Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A war by another name

It’s been tough for Team Obama to get rid of all the dead wood and termites around the White House. The transition went well enough; there were no reports of pranks by the previous occupants; nobody made off with the O keys from the computers. Still, some things the exterminators can’t do anything about. There are apparently some longtime employees at the Pentagon and other agencies, Bushies who for one reason or another can’t be dislodged right now. And one of the most troublesome holdovers from the Bush administration is one of those we encounter every day.

Newsweek reports that the Obama administration is hard at work looking for an alternative to the phrase “war on terror,” the monstrously hubristic sobriquet foisted on the American people, and the American media, to describe the two-theater war against terrorism and religious extremism — certainly in Afghanistan, more nominally in Iraq.

The phrase, a Bush White House invention in the wake of 9/11, has troubled analysts, linguists and the public alike, and the new broom of the Obama administration means to get rid of it. What replaces it is anyone’s guess. One viable alternative would seem to be both more specific and less emotional: “the war on terrorism.”

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Strict linguistic constructionists will say it’s no better than “war on terror.” Not so. “War on terror” speaks to an unwinnable conflict. The United States, its coalition partners and proxies and the world at large have no hope of winning a war against terror any more than they could hope to win a war against rage, a war against sadness, a war against cheerfulness or a war against any other transient emotional state.

A “war against terrorism,” however, is another matter entirely. That phrase, however imprecise, attempts to more accurately explain the parameters of the conflict, articulates the objective in more militarily definable terms, rather than the breathless catch-all employed as boilerplate by the Bush administration for years.

It’s been said that a war can’t be waged against a technique, and it’s true that a state structure, a definable nation, imparts a clarity that focuses a nation’s mind wonderfully. But during World War II, the Allies’ titanic struggle against not one but three geographically defined adversaries was often characterized as a fight “against Fascism.”

During the Cold War that followed, the United States was said to be locked in a battle “against Communism.” Historically, it’s been very possible to wage war, hot or cold, against an ideology in general as well as that ideology’s practitioners in particular.

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We’ve got to come up with something, Team Obama says. And our best, most reliable international ally agrees.

In a Jan. 15 op-ed written for The Guardian, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it plain:
Since 9/11, the notion of a “war on terror” has defined the terrain. The phrase had some merit: it captured the gravity of the threats, the need for solidarity, and the need to respond urgently — where necessary, with force. But ultimately, the notion is misleading and mistaken. The issue is not whether we need to attack the use of terror at its roots, with all the tools available. We must. The question is how. …

The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common. Terrorist groups need to be tackled at root, interdicting flows of weapons and finance, exposing the shallowness of their claims, channeling their followers into democratic politics.

The “war on terror” also implied that the correct response was primarily military. But as General Petraeus said to me and others in Iraq, the coalition there could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife.

To disagree slightly: While Miliband is right in warning against lumping terrorist groups together, it’s also necessary to recognize the commonality of technique that can be strategically characterized as terrorism.

Whether through targeted assassinations or panic and carnage on a vast scale, these techniques have defined the actions of groups preceding al-Qaida, and have hardly been specific to the Middle East. Its adherents, from the Red Brigades to the Baader-Meinhof gang, from the ETA Basque separatist movement to the Irish Republican Army, have done their grim business in a way that deserves to be described as the deadly collective work that it is.

But Miliband is right in understanding how information and prosperity and the principles of democracy are the best weapons against terrorism. Outreach removes the sense of estrangement terrorism needs to survive. And aside from reasserting the British view on the world stage, Miliband is also a world leader, one of many for sure, who’s ready for the United States to start that outreach, to lead again. Changing the name of the greatest wedge between the United States and the world is a good beginning.

Maybe the Obama White House will put it on the Web site, open the question to the American people — to anyone: How shall we rename the conflict once known as the War on Terror? The servers will crash from the sudden traffic from hundreds of thousands of ideas.

Call it a war on terror, a war on terrorism, call it a ham sandwich — it needs another, final name; it requires the Occam’s razor that Obama made a campaign pledge: The best thing to call this tragic, needless, elective war is Over.
Image credit: U.S. forces in Afghanistan: Public domain. Poster: John Falter (year unknown), U.S. Government Printing Office. David Miliband: Alan.heckman, republished under GNU Free Documentation License v. 1.2. Red Army Faction logo: Ratatosk (Public domain).

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