Commentary Magazine


Maybe “On” Is the Problem

The Obama administration is searching for a new term to replace “war on terror.” This is both predictable and a waste of time: “War on terror” is imperfect but, actually, quite reasonable.

While there may be some advantage to a new administration’s distancing itself from its predecessor and signaling to the world that there’s a new sheriff in town, this is not even the Obama team’s stated motivation.

They say, “What’s being sought is a more precise phrase.” I’m not sure this is possible. The urge to be more precise is a recipe for trouble, because if the Obama administration really wants, as it says it does, to recast U.S. strategy “in ideological as well as military terms,” it might fall into a trap.

Consider this: if the word “terror” is the problem, the Obama team has its work cut out. Democrats used to accuse President Bush of blurring the lines between terror, “Islam, culture, and ideology. Fighting “terror” is a way of avoiding the “clash of civilizations” tag and embracing a more palatable concept, a technical description of the phenomenon the U.S. is trying to eliminate. Why would Obama now look for a more loaded term?

So, is “war” is the problem? Maybe that’s why Obama keeps talking about the “struggle” or “enduring struggle” against terrorism (and “extremism”). This is intended to convey the notion that the fight can’t be won by military means alone and that it’s really a battle for hearts and minds. But “struggle” is a weaker term than “war,” and one wonders if this heralds a weaker effort. If not, America’s enemies still might very well interpret it that way. Obama is best off keeping the term and explaining it to the world in his own way. Reasonable people can be easily convinced that the word “war” does not describe military means alone. And of course, reasonable people can also understand that a change of government does not mean that each and every policy of the preceding administration should be abandoned.