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OMB Un-Disavows “War on Terror”

One interesting sub-plot thus far in the Obama administration has been the not-quite-official disavowal of the term “war on terror.” This saw another flair-up recently when a civil servant named Dave Riedel emailed Pentagon officials to tell them “OMB says: ‘This Administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT]. Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’” But according to Brian Beutler, when Peter Orszag was asked about this he distanced himself from the distancing saying “I’m not aware of any communication I’ve had on that issue. It was a communication by a mid-level career civil service.” Brian observes:

So GWOT it is. That doesn’t mean the Riedel email didn’t go out, though, and some (me, for instance) wonder if some at the Pentagon might stick with the supposedly new moniker (Overseas Contingency Operation) leading to some amusing confusion on the Hill.

This has been a problem for the government for some time, and to such an extent that even George Bush was willing to admit error. “We actually misnamed the war on terror,” Bush said in August 2004. “It ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.” Touche.

I think this is a more important issue than people realize. Names of programs matter. The fact that the Future Combat Systems project is named “Future Combat Systems” allowed John McCain during the campaign to try to get people to believe that Barack Obama had some kind of blanket opposition to funding future combat systems, rather than opposition to a specific boondogglish program. Similarly, it sounds and feels a lot more reasonable to say that Pentagon requests for money to use in overseas contingency operations need to be weighed against other priorities than it does to question funding requests aimed at winning a “Long War” or a “War on Terror.” Completely non-military endeavors have often tried to leverage the term “war” into increased funding (War on Poverty, War on Drugs) but obviously this works a lot better for the military which is in the business of fighting wars.

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But reducing the world’s exposure to terrorists is neither an enterprise with a defined beginning and end, nor is it mainly a military undertaking. “War on Terror” and “Long War” thinking distort our policy approaches, distort our budgetary priorities, and encourage the problematic idea that we need to fight a hazily defined “global counterinsurgency” and can’t afford to think about the costs of doing so.