Pollster Andrew Kohut has asked a lot of people about the “war on terror,” and he thinks the phrase has worked out just fine. When Kohut, who is director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, learned that Bush administration officials were moving away from the phrase “global war on terrorism” toward the wordier “global struggle against violent extremism,” he was not impressed.
“I don’t understand the rationale,” said Kohut. “Maybe they don’t want to be seen as pushing wars. But it’s hard to argue against a ‘war on terror,’ especially two weeks after London. Given what I’ve seen about the way people react to terrorism, both here and around the world, to not use that word is to take something away from public support for this concept.”
On the other hand, since pollsters have recorded a drop in support this year for the American-led war on terror, “maybe it’s a plot to make it more difficult for us to ask questions,” he joked. “It’s a real mouthful.”
Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and farmer who is a favorite of some in the Bush administration for his unabashed (and literate) support of the war in Iraq, thinks it’s a step in the right direction, but only a small one. He heard from a lot of colleagues last week -- “defense policy people, wonks, people in the Pentagon, other academics,” he said -- and no one was excited about the new wording.
Indeed, the phrase “war on terror,” which came into common usage after Sept. 11, has often been criticized by pundits and politicians alike as being maddeningly imprecise. A war against a technique -- terrorism -- rather than an enemy, would be impossible to win, let alone quantify.
Which is why Hanson thought the impulse to change the slogan -- at least the “terror” part -- was a good one. “The old expression was wrong because there’s never been a war that I know of in history that’s been waged against a method. We didn’t go to war against kamikazes or submarines.”
The rationale for the change was spelled out last Monday by Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. According to a transcript of the event, Myers said he does not like the phrase “war on terrorism” because “if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution.... The long-term problem is as much diplomatic, as much economic -- in fact, more diplomatic, more economic, more political than it is military.”
Throughout his conversation with reporters, which was first reported by the New York Times, Myers repeatedly used the phrase “violent extremism,” corrected himself when he used the word “terrorism” and even once referred to the “so-called war on terrorism.”
Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate, thinks the change is overdue. “Of course, I do agree with Gen. Myers,” he said from Martha’s Vineyard on Friday. “It should have been characterized this way from the beginning. I think the administration’s motives in calling it a ‘global war’ are transparent. I think the motives were to appeal to public sentiment and gain political support, which came at the expense of creating a proper strategy for success.”
Clark embraces the word “struggle” because it is broader and more inclusive than “war.”
As for replacing “terrorism” with “violent extremism,” said Hanson, even that is not an entirely accurate description of the enemy. “It’s the same inexactness” it’s trying to remedy, he said. “The honest thing would be to call it ‘radical Islam.’ ” An even more precise slogan, said Hanson, would be “the war against radical Islamism.” (“Radical Islamism” is a term often used by policy-makers and others to describe ideological extremists who use this religion to justify acts of violence.)
The problem, Hanson said, is that most Americans don’t know the difference between Islam and Islamism. The best descriptions of enemies are the most precise ones, he said. For example, he said, Woodrow Wilson didn’t talk about militarism, he spoke of “Prussian militarism.” Abraham Lincoln and his generals, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant didn’t talk about “plantationism,” said Hanson, they talked about the “Southern plantationist.”
“They never said, ‘We’re at war with people who own plantations or slave owners.’ They said, ‘We’re at war with people who own slaves and are Confederates and who are Southern.’ The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free the slaves in the border states or in the North, because they really wanted to target the people who were causing the problems.” For this reason, said Hanson, “it would be wiser to say we are at war with radical Islam, and if anybody can’t figure out the difference [between Islam and radical Islam], that’s their problem.”
The “global struggle against violent extremism” may not have the zippy feel of a phrase like “war on terror” or “axis of evil,” but even the writer who came up with “axis of evil” thinks the change in phraseology is a positive move. “It’s very good,” said David Frum, an author and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, “because it broadens the problem.”
Calling a “war” a “struggle,” he said, gets at the notion that “things do seem to happen very slowly.” And while it might be more accurate to label the enemy “radical Islam,” Frum said the U.S. government is loath to make any classifications on the basis of religion.
“The census doesn’t even ask about religion, so while we know how many Americans there are of Estonian descent, we don’t even know how many Roman Catholics there are because we don’t count them,” said Frum. What we are witnessing, he added, “is the government struggling to overcome its own internal taboos to arrive at a clear assessment of the problem.
“It’s taken a long time,” he said, “maybe too long, but it’s also a very difficult problem, and the taboos, some of them, became taboos for awfully good reasons.”