The Long War Over the “War on Terror”

Soon after he took office, Obama purposefully stopped using one of his predecessor's catchphrases. His refusal to say "war on terror" became a battering ram for conservatives, one now being used to oppose John Brennan as CIA Director.

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The soldiers memorial reads the date November 5, 2009 at a remembrance service recognizing the 13 victims killed in the Ft. Hood attacks on the one year anniversary in Killeen, Texas on November 5, 2010.

Soon after he took office in 2009, Obama purposefully stopped using one of his predecessor’s favorite catchphrases. Neither the President nor his counterterrorism team publically referred to the global war on terror. That refusal has been a battering ram for conservatives ever since, one that Rep. Michele Bachmann is now pushing as a reason to oppose John Brennan as CIA Director. In an op-ed published this week, the Tea Party darling decried Brennan’s nomination—in part because he does not refer to the “war on terror.”

Obama started explaining his distaste for the phrase in his presidency’s early days. “It is very important for us to recognize that we have a battle or a war against some terrorist organizations,” he said in a February 2009 interview on CNN. “But that those organizations aren’t representative of a broader Arab community, Muslim community … You know, words matter in this situation.” In other words, he says global war on terror is dangerously vague. He’s anxious to be clear that whatever conflict the U.S. has is with bad actors such as Al-Qaida, who may be Islamic, and not Islam itself.

Later that year, then counterterrorism advisor Brennan elaborated during a speech in Washington, D.C. The President doesn’t use the phrase war on terror, he said, because “terrorism is a tactic”—and no amount of success will ever allow Obama to promise that a tactic has been defeated. The President doesn’t use the descriptor global, Brennan said, because it supports “the misleading and dangerous notion that the U.S. is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world,” and makes groups like Al-Qaida sound like super-organized, supranational foes.

Critics such as Bachmann paint opposition to the phrase as a mistakenly narrow focus on Al-Qaida. (She quotes Brennan saying “We are not waging a war against terrorism …We are at war with Al Qaeda and its extremist allies.”) Critics such as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty have painted it as a kind of cowardice, a refusal to acknowledge the dangers of “radical Islamic terrorism” and an overweening concern about being politically correct.

Despite the Obama Administration’s public advocacy against the term, news outlets still use the terminology with abandon, too. A Lexis search turns up roughly 2,000 instances just in the past two weeks. Some pundits have wondered if it’s “making a comeback,” but war on terror never really went away. That fact is less an indication of agreement with conservatives, however, than a reflection of how clunky and vague the proposals for replacements have been. During Bush’s administration, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tried to popularize GSAVE: the “global struggle against violent extremism.” In a 2009 memo to Pentagon staffers, the Defense Department’s Office of Security asked speechwriters to use “overseas contingency operation.” Many government- and think tank-types have adopted an alternative that officials started using later in Obama’s first term—“countering violent extremism.” But everyman folks don’t sit in a booth at a diner downtown and chat about “CVE.”

War on terror “sums up an idea in the public mind,” says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s very specific and correct about what Americans wanted to defeat [after 9/11].” As intellectually inaccurate as it might be to wage war on a tactic, Hurlburt says, the threat of terrorism is exactly what Americans wanted to be rid of after the towers fell. (And still do, she says, even if they’re less willing to believe that eradication is possible.) A promise of war was also the only natural response for Bush, given how strongly people wanted to respond, she says, and the military aspect of America’s fight against terrorism has been front and center ever since. So war has remained.

When the Afghanistan drawdown is complete, a promise Obama renewed in Tuesday’s speech, the “war on terror” era may seem at an end, and the political battles over the terminology may end, too. But when historians chronicle the early 2000s, Hurlburt gambles, they’ll be boldfacing “War on Terror” in their textbooks. If so, that will solidify at least one truth: it’s really hard to supplant a catchy phrase.