Stop calling it the ‘war on terror’

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

WHETHER or not a formal post-mortem into the Iraq war is launched by a newly Democrat-controlled Congress after Tuesday’s midterm elections, no one doubts that this has been a war, one without end. Yet one day it will end. Will we then still be at war? Were 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the London bombings, Madrid, Bali and the rest all just pages of the opening chapter in a long saga called the War on Terror?

For all their criticisms of the way President Bush has waged the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Democrats don’t challenge the central concept of the war on terror. They merely claim they could fight it better. Only a few intellectual Democrats, such as financier and philanthropist George Soros, insist that the very idea of the war on terror is, in his words, “a false metaphor.”

Most Europeans, by contrast, agree with Soros. I have argued the same point. British military historian Sir Michael Howard was prescient in a brilliant article in Foreign Affairs titled “What’s in a name?” and published just months after the 9/11 attacks. When then-Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the U.S. was “at war” with terrorism, wrote Howard, “he made a very natural but terrible and irrevocable error.” Apart from anything else, to use this language dignified the terrorists with the status of belligerents when they should have been treated as criminals. In a backhanded way, the coinage was itself a kind of glorification of terrorism.


Political words have consequences — especially when used by the most powerful nation on Earth — and one could plausibly suggest that much blood has flowed as a result of that choice of words.

It’s clearly the case that after Sept. 11, 2001, when the administration said “war,” it meant war in the familiar sense of trained people being commanded to go kill other people. In 2002, I asked a very senior administration official how this war on terror might end. He replied: “With the elimination of the terrorists.” Yes, from the outset officials acknowledged that this was no longer war in the classic sense of two uniformed armies meeting on a field of battle. Yet the decision to make Iraq a central theater of the war on terror was, among other things, a kind of desperate reaching back to a more conventional kind of warfare that the mightiest army in the history of the world could clearly and swiftly win. Or so they thought.

In the last week, I have heard two powerful arguments for retaining the word “war” to describe the essential character of the age we’re in. Lecturing in Oxford, Philip Bobbitt, the American historian and author of “The Shield of Achilles,” and Matthew d’Ancona, editor of the conservative British weekly the Spectator, both insisted that we should not throw out the baby of the “war on terror” with the bathwater of Iraq.

Both counter-posed the notion of war to that of combating crime, favored by many liberal Europeans. Yes, bad mistakes were made in Iraq, said D’Ancona, but the very nature of this war is so new that it was inevitable that big mistakes would be made. The new terrible trio of rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism cannot be beaten by the old Cold War trio of containment, deterrence and nonproliferation. Terrorists are waging a long-term psychological war, aimed at reducing us to a state of terror. This is not the Cold War, said D’Ancona, it’s the cold-sweat war.

Bobbitt, meanwhile, talked of no less than three wars on terror: against global-networked terrorists, against the proliferation of WMD and against large-scale natural and non-natural assaults on civilian infrastructure, from earthquakes and the consequences of global warming to genocide and ethnic cleansing. That just about covers all the bases.

Both made some strikingly similar claims, far removed from the initial gung-ho rhetoric of Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. This, D’Ancona and Bobbitt insisted, is a long-term, generational struggle, which requires patience as much as patriotism. Neither had a good word to say for Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. Both agreed that this war has to be fought within a framework of international law — which, however, must be adjusted to the new circumstances. And they emphasized the new context of what Bobbitt calls “market states,” in which citizens have become like consumers, with governments behaving like nervous company boards. Does the consumer not like the product? Withdraw it from the shelves at once. Our presence in Iraq, said D’Ancona, is being treated like a listed company whose shares on the stock exchange are in free fall.


These are important points, which a segment of the British and European left has already taken onboard.

They failed to convince me, however, that the term “war on terror” should not be thrown out. It wasn’t a good term to start with. Whatever the might-have-beens, it’s now inextricably associated with a discredited U.S. policy and a disastrous real war in Iraq. What would we lose by dropping it?

However, then we need an alternative. It might be better if international terrorists were treated as international criminals, but the overall metaphor of crime is not up to the job. A word that keeps popping up is “struggle.” In substance, that’s about right. This is a long-term struggle against multiple threats to free and open societies.

But the word “struggle” has its own baggage. It really won’t do in German; not since “Mein Kampf” anyway. In English — English English, that is — it has a faint echo of people handing out copies of Socialist Worker on street corners. No, I can’t see President John McCain or Hillary Clinton taking up “the struggle.” So I’m struggling to find a better term. Ideas, anyone?