Monday, June 1, 2009

A war on terror by any other name -- April 2, 2009 column

A familiar phrase died this week. President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” is no more.

The Obama administration buried it in the slogans graveyard next to “It’s the economy, stupid,” near Al Gore’s “lockbox” and the lips that said, “No new taxes.”

“Global war on terror” was the organizing principle of the Bush presidency after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The war touched all our lives – through color-coded terrorist alerts, heightened airport security, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. And it led to prisoner detention at Guantanamo.

President Barack Obama didn’t declare victory in the war. No one could say what winning would look like anyway. And Obama didn’t sign an order banning the phrase.

Instead, the administration put the phrase out of its misery by shunning it.

The question arises: If no one hears about a global war on terror or its unlovely acronym, GWOT, does the war exist? Well, yes. Only the phrase is dead.

Obama isn’t so much turning the page on the global war on terror as renaming and updating it. These days, “overseas contingency operations” are in. But threats of terrorist attacks in the United States remain.

Obama has set new military goals. “We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said. The three Ds are less dramatic than “war,” but the strategy still envisions international anti-terrorism efforts.

“We understand that this cannot be an American-only effort,” Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday.

“Defeating al-Qaida and its extremist allies is a goal and responsibility for the international community.” Flournoy said the president would be engaging U.S. allies so they’re contributing to the anti-terrorism effort.

The Obama team wasn’t the first to try to banish the phrase. Two years ago, the House Armed Services Committee tried to scrub the global war on terror from the 2008 defense budget.

Reporter Rick Maze wrote in the Army Times on April 4, 2007 that the committee’s Democratic leadership disliked the phrase and had banned it.“

A memo for the committee staff, circulated March 27, says the 2008 bill…should `avoid using colloquialisms,’” Maze wrote. Among those to be avoided, along with “long war,” was the phrase President George W. Bush used soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Bush was unfazed. He continued to use the phrase. With Obama in the White House, another memo went to Pentagon staffers last month.

“This administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or `Global War on Terror [GWOT.] Please use `Overseas Contingency Operation,’” it read.

The Office of Management and Budget, which pre-screens administration officials’ testimony on Capitol Hill, sent the memo, according to The Washington Post. A spokesman for OMB denied it was official policy and said the memo was only the “opinion of a career civil servant.”

But it was more than opinion when the secretary of state weighed in.

“The administration has stopped using the phrase, and I think that speaks for itself, obviously,” Hillary Clinton told reporters. Obviously?

What dropping the phrase says is that the administration wants to tamp down the rhetoric, in part to repair the nation’s image abroad. The International Commission of Jurists, a human rights group, called in February for the United States to drop the war paradigm as a basis for counter-terrorism policy.

Putting the nation on a war footing after 9/11 resulted in human rights violations, including torture, the group’s report said. Obama and his team discuss operations, not the global war on terror, while seeking international support.

Defense Undersecretary Flournoy said the United States needs “all the instruments of our national power and those of our allies” to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban. Some Republicans, though, aren’t letting the phrase go quietly. On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain of Arizona asked Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, about a threatened terrorist attack on Washington by Pakistan’s Taliban leader, Baitullah Masood.

Petraeus responded that the government is taking the threat seriously. Intelligence analysts are working hard because there are questions about “the capacity of that organization in terms of transnational activities,” he said.

“Well,” McCain said, dryly, “we certainly wouldn’t want to call it a global war on terror.”

-- Marsha Mercer

(c) 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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