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May 30, 2006

The War on "The War on Terror"

Right though Matt Stoller's riff on the inadequacy of the "War on Terror" metaphor may be, I don't care how big your lock is, them horses are way gone. Attempts to reframe the discussion will inevitably be cast as efforts to undersell the dangers of terror -- never a good box to be in. Hell, remember when Bush and Co tried to bring in their own new metaphor, the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism"? Even they can't climb out of this hole.

Of course, I'm assuming that Stoller is suggesting a less expansive label. Widening the War on Terror to the War on Scary-Looking Brown People would likely be wildly popular, but I'd cast a vote agin'. I would suggest, though, that the War on Terror is actually en route to becoming useful. I don't think that the definition of "terror" is actually as unclear as Matt makes it out to be. Folks have a pretty good idea of what's meant by "terror," which is "terrorist." It's been Bush's singular "genius" to bust out of the constraints imposed by his already expansive framework -- hence his attempt to reframe onto violent extremism (which Hussein could potentially be said to support) rather than terror. Democrats should be very pedantic about the war we should be fighting and very cross about the one we've actually ended up in. The War on Terror, though imprecise, would never have condoned Iraq. It was the GOP's sin to lose focus and start a whole other conflict. Democrats should point it out.

May 30, 2006 | Permalink


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You can make a descent arguement that Iraq didn't provide any major support to Al-Qaeda, but I don't think you can say that they didn't support terror.

Of course you can certainly argue that the level of terror support they gave didn't justify an invasion, but an outright claim that Saddam's Iraq did not support terror would be wrong.

Posted by: Dave Justus | May 30, 2006 3:57:58 PM

No War on Terror begun by the US to rid the world of those would commit terrorist attacks against us could logically extend to the invasion of Iraq. And at this point, I don't think folks retain any illusions otherwise.

Posted by: Ezra | May 30, 2006 4:02:13 PM

Politicians could at least stop using that useless term, and try to minimize its use in daily discourse. I think people will still support you when you say "I want to do everything possible to stop Al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists" as opposed to "I want to win the WoT". Call me naive, but I think you can make your point without falling into the frame of your opponent.

Just because it's in our national lexicon doesn't mean it's sloppy language that shouldn't be used.

Posted by: verplanck colvin | May 30, 2006 4:08:42 PM

verplanck colvin : The only reason GWOT is in the national lexicon is because it's the title for an advertising campaign. I think disinformation ( lying ) should fall into that category.

Posted by: opit | May 30, 2006 4:52:14 PM

I always felt that the problem with the GSAVE was that Bush didn't call the war on terror that in the first place. My response was more "Took you long enough" than anything else. A struggle against violent extremism, which is presumably shorthand for violent Islamist extremism in this context, is exactly what we should be fighting. A war on terror (ie terrorism in general) is not what we are fighting, is not what have ever fought and arguably isn't what we want to be fighting. A war on terror is by definition unending, and grants Bush licence to get away with ripping up the constitution. A struggle against violent Islamist extremism will certainly be challenging and long-lasting, but it's not openended and its not an existential threat justifying (in some people's minds) abandoning the rule of law.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | May 30, 2006 4:58:34 PM

Although I hate the fuzziness of the term WOT and the fuzzy thinking it engenders, Ezra is right that a new label is unlikely to take hold.

Perhaps Dems should vigorously push for repositioning (or refocusing) the term to actually describe what we think should be done - and do it with enough precision to put the bushmeat on the barby skewer.

The public can understand and likely support Dems saying how we would effectively refocus the WOT on actual terrorist groups by doing x, y, and z, that BushCo hasn't done because they wanted to attack Iraq for idealogical reasons and therefore neglected the real culprits because they didn't have clear understanding of the difference between a dictatorial state (like Hussein's Iraq) and terrorist groups (like Al Queda) that are independent of the nations they may reside and work in.

Anyway, I'm not trying to choose the words here, but indicate that a refocus strategy for the WOT is understandable and doable. Everybody likes refocusing: it's the American Way, in sports, business, allocation of personal time, etc.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 30, 2006 5:10:57 PM


The WOT metaphor is a false metaphor. As long as it dominates our discourse, our political framework will center on deception and fear. The question therefore isn't who to work the WOT to our advantage because that simply can't be done. The question is how to change the framework towards one that can address issues like global warming, failed states, financial panics, and terrorism itself.

Also, you'd be surprised how quickly frameworks can change when an economy goes into a tailspin or a crisis hits us.

Posted by: Matt Stoller | May 30, 2006 6:48:38 PM

Have you read digby's take on this? It's explained a lot better than I did. Three important paragraphs:

This is the problem. This elastic war, this war against warfare, this war with no specific enemy against no specific country is never going to end. It cannot end because there is no end. If the threat of "islamofascim" disappears tomorrow there will be someone else who hates us and who is willing to use individual acts of violence to get what they want. There always have been and there always will be. Which means that we will always be at war with Oceania.

But it is long past time for people to start the public counter argument, which has the benefit of appealing to common sense. Many Americans are emerging from the relentless hail of propaganda that overtook the nation after the traumatic events of 9/11. Iraq confused people for a while, but that confusion is leaving in its wake a rather startling clarity: the "war" as the governmehnt defines it is bullshit. It will take a while for this common sense to become conventional wisdom, but it certainly won't happen if nobody is willing to say it out loud.

But there is no war on terrorism. The nation is less secure because of this false construct. We are spending money we need not spend, making enemies we need not make and wasting lives we need not waste in the name of something that doesn't exist. That is as politically incorrect a statement as can be made in America today. But it's true.

We need to stop declaring war on stuff. It's a problem, but not an immediate crisis; we don't need F-16s and the 10th Mountain Division to solve it. We need effective intel gathering, law enforcement, and (legal) covert ops.

Posted by: verplanck colvin | May 30, 2006 11:08:25 PM

Yes the term war in its traditional sense has no place being used here. How about... policy on terror.. Then we can have a big POT to throw our money and freedom into. :p

It gives me a real feeling of hope that I havent experienced in a long time to see real people with influence in D.C. starting to make comments like this.

Truly 9/11 was not the beginning of terror.. look at Guy Fawkes in England, or all the terrorist attacks in the 70's, 80's, and 90's.

Sure 9/11 was the most deadly but it levelled a handful of buildings, and killed 1500 people. Truly this is a genuine security issue, but it is not a national security issue.

Right after 9/11 comments flew everywhere saying that we 'could not let the terrorists win' by clamping down on freedoms. Now that date is used as a catalyst for a giant power grab by government, to turn our freedoms into 'security', a loss of power for citizens, and a seed for a culture of surveilance.

...thanks for for showing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

Posted by: david b | May 31, 2006 4:32:39 AM

verplanck: as usual, Digby said what I wanted to say far more eloquently and persuasively.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | May 31, 2006 5:24:55 AM

Just to get our history straight, it was Bush who at the last moment rejected the switch to GSAVE, which had been worked up by both Rummy and Condi. Bush's problem was with "struggle," not abandoning terra. He's reported to have said "we're at war," and "I'm the war president." (Not just PR, we now know, since it's the basis of most of the power grab by the executive branch.) And of course he conflates the war in Iraq with GWOT, which has and will continue to cause a host of strategic difficulties.

The Pentagon types wanted to get rid of "war" because they (rightly) wanted to emphasize that over the long haul the military should be about 10% and policing and soft power and "nation-building" the balance. Remember, Rummy doesn't do nation-building, so he wanted to make it explicit that the non-kinetic stuff is on someone else's watch and budget. Some in the Pentagon also wanted to shift back to defining their own mission as dealing with the fallout of instability from failed states (remember the focus under Clinton?) and away from terra per se.

So since they had to keep the "war" lingo to keep Bush happy, the Pentagon in the new QDR now talks about the Long War -- the clash from globalization and modernity -- that's potentially broader than just AlQaeda and AlQaeda wannabes, or even Islamic extremism. And they explicitly define War as being only a small part military. Most of this seems to be coming from Abizaid.

Posted by: nadehzda | May 31, 2006 11:31:05 AM

War on Terror is like the War on Drugs - a stupid meaningless term that distorts our soceity's decision making process.

But what you're right is that we can't get away from it now, it's just too locked in. But we can build on it, just like FDR did with his four freedoms. We can say that the US should work with the rest of the world to limit terrorism as a tactic and try to stop country's terrorizing their own citizenry.

Because the US is in a bind, politically we use War on Terror inside the US, but it instantly renders US policy a joke in the rest of the world. The US hasn't fought a Global War on Terror, it has only worked on terrorists that they fear will attack the US. And that's patently obvious, only a bit disguised because the rest of the world still knows the US is the superpower and shouldn't be ticked off.

So, I'd definitly agree the tactic is to keep the phrase but re-define at as a real drive to limit the ability of soceity to terrorize people.

Posted by: Samuel Knight | May 31, 2006 12:55:53 PM

"War on Terror is like the War on Drugs - a stupid meaningless term that distorts our soceity's decision making process."

Absolutely. This whole "War on..." thing has to be debunked as soon as it's started.

My favorite was the "War on Poverty." At least with WOT and WOD(rugs) you've got guys with guns shooting at people, so it sort of does look like war here and there.

Posted by: Cal Gal | May 31, 2006 2:31:48 PM

This "advertising campaign" that I referred to - and it is just that - is insidious in the way it warps the thoughts of even those who try to fight it. Have a look at http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2006/05/lions_led_by_donkeys.html
and see if you don't agree.

Posted by: opit | May 31, 2006 7:18:56 PM

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