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The End Of The U.S. War On Terror

  • Heather Maher

The attack that started it all

The attack that started it all

Do you remember where you were the day the "global war on terror" ended?

Like most people, you probably didn't even notice that it had. And that may be because the "war" didn't end the way the man who started it -- former U.S. President George W. Bush -- often predicted it would: with "complete victory" in the "great struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror."

It ended with an e-mail, sent under a new administration led by President Barack Obama.

Sometime during the week of March 25, the government agency that reviews the public statements of administration officials before they're disseminated sent an e-mail to employees of the U.S. Defense Department. The e-mail read: "This administration prefers to avoid using the term 'long war' or 'global war on terror.' Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'"

It added, "Please pass this on to your speechwriters."

At first the White House denied that an across-the-board decision had been made to banish the old language and introduce the new phrase, but a few days later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed to reporters that "war on terror" is not how anyone who works for President Obama will be describing U.S. policy, either at home or abroad.

Clinton said, "The administration has stopped using the phrase and I think that speaks for itself."

Obama himself hasn't said anything about the change, but while he was still a candidate for president, he made it clear that in an Obama White House, the language of diplomacy would replace the language of force.

"After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time, I believe, to pursue direct diplomacy with friend and foe alike without preconditions," Obama said in May 2008.

In the flurry of media attention over the change, there has been a notable absence of voices defending the use of it in the first place.

Is There A War On?

The idea of declaring "war" on a problem has been part of U.S. political language since the 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson's ambitious domestic-policy program, "The Great Society" declared a war on poverty in 1964.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon launched a war on drugs to combat the illegal drug trade. Still technically in existence, that "war" has become an umbrella phrase to describe everything from drug-awareness campaigns in schools to military-led drug-eradication efforts in Central America.

So far, victory hasn't been declared in either effort.

Bush first used the phrase "war on terror" nine days after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, in an emergency address to Congress. As he spoke, the pile of rubble in New York City that had once been the World Trade Towers was still smoldering.

"Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there," Bush said. "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated."

The "war on terror" came to symbolize controversial U.S. means of prosecuting it to many around the world.
Jeffrey Feldman, a cultural anthropologist at New York University and an expert on the use of political language, says the notion of a "war on terror" began as a metaphor to describe a range of tactics that would be used politically and by the police and military to keep the United States safe.

Feldman believes Bush chose the phrase because it clearly defined an enemy, and because he wanted to sell the idea that the world is divided between good and evil -- or "evil-doers" as he liked to say -- and that military force could solve the problem.

But Feldman says the phrase was quickly expanded to apply to political ideology, and came to define a whole range of Bush's policies. The unanticipated result was that when critics questioned an administration decision -- whether foreign or domestic -- "they were lumped into this idea that they were undermining 'the war on terror.'"

"Suddenly, the Bush administration was telling us, 'Well, in terms of the constitution, we are treating this metaphor as real. We are really now in a full-fledged war so the president has a certain number of powers that he wouldn't have unless we were at war,'" Feldman says. "So they started out transforming this very specific reaction to this one act, to a much broader idea, which then they expanded and expanded until it involved their entire domestic- and foreign-policy thinking."

During the Bush era, Americans who opposed things like Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture in interrogations, and the suspension of legal rights for so-called enemy combatants were sometimes accused by government officials of endangering the country during a time of war.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer reacted to comedian Bill Maher's comments about 9/11 by reminding "all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once advised the media to "reassess" what they were reporting and writing.

Good vs. Evil

Bush's early plan to hunt down "every terrorist group" made it clear that his government wasn't just interested in finding the group of terrorists responsible for 9/11. It wanted every terrorist "dead or alive," as he later declared.

Bush stressed that the United States was not engaged in a war against Islam, but against an extremist hijacking of that faith, but to many his pronouncements -- along with his pledge to "smoke out" terrorists and other threats -- sounded uncomfortably like vigilante justice fueled by religious fervor.

Critics both inside and outside the United States have long complained that the language used by Bush and his top aides to describe the fight against terrorism turned world opinion against the U.S. effort. "With us or against us," "a battle for the civilized world" -- these phrases cast the effort as a unilateral and Biblical-sounding struggle.

Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who specializes in national security issues, says the Islamic world feels like the last eight years has been one long campaign against their religion. Bush even once used the word "crusade" to describe his foreign-policy decisions.

In his first months in office, President Obama's choice of wording has shown a different approach. During his recent trip to Turkey, he said the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam." Hachigian says Obama was right to allay Muslims' fears, but the United States shouldn't have had to make the case in the first place.

Muslims around the world saw a "war on Islam."
Like other critics, Hachigian thinks the "war on terror" was also a bad choice from a strategic point of view. Before 9/11, terrorists were considered fringe groups of bad guys that couldn't be defeated with traditional military tactics because they operated in small cells and couldn't be easily found.

They still are, but when Bush described "every terrorist group of global reach" as an enemy of the United States, Hachigian says, he emboldened their cause.

"It really pushes our enemies together, and allows them to think of themselves as 'holy warriors' when really what we want to do is divide and conquer and brand them as criminals, not as jihadists, [or] holy warriors," Hachigian says.

She believes the Bush administration would have been better off describing the individuals and groups that commit terrorism as disconnected and acting independently. A dry, technical description of a terrorist act can drain it of emotional impact, and thus, its ability to terrify us. Using fiery language and swearing revenge plays into terrorists' hands.

In 2006, a new National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Bush administration policy -- in particular, the war in Iraq -- had increased Islamic radicalism around the world.

"It's much easier to recruit when you're engaged in a glorified struggle against an enemy than if you're just branded as a criminal, the way a regular criminal would be," Hachigian says. "We don't want to give our enemies that kind of ammunition for their recruiting."

War By Any Other Name


Even before Bush left office, his "war on terror" had come to represent the most unpopular hallmarks of his presidency: secret CIA prisons, the use of since-banned interrogation techniques, domestic spying, Guantanamo Bay.

Later in his tenure, the president himself even admitted that the name was ill-chosen. "We actually misnamed the war on terror," Bush said in August 2004. "It ought to be the...struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try and shake the conscience of the free world."

That sentiment is still shared by those pundits who feel that avoiding mention of religion or use of religious labels when discussing the various forms of extremism -- something Bush, too, did in the latter years of his presidency -- may not be the best way to combat it.

President Obama (left) has reached out to the Muslim world.
In a commentary published in "The Wall Street Journal" on April 15, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says: "To not talk about Islam when analyzing Al-Qaeda is like talking about the Crusades without mentioning Christianity."

Asked about Obama's decision to shelve Bush's "war on terror" phrase, Mark McKinnon, a former media adviser to Bush who now runs a political consulting firm in Texas, says that "it makes sense" that the new administration wants to characterize the effort with their own language and reframe the debate and discussion.

"There's always an evolution [with new presidents] and this is part of that," McKinnon says. He also believes that when Bush decided to use the phrase, it was the right decision then.

"Post 9/11, President Bush was trying to establish that this terrorist threat was a transnational threat, which it is, that terrorism knows no boundaries and can strike anywhere," McKinnon says. "And at the time, the administration was trying to build a coalition and convince others that they had a stake. So I think that that language was appropriate and effective for the time."

Changing The Substance


McKinnon says the new name, "Overseas Contingency Operation," strikes him as "a little bureaucratic" and he's not sure people will understand it. But he also says policy is more important than phrasing, and on that count, he doesn't think Obama has done much yet to differentiate himself from Bush.

"While the rhetoric has changed the reality is that in Afghanistan, and a lot of the other foreign policy, that much of the policies remain the same," McKinnon says. "In order to effectuate policy sometimes you need to change the language but I think it's important, as we review the administration, their effectiveness, and the past administration, that we not take our eye off the ball, and [that we] look beyond the rhetoric and look at the actual policies."

But the Center for American Progress's Hachigian says Obama has taken decisive steps away from Bush's policies. In the last three months, he has committed to withdrawing troops from Iraq, increasing troops in Afghanistan, unveiled a new strategy that combines diplomacy and development in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, and reached out to Muslim countries as potential new allies.

Despite these differences, the two do agree on one point: "At the end of the day, this administration won't be judged on the rhetoric but really on the results and what progress they make," McKinnon notes.

History is just beginning to weigh Bush's presidency. Obama's biggest tests lie ahead.

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