Yesterday, the Obama administration’s never-ending back and forth over whether or not they’ve stopped talking about a “global war on terror” took a new twist as Hillary Clinton said there’s no policy against “war on terror” but the administration isn’t saying “war on terror.” To which Chris Bowers had a sober-minded, sensible reply:
Now, a different question is, does it really matter that much? The answer in this case is probably not. Not only had the term become a bit of a bankrupt joke that holds little currency with people either in this country or abroad, but the real question is whether President Obama will continue the various policies associated with the GWOT. Secret prisons, declaring people “enemy combatants,” torture, vastly increased defense spending, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, Iraq and Afghanistan troop deployments, etc. Beyond a name, the “war on terror” was a series of horrific policies. To end the “war on terror,” you can’t just drop the name. The administration must drop the policies, too.
This makes sense, but I don’t think we should underplay the importance of words in shaping these kind of policies. If you’re fighting a “war on terror” then of course the Department of Defense is going to be the lead agency and getting serious about the “war on terror” will imply large increases in defense spending. By contrast, it’s easy to make the argument that a government that believes that “terrorism” is its most important security problem shouldn’t be spending lavishly on advanced fighter aircraft. It’s obvious that you can’t stop a terrorist with a nuclear attack submarine, and it’s equally obvious that if you want to fight and win a “war” you need to spend more on the military. Similarly, everyone understands that you can’t hold people indefinitely without trial or evidence. And everyone also understands that the president has special “war powers” that let him do stuff that would normally be illegal. The FBI catches terrorists, the Army fights wars.
So, yes, to change the policies you need to change the policies. But it’ll be much easier to make progressive arguments about specific policies if we can get out of the “war on terror” concept and return to talking about terrorists and terrorism with normal language. “War” is a word, not a policy, but it’s a word with specific legal and policy implications. It’s one thing to say that counterterrorism considerations led the United States to get involved in a war in Afghanistan, but another thing to say that the war in Afghanistan is actually one “front” in a larger “war on terror.”