Well Past Time To Retire ‘War On Terror’

The Washington Post reported this morning that “the Obama administration appears to be backing away from the phrase ‘global war on terror,’” encouraging instead the use of the phrase “Overseas Contingency Operation.”

In a conference call later this morning, however, OMB director Peter Orszag said he wasn’t aware of any such directive.

Hopefully that will change. As counter-insurgency expert John Nagl tells the Post, the “war on terror” was “enormously unfortunate because I think it pulled together disparate organizations and insurgencies.”

Our strategy should be to divide and conquer rather than make of enemies more than they are…We are facing a number of different insurgencies around the globe — some have local causes, some of them are transnational. Viewing them all through one lens distorts the picture and magnifies the enemy.

It’s important to recognize what a propaganda bonanza the “war on terror” has been for Osama bin Laden. The attacks of 9/11 made bin Laden a major figure in Arab media and culture; the decision by Bush and Cheney to cast him as the sinister leader of a global Islamofascist front against the West made him a legend.


Whatever actual methods were brought to bear against Al Qaeda, it would have been far better from a rhetorical standpoint simply to treat them as criminals. Rebecca Malloy writes in the latest CTC Sentinel (pdf) that, unlike the early Muslim warriors upon whom they claim to model themselves, the behavior of bin Laden and his ilk “fits Islamic legal definitions of brigands (muharibun) and rebels (bugha) who spread terror and destruction.” By elevating them to the level of soldier, the “war on terror” helped buttress bin Laden’s own self-glorifying narrative, needlessly complicating the work of capturing or killing him, as well as the much more important work of discrediting him.

Former Bush administration speechwriter Christian Brose warns, however, that while “dropping the war talk may build support for the mission abroad, or at least make it more tolerable, but it may reduce support for it at home.”

Regardless of what we call it, to be successful in this conflict requires significant domestic spending and unprecedented, often controversial authorities, even by Obama’s standards, as he is learning. Mobilizing and maintaining public support for these commitments is in large part why the War on Terror was proclaimed in the first place. It served a real domestic purpose, and though some took that too far (see Giuliani, Rudy), advocates of a new name, or no name, for the War on Terror must recognize that we are making the case a tougher sell to the American people.

Exactly. Call me old fashioned, but I think vast and enduring overseas military commitments should be a “tough sell” to the American people. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ever undertake them, just that our leaders should be expected to make the case for them on the merits, in a way that recognizes the seriousness of the undertaking, and not try and sell them with apocalyptic half-truths.

As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in 2007 in a thorough evisceration of the Bush administration’s fear-mongering, “the damage these three words have done — a classic self-inflicted wound — is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves.”

The vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors. Constant reference to a “war on terror” did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue. The war of choice in Iraq could never have gained the congressional support it got without the psychological linkage between the shock of 9/11 and the postulated existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Brzezinski closed by asking “where is the U.S. leader ready to say, ‘Enough of this hysteria, stop this paranoia?’” By thus far eschewing the sort of imprecise bellicosity that characterized George W. Bush’s national security rhetoric, President Obama has shown that he may be that leader. It remains to be seen, however, whether he’ll take the important step of publicly disavowing the key framing device of his predecessor’s disastrous foreign policy.