Shadow Government

The war on terror, RIP

By Christian Brose

Have you heard? The war is over! The "Global War on Terror," that is. At least for speechwriters at the Defense Department:

The end of the Global War on Terror -- or at least the use of that phrase -- has been codified at the Pentagon. Reports that the phrase was being retired have been circulating for some time amongst senior administration officials, and this morning speechwriters and other staff were notified via this e-mail to use "Overseas Contingency Operation" instead.

So this means an end to preemptive strikes against "gathering threats", no more hard slogging on the "central fronts" (either Afghanistan or Iraq), a quick resolution to that whole Guantanomo problem, and no more need for the president to worry about what authorities he has to detain "enemy combatants", or whatever you want to call them? Well, no, no, no, and no.

Let's put aside that no one human being, only a government committee, could come up with something so awful as "Overseas Contingency Operation." Does it matter what you call it if Obama's policies are more or less consistent with those of his predecessor -- and, in the case of Pakistan at least, possibly even more far-reaching? Actually, yes.

As a former speechwriter for two secretaries of state, I'm a weary veteran of the Bush administration's struggles over what to call the global conflict formerly known as the War on Terror. I was a minor participant in the internal insurgency of sorts that pushed in 2005 to shelve the War on Terror in favor of some other name. More influential than I were such tree-hugging defeatists as Don Rumsfeld and many uniformed commanders. The alternative that arose, as my colleague Josh Keating reminds us, was the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism." This phrase, unlike the War on Terror, had the virtue of recognizing, 1) that the conflict was not entirely, or even predominantly, military in nature; and 2) that we were mostly fighting a set of ideas, not just the tactics their devotees employed.

Ultimately, though, and for what little it was worth, I was against this new slogan, too, for the simple reason that the government's acronym culture had already reduced it to the G-SAVE, and if there were ever a way to convince the more conspiratorial minds in the Muslim world that the United States really was a bunch of Christian crusaders out to conquer and convert them, this was it. Rather than make a big show out of dropping the War on Terror, I and some others preferred just to retire it quietly and not to replace it with anything. We could speak of fights, and confrontations, and violent extremism, and everyone would know what we were talking about. The policies wouldn't change. And we would avoid signalling that the most powerful nation on earth was at war with Islam, which though obviously wrong, most Muslims believed nonetheless.

There were good reasons to make this change, now as then. If you think this conflict is more akin to a "global counterinsurgency," as I came to believe, and as Secretary Condoleezza Rice both stated and wrote as recently as last year, then it is less a military struggle with a political component than a political struggle with a military component. That is to say, groups like al-Qaeda use violence not for its own sake, but to further an ideological agenda, win support for their cause, topple national governments, and subvert the established international order. This makes them, more accurately, insurgents. So our goal should to be to "protect the population" -- in this case, the Muslim communities worldwide whose interests and insecurities al-Qaeda exploits to gain their allegiance.

In this way, the tip of the spear is less special operations forces, as vital as they are, than civilian-led assistance efforts to help Muslim societies achieve justice, prosperity, and freedom for themselves. Needless to say, endless talk of a War on Terror, even while largely waging it as one, pushes the "population" away from us and toward the insurgents. This is a recipe for creating what Dave Kilcullen calls the Accidental Guerrilla.

There is a trade-off, however. 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, especially as memories of 9-11 fade even further and as more times passes (we hope) without another attack.

The Obama administration has now made this trade off, whether it knows it or not, and it did so most likely for "Anything But Bush" reasons above all. That said, it's a trade off I'm comfortable with, even though I would never, ever refer again to the "Overseas Contingency Operation." Ever. What matters most are Obama's policies, and with all due respect to Dick Cheney, I am less worried by the largely symbolic changes I've seen on that front -- for now at least.

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