The War of the Words

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By Peter Beinart
Sunday, April 1, 2007

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 anti-terrorism 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 anti-terrorist 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. "Jihadi-salafi," 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.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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