Re-Naming the War: It's Not Just Semantics

Top officials of the Bush administration have changed the way that they talk about terrorism. They have stopped speaking of a “war on terrorism.” Thinking it too narrowly defined, they now talk of a “struggle against global extremism.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calls it a “global struggle against the enemies of freedom, the enemies of civilization.”

Although this change may seem to be mere semantics, it represents something much more important: a clear-headed redefinition of America’s long-range strategic aims. It may not alter U.S. tactics or goals in the short run, but it could, over time, profoundly affect the way Americans think about the conflict against radical Islamic terrorist groups.

The administration made the change for several reasons. The term “war on terror” focused too much attention on the military side of the campaign. Other efforts, such as homeland security, law enforcement and international diplomacy, weren’t captured by a phrase that conjures images of soldiers in uniform combating other soldiers in uniform -- something the current struggle decidedly is not.

Saying “war on terror” also overlooked the ideological component of the struggle. Radical groups employing terrorism against governments and civilians have an agenda: to destroy certain governments, challenge certain Western values of civilization, and erect in their place their own governments and notions of culture and religion.

Finally, the change overcomes a well-known weakness in the term “war on terrorism.” Terrorism is a tactic employed by people to achieve certain political purposes. The new, broader approach captures not only the enemy’s political intent but suggests more precisely that our efforts will be a long-term “struggle” that may not have a termination date. Unlike with a war, there will be no simple peace treaty.

Of the two new terms the Bush administration is using, Rumsfeld’s “struggle against the enemies of freedom and civilization” is the better. For one thing, it avoids making the mistake of replacing one inadequate term for the enemy with another -- namely, replacing “terrorism” with “extremism.” If “extremism” alone were the problem -- as opposed to the fact that certain extremists use terror as a weapon -- then we’d be waging war on non-violent groups outside the political and religious mainstream.

But we’re not, and for good reason: Non-violent groups aren’t threatening anybody. The problem is the use of terror, not whether their views are “extreme” or not. We are fighting Al Qaeda and its allies precisely because they are bombing people. We should be challenging not only their terrorist tactics, but their ideology, which leads them to kill in the name of religion.

In addition, Rumsfeld’s description better captures the real principle at stake: These “enemies of freedom and civilization” are using violence not just to kill innocent people, but to deprive them of their freedom. If Usama bin Laden and his cohorts ever manage to create their ideal society, not only will the people who live under its boot suffer a loss of freedom, so will the rest of us.

The administration still appears squeamish about naming radical Islam by name. It’s true that America opposes any ideological group that employs terrorism, but it’s also true that we are, correctly, fixated on radical Islamic groups. Yet we hesitate to emphasize this for fear of offending innocent Muslims or alienating potential allies.

Might something be wrong still with our stated policy if we cannot articulate an obvious fact about our strategic aims? It’s one thing to be tactically clever and not alienate innocent people or potential allies. But it is another if that reluctance blurs the reality of our objectives and confuses people about who our enemy really is and what really is at stake.

As British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently said, “The best defense of the Muslim community in this country is … for the mainstream Muslim community to take on the extremists within their midst, within our midst.” Blair recognizes that this struggle won’t be won unless Muslims themselves become as outraged as non-Muslims when terrorists defame Islam far more than any Gitmo soldier or any U.S. official’s slip of the tongue could ever do.

Sometimes it’s a good thing to speak plainly. The Bush administration has rightly made a course correction in one of its most important slogans. The next step should be to think more seriously about how to articulate the struggle in such a way that freedom-loving Muslims all over the world will want to unite to rid the scourge of violent extremism from their midst.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is vice president of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.