The Word War

Whatever happened to the "War on Terror"?

By Andrei Cherny

Tagged national securityWar on Terror

The word went out four days before Admiral Michael Mullen was sworn in as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On September 27, 2007, an “all hands” email was sent to the members of the Joint Staff’s J-5 section, its directorate for strategic plans and policy. It read: “Today, we have received clear direction from Adm Mullen (incoming CJCS) regarding the phrase ‘Global War on Terror’. He does not like this reference and we are not to use this in any future correspondence. Review your letters, orders, JSAPs [Joint Staff Action Processing], and presentations to ensure this reference is removed. Ensure strict compliance.”

Perhaps this edict will be overruled; perhaps it will have been
overruled by the time this essay appears. But it is notable as one in a
long series of examples of prominent Americans’ terminological
disquietude with the phrase “War on Terror.” In 2005, then–Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld trotted out the phrase “Global Struggle against
Violent Extremism” as a replacement before it was struck down by the
Bush White House. The usually clear-eyed political reporter and
essayist Joe Klein has advocated a “Global Police Action against
Terrorists.” Among 2008 presidential candidates, while Senators Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama have said that they do believe America is in a
War on Terror, former Senator John Edwards has disagreed, decrying the
term as a “bumper sticker” slogan. Among Republicans, former New York
City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has said it “served its purpose for awhile”
but should now be replaced with the infantile “The Terrorist War
against Us”–the national security version of kindergarten arguments
over “who started it.” Even President George Bush, the leader most
associated with the “War on Terror” told an audience at Tippecanoe High
School in Tipp City, Ohio in April that: “Now we’re involved in a–I
call it a ‘Global War against Terror.’ You can call it a ‘Global War
against Extremists,’ a ‘Global War against Radicals,’ a ‘Global War
against People Who Want to Hurt America.’ You can call it whatever you
want, but it is a global effort.”

The roiling conversation over how to name the conflict that began on
September 11, 2001, speaks to an unease that surrounds both nouns in
the phrase “War on Terror.” For some, it is the word “terror” that
sticks in their craw. It is better to have a “War on Islamofascism,”
say neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz. Other literal-minded souls
concur. “Why would we declare war on a tactic?” asks retired General
Anthony Zinni, a Scowcroftian realist. But a “War on Terror” is not the
same as a “War on Terrorism,” and wars are often named in ways that do
not spell out the name of the enemy. What we now call “World War I” was
commonly referred to as the “Great War” or the “War to End All Wars”
until the early 1940s. Indeed, wars are rarely named in ways that
explain every dot and tiddle. One wonders whether some of these same
pedants would have insisted that Franklin Roosevelt summon the nation
into a “War on Nazism, Fascism, and Imperialism.”

But, more than the word “terror,” it is the word “war” that has been
the source of significant discomfort. This is in large part because
American leaders continue to depict the war in terms that do not ring
true. When Bush discusses the conflict, the historical analogy he
returns to most often is that of the military battle waged by Roosevelt
and Winston Churchill and armies of millions against Hitler’s Reich and
Hirohito’s Empire. On the other hand, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential
nominee, Senator John Kerry, would habitually describe the war as
“primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires
cooperation around the world”–something akin to the low-grade efforts
against narco-traffickers in the “war on drugs.” Neither analogy–nor
the policy approaches that stem from them–makes sense.

Despite all the blunders and bluster that have so far surrounded the
term, the phrase “War on Terror” is the right one. It is just that the
nature of “war” has changed dramatically from that envisioned by either
Bush or his critics–and the “terror” we’re fighting is not the one that
has been conventionally portrayed.

Rightly understood, the War on Terror is not primarily, though it to
some extent is, a military conflict. In the Information Age, war is not
solely a function of the clash of armies, or is it primarily a test of
intelligence-sharing and police raids like the war on drugs. The threat
we face is not just from terrorist cells, but from a cancerous
worldview. The War on Terror is best compared to the Cold War–a
long-term, global, ideological struggle that will be waged on every
continent, occasionally flare into armed conflict, and be ultimately
won not by imposing our will but by the power of our good works and
example in convincing ordinary people around the world that democracy
and open markets are a better choice for them than religious despotism
and closed economies.

Both parties have mentioned such a foreign policy strategy. But
beyond the intermittent rhetorical flourish, neither has embraced its
full ramifications.

This should not be surprising. During its 40 years, and since, the
nature of the Cold War has been a subject of debate and
misunderstanding. Some saw it as primarily a military showdown. This
included the conservatives who once rallied around Curtis LeMay’s
Strategic Air Command bombers and who today believe the Iron Curtain
disappeared because of Ronald Reagan’s arms buildup, as well as the
liberals who believed that the conflict could be eased by arms control
negotiations and a nuclear freeze. Others, from Henry Kissinger on the
right to George Kennan on the left, viewed the Cold War as a
realpolitik battle between competing great powers whose diplomacy
needed to pay little heed to the moral considerations of those caught
in the crossfire. But, ultimately, the Cold War ended on neither the
battlefield nor the negotiating table, but at a shipyard in Gdansk, on
Hungary’s western border, and atop the carcass of the Berlin Wall. It
was not Mr. Gorbachev or Mr. Reagan who tore down that wall, but
anonymous Germans who believed that democracy and freedom were just and
right and would bring them better lives.

Rising out of the cinders of World War II, the Cold War was a
harbinger of a new kind of conflict, one waged with both arms and ideas
for both territory and hearts and minds. As such, it was a bridge to
the twenty-first century struggles of which the War on Terror will only
be the first.

The past six years, however, have seen both progressives and
conservatives approach the current conflict with a pre-9/11 mindset,
one that, at best, puts the contest of ideas and persuasion on the
second tier. One of the most pernicious side effects of Bush’s foreign
policy disasters is that America has lost the faith of the world just
at the moment we need it most. Over the course of this decade,
favorable views of America have fallen from 78 percent to 37 percent in
Germany, 50 to 23 percent in Spain, 75 to 30 percent in Indonesia, and
52 to 12 percent in Turkey. Yet victory in the War on Terror requires
convincing people in these places to embrace America and the democratic
values for which it stands. As such, it is representative of many very
different kinds of wars that America will face–and it will demand a new
kind of foreign policy for a globalized, democratized, Information Age

Since the birth of the modern nation-state system with the Treaty of
Westphalia 360 years ago, two salient features largely defined the
practice of diplomacy. First, in most countries, a small number of
people held all power and rationed information. Second, the preeminent
threats to a country came from other countries.

These features held true 250, 100, even 25 years ago. They are no
longer true today. America, which set out at the start of the twentieth
century to make the world safe for democracy, now searches for a safe
path in a democratic world. Today, of the nearly 200 countries in the
world, 123 are democracies where governments are chosen by the people
at large. As the indefatigable bloggers of Beijing are demonstrating,
dictatorships have an increasingly difficult time shutting down the
flow of free information. And despite terrible bloodshed in many spots
on the globe, the most potentially devastating threats in the coming
years will come not from marching armies but from dangers that do not
know borders and cannot easily be contained in this interconnected
world: nuclear terrorism, climate change, endemic poverty, and epidemic

In the old system, war was largely confined to confronting military
opponents on a battlefield–the kind we saw in the opening days of the
war in Iraq. The work of diplomacy largely meant speaking to other
leaders in drawing rooms and embassies. In the new system, the
post-occupation war in Iraq or the War on Terror itself are typical of
conflicts that cannot ultimately be won only by killing off an enemy;
rather they require changing attitudes–convincing a young man that
there is a better future available to him than strapping himself to a
bomb. Today, diplomacy takes place not only at summits, but in the
valleys where people live. American leaders must convince not only
other heads of state to sign treaties or take action. They must be
equally able to convince a factory owner in China to switch to energy
efficient light bulbs, a taxi driver in Nairobi to use a condom with
his girlfriend, and a father in Yemen that his boys–and girls–need an
education beyond the medieval mysticism of Islamist madrassas.

When America’s “approval rating” plummets as it has in recent years,
it is not merely unfortunate; it is a national security threat as
serious as a missile gap or lack of naval strength would have been in
years past. To be sure, there might be times when America will have to
stay on a course even if there is not a single person in a single other
country who thinks we’re right. But, overall, the faith in widely
dispersed wisdom that underlies our very democracy should also be
extended to what the Declaration of Independence calls “a decent
respect to the opinions of mankind.”

Winning back the admiration and allegiance of people around the world
will require more than sending Karen Hughes to Cairo and Karl Rove to
Hollywood. It will mean demonstrating to people in far-flung countries
that America is working to improve their lives and that it believes
their future is inextricably linked to ours. It will mean seeing a
dictator such as Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf as an opponent of
America’s work, not an ally. Most importantly, it will require a new
approach to our present conflict: an understanding that we won’t be
successful until we stop arguing about renaming the War on Terror and
start redefining it. The “terror” we should be confronting is not just
that which we face from terrorism, but the terror they face from
despair. And battling that terror will require every weapon America has
in its arsenal for this new kind of war.

Read more about national securityWar on Terror

Andrei Cherny is the author of The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour.

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