WASHINGTON – The “War on Terror” is losing the war of words. The catchphrase burned into the American lexicon hours after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is fading away, slowly if not deliberately being replaced by a new administration bent on repairing the U.S. image among Muslim nations.
Since taking office less than two weeks ago, President Barack Obama has talked broadly of the “enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.” Another time it was an “ongoing struggle.”
He has pledged to “go after” extremists and “win this fight.” There even was an oblique reference to a “twilight struggle” as the U.S. relentlessly pursues those who threaten the country.
But only once since his Jan. 20 inauguration has Obama publicly strung those three words together into the explosive phrase that coalesced the country during its most terrifying time and eventually came to define the Bush administration.
Speaking at the State Department on Jan. 22, Obama told his diplomatic corps, “We are confronted by extraordinary, complex and interconnected global challenges: war on terror, sectarian division and the spread of deadly technology. We did not ask for the burden that history has asked us to bear, but Americans will bear it. We must bear it.”
During the past seven years, the “War Against Terror” or “War on Terror” came to represent everything the U.S. military was doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the broader effort against extremists elsewhere or those seen as aiding militants aimed at destroying the West.
Ultimately and perhaps inadvertently, however, the phrase “became associated in the minds of many people outside the Unites States and particularly in places where the countries are largely Islamic and Arab, as being anti-Islam and anti-Arab,” said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Now, he said, there is a sense that the U.S. should be talking more about specific extremist groups — ones that are recognized as militants in the Arab world and that are viewed as threats not just to America or the West, but also within the countries they operate.
The thinking has evolved, he said, to focus on avoiding the kind of rhetoric “which could imply that this was a struggle against a religion or a culture.”
Obama has made it clear in his first days in office that he is courting the Muslim community and making what is at least a symbolic shift away from the previous administration’s often more combative tone.
He chose an Arab network for his first televised interview, declaring that “Americans are not your enemy.” Before his first full week in office ended, he named former Sen. George J. Mitchell as his special envoy for the Middle East and sent him to the region for talks with leaders.
According to the White House, Obama is intent on repairing America’s image in the eyes of the Islamic world and addressing issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unrest in Pakistan and India, Arab-Israeli peace talks and tensions with Iran.
Using language is one way to help effect that change, said Wayne Fields, professor of English and American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
“One of the contrasts between the two administrations is the care with which Obama uses language. He thinks about the subtle implications,” said Fields, an expert on presidential rhetoric. The Bush administration “didn’t set out deliberately to do things that were offensive but they liked to do things that showed how strong they were, and to use language almost in an aggressive sense.”
Obama, he said, understands that language and conversation must be worked at and that it’s “not just a series of sound bites.”
White House officials say there has been no deliberate ban on the war-on-terror phrase. And it hasn’t completely disappeared. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has used the wording in briefings, and it’s still in vogue among some in the Pentagon and State Department.
Asked about Obama’s avoidance of the phrase, Gibbs said the president’s language is “consistent with what he said in his inaugural address on the 20th. I’m not aware of any larger charges than that.”
Juan Zarate, who served as the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism during the Bush administration, said he has seen signs that the new White House is trying to subtly retool the words, if not the war.
“There’s no question that they’re looking very carefully at all issues related to how the war on terror is packaged, to include lexicon,” said Zarate. “All of this is part of an attempt to see how they could at least frame a change in policy even if, at the end of the day, the actual war on terrorism doesn’t change all that much.”