Let us take a hard look at some extremely important words: "the global war on terrorism." Since Sept. 11, this phrase -- often reduced in Washingtonese to "GWOT" -- has entered the English language, popularized by journalists and administration officials. It is the way our highest national priority is described by almost everyone.

But "GWOT" is not an accurate description of America's enemy or of what we are engaged in. Unless people know whom we are fighting, it will be virtually impossible to win the war of ideas that is such a key part of this struggle. The new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Karen Hughes, who is charged with primary responsibility for this part of the war, has a chance to fix the problem, but only if she is willing to change some deeply ingrained rhetoric and the political reasons behind it.

Stopping terrorists, using all necessary means, is vital in protecting the nation. We cannot win without the use of force and first-rate intelligence. But suicide bombers are merely the expendable, deluded cannon fodder of ruthless ideologues. This has been true with terrorists throughout history. The long-term battle is against the underlying ideas and leaders behind these specific groups of terrorists.

Despite factionalism and fierce doctrinal disputes, our enemies, broadly speaking, constitute a movement, with goals, gurus, ideologues, myths and martyrs. They share a core set of virulently anti-Western beliefs and have common goals: to destroy the moderate (and still majority) wing of Islam, to establish Islamist theocracies that look backward toward a mythic "golden age," to seek the destruction of Israel, and to inflict maximum damage and human suffering through acts of terrorism.

Among its leaders, there is one whose face is as internationally recognized today as Adolf Hitler's was in 1941. He was responsible for Sept. 11. Yet the United States has not made it a primary goal to expose Osama bin Laden as the monster he is, something Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did to Hitler, and American leadership did to communism during the Cold War by demonstrating its moral and intellectual bankruptcy. Bin Laden (unlike Saddam Hussein) has been virtually ignored in public by official Washington.

Terrorism is not an end in itself; it is a tactic, just as it has been for countless other movements throughout history that sought to destroy or paralyze the established order, or attract attention to their cause. Over two years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski, among others, pointed out that a "war on terror" was like a "war on blitzkrieg" or a "war on war." For this important insight, the former national security adviser was both attacked and ignored. During the 2004 campaign, I stumbled into a public dispute with senior administration officials, including Vice President Cheney, when, as a John Kerry surrogate, I told a New York Times Magazine writer that the phrase could be considered a metaphor and compared it to phrases such as the "war on poverty." For this both Kerry and I were assailed as naive, and I was asked, in the sneering tones of certain cable television interviewers, if I really thought we were at war with a "metaphor."

Of course not. But despite the grand rhetoric, does anyone think the United States is actually fighting "terror" or "terrorism" globally? We may detest terrorism in Sri Lanka, but we are not engaged in that civil war. Nor in Nepal, northern Uganda, Aceh or countless places around the world.

By calling both Iraq and Sept. 11 part of the war on terrorism, the administration has been partially successful in linking public support for the less popular war in Iraq to the universally supported fight against al Qaeda, even though no convincing evidence has been produced connecting the two. No other explanation has proved as valuable in keeping Americans, albeit in declining numbers, behind our increasingly controversial involvement in Iraq. "GWOT," as Dan Froomkin wrote on The Post's Web site last month, is "the metaphor that has consistently been [President Bush's] most potent weapon in the battle for public opinion."

The struggle against violent extremism will continue, of course, long after bin Laden is eliminated by death or capture. It will be a long conflict, with casualties and high costs, just like the efforts against fascism and communism. But fundamentally this is a war of ideas, and a more aggressive, direct attack on those ideas, and the men behind them, is necessary.

For starters, Osama bin Laden must be discredited, even if he remains at large. He is not, as some argue, irrelevant simply because his war will continue after he is gone (although, of course, it will). He remains a folk hero to millions of Muslims; youths wear T-shirts of him and children are named after him throughout the Muslim world. The United States should stop ignoring him and his henchmen; exposing them must become a top priority. He is a false prophet who incites mass murder, but he is clearly eloquent and charismatic. His ideas, no matter how insane they seem to us, appeal to many people. (Hitler had those qualities, too.)

Which brings us back to Karen Hughes. With her enormous bureaucratic clout, derived from her closeness with President Bush, the new undersecretary of state has a chance to make history. To do so, however, she must change some fundamental parts of our public message, and then devise better delivery systems for it -- precisely what she did so effectively for Bush during so many campaigns.

Hughes should begin by revisiting what her own boss said on Aug. 6, 2004, speaking without a text. "We actually misnamed the war on terror," the president said that day. "It ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies, who happen to use terror as a weapon." He was, inexplicably, laughed at for this remark, and rapidly retreated to safer rhetorical terrain. More recently, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to replace "GWOT" with the "global struggle against violent extremism" -- a somewhat more accurate phrase -- the president immediately overruled him and again linked GWOT closely to Iraq during a series of public appearances.

But the president got it right last year. Words matter, and we need better ones to explain to the world, and to ourselves, who the enemy is. How about making it simple and specific: something like "the war against Osama bin laden and his followers"? And then create an all-out, no-holds-barred campaign to expose, ridicule and destroy everything he and his ilk stand for -- murder, horror, intolerance, disrespect for human life and a false view of Islam.

Richard Holbrooke, an ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, writes a monthly column for The Post.