of course war, rather than crime, was the cor­rect prism.

That was the the­ory, and Iraq was the test case. But as Iraq has gone south, the Amer­i­can pub­lic’s ap­petite for fur­ther wars — not to men­tion that of the rest of the world — has plum­meted. And even some in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion have de­cided that it’s good pol­i­tics and good pol­icy to make the an­titer­ror­ism ef­fort sound less mil­i­taris­tic. In 2005, of­fi­cials tried switch­ing to the less fe­lic­i­tous “global strug­gle against vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism.” Pres­i­dent Bush quickly re­in­stated “war on ter­ror” af­ter con­ser­va­tives ac­cused him of go­ing soft. But no fu­ture pres­i­dent will have as much in­vested in the phrase. And fu­ture pres­i­den­tial ad­vis­ers are likely to see it as a drag on Amer­ica’s im­age around the world.

But in the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con, “war” also means some­thing else. The wars on poverty, drugs and can­cer weren’t mil­i­tary. In those cases, war meant some­thing akin to na­tional mo­bi­liza­tion. And in the wake of Sept. 11, that was Bush’s other im­pli­ca­tion: Call­ing the anti-ter­ror­ism ef­fort a war im­plied that it would be Amer­ica’s top pri­or­ity.

In that way, too, how­ever, “war” has be­come less apt. In Oc­to­ber 2001, 46 per­cent of Amer­i­cans, a mas­sive plu­ral­ity, told Gallup poll­sters that ter­ror­ism was their No. 1 pri­or­ity. On Elec­tion Day 2004, it was 19 per­cent. To­day it is 5 per­cent. Amer­i­cans are far more con­cerned about Iraq, which they no longer see as a sub­set of the an­titer­ror­ist ef­fort (even though, iron­i­cally, there is a greater ter­ror­ist threat in Iraq to­day than be­fore we in­vaded). An­other at­tack on U.S. soil would trans­form those poll num­bers, of course. But in its ab­sence, “war on ter­ror” may come to sound al­most as in­ap­pro­pri­ate as “war on drugs,” a phrase that im­plies that an is­sue is among the pub­lic’s high­est pri­or­i­ties when it no longer is.

If “war” is in­creas­ingly prob­lem­atic, “ter­ror” is even worse. From the be­gin­ning, crit­ics have noted that ter­ror is a tac­tic and thus not Amer­ica’s real en­emy. At first, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion sub­tly mit­i­gated the prob­lem by re­fer­ring to ter­ror­ists of “global reach.” That was a po­lite way of re­fer­ring to ter­ror­ists ca­pa­ble of, and in­ter­ested in, at­tack­ing us. And thus it pretty much re­ferred to devo­tees of al-Qaeda. But that caveat soon went out the win­dow, and over time the “ter­ror” we’re os­ten­si­bly bat­tling has grown to in­clude groups such as Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah, which don’t cur­rently tar­get the United States, and gov­ern­ments such as Iran and Syria, which sup­port them.

Con­cep­tu­ally, this is a mess. It equates al- Qaeda with Ha­mas, al­though the lat­ter poses no threat to us, and with Hezbol­lah, which is an ide­o­log­i­cal cousin of our al­lies in the Iraqi gov­ern­ment. It also makes ter­ror­ism the cen­ter­piece of our con­flict with Iran, when the big­ger is­sue is Iran’s pur­suit of a nu­clear weapon. And as a re­sult, it would make non­sense of any U.S.-Ira­nian deal that ad­dressed the nu­clear is­sue but left Tehran’s sup­port for ter­ror­ist groups un­re­solved. For all th­ese rea­sons, fu­ture of­fi­cials may feel it lim­its their abil­ity to make good pol­icy.

To be fair, re­plac­ing “war on ter­ror” isn’t easy. (Which is why I’ve used the phrase my­self.) The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s 2005 ef­fort — “global strug­gle against vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism” — high­lights the prob­lem, since the Lord’s Re­sis­tance Army in Uganda is noth­ing if not vi­o­lent and ex­trem­ist but fight­ing it will never be cen­tral to Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy.

Other al­ter­na­tives have their own prob­lems. Re­plac­ing “ter­ror” with “ji­hadism” would of­fend many Mus­lims, since ji­had has pos­i­tive, non­vi­o­lent con­no­ta­tions. “Ji­hadisalafi,” a term used by some schol­ars, is less of­fen­sive and more ac­cu­rate but un­likely to play in Peo­ria. “Al-Qaeda” is log­i­cal, but ex­perts now con­sider it more an in­spi­ra­tion than a mass or­ga­ni­za­tion. And al-Qaeda-ism doesn’t ex­actly roll off the tongue.

The an­swer is elu­sive. But Amer­ica’s next pres­i­dent will prob­a­bly start look­ing. Even if his or her new term isn’t per­fect, it will have at least one big ad­van­tage: It’s never been used to jus­tify the poli­cies of Ge­orge W. Bush. Peter Beinart, a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, writes a monthly col­umn for The Post.

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