Commentary Magazine


At War with the English Language

The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

That’s the takeaway from this interview Rice did on CNN. Apparently, whether or not we call this a war is up to you, the public. The administration isn’t really sure, so they’re going to crowdsource it, Wikipedia-style. Here’s Rice telling Wolf Blitzer that what’s important is not whether you call a war a war but that you just follow your heart, man:

I don’t know whether you want to call it a war or sustained counterterrorism campaign. I think, frankly, this is a counterterrorism operation that will take time. It will be sustained. We will not have American combat forces on the ground fighting as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan which is what I think the American people think of when they think of a war. So I think this is very different from that. But nonetheless, we’ll be dealing with the significant threat to this region, to American personnel in the region and potentially also to Europe and the United States. And we’ll be doing it with partners. We’ll not be fighting ourselves on the ground but using American air power as we have been over the last several weeks as necessary.

Now, it should be noted that Rice’s opinion is consistent with some but not all such statements by current American officials, because a coherent vision has not and will not be forthcoming from the White House. Here’s John Kerry, saying it’s not a war:

The U.S. is not at war with ISIS, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted today, describing the military campaign outlined by President Obama as “a counterterrorism operation of a significant order.”

And yet at today’s White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest changed tune:

And the Pentagon:

How the administration sees this war is important not only for the constitutional implications, which are serious enough. It’s also because the way officials are describing it gives us an indication of their overarching strategy. There’s no question ISIS is a terrorist group, and thus the administration certainly isn’t wrong in saying that combating ISIS will require elements of counterterrorism.

But ISIS is also more than just a terrorist group. It may not be a state, as the president said in his speech. But that doesn’t mean it’s without state-like characteristics, and that matters for how the U.S. military will approach rolling it back and ultimately defeating it.

As I wrote last week, ISIS’s declarations of statehood may just be bluster, but they indicate something else: that ISIS is operating as if Iraq, Syria, and its other targets are not states either. Most of the terrorist groups the West has fought in the global war on terror were either state-like and static–think the Taliban, Hezbollah, or Hamas–or fluid and less interested in collapsing existing states and declaring their own, like the al-Qaeda groups and affiliates that try to hit American and Western targets.

With ISIS, although there is concern they could try to attack the homeland, the primary threat does not appear to be random suicide bombers or even training grounds for wannabe jihadis. (Though the number of European passport holders flocking to ISIS territory raises that threat as well.) What ISIS has done is essentially put together a kind of standing army that seeks to capture and hold strategic territory. As the terrorism scholar William McCants told the site ThinkProgress earlier this week with regard to an influential 2004 jihadist manifesto and its similarities with ISIS tactics:

“The key idea in the book is that you need to carry out attacks on a local government and sensitive infrastructure — tourism and energy in particular,” McCants said. “That causes a local government to pull in security resources to protect that infrastructure that will open up pockets where there is no government — a security vacuum.”

ISIS has operated similarly in Iraq and Syria…

There’s an actual strategy here, and it’s not just about causing mayhem and it’s not just about targeting symbols of the West. Principles of counterterrorism can be very helpful in fighting ISIS, but an army on the march demands more than that. Which is why the language from the commander in chief on down is so important.

Perhaps they’re getting it right. Today’s briefings seem to mark a shift toward admitting we’re at war. But that will also require dropping the silly word games meant to deride ISIS, as if taunting them will bring victory or minimizing the threat will attract more global support for the war. The president needs to get the terminology right, and then get the strategy right. At the moment, officials are giving off the impression that they’re not quite sure what they’ve gotten us into.

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