WASHINGTON – President Bush in recent days has recast the global War on Terror into a "war against Islamic fascism." Fascism, in fact, seems to be the new buzz word for Republicans in an election season dominated by an unpopular war in Iraq.
Bush used the term earlier this month in talking about the arrest of suspected terrorists in Britain, and spoke of "Islamic fascists" in a later speech in Green Bay, Wis. Spokesman Tony Snow has used variations on the phrase at White House press briefings.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., in a tough re-election fight, drew parallels on Monday between World War II and the current war against "Islamic fascism," saying they both require fighting a common foe in multiple countries. It's a phrase Santorum has been using for months.
And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday took it a step further in a speech to an American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, accusing critics of the administration's Iraq and anti-terrorism policies of trying to appease "a new type of fascism."
White House aides and outside Republican strategists said the new description is an attempt to more clearly identify the ideology that motivates many organized terrorist groups, representing a shift in emphasis from the general to the specific.
"I think it's an appropriate definition of the war that we're in," said GOP pollster Ed Goeas. "I think it's effective in that it definitively defines the enemy in a way that we can't because they're not in uniforms."
But Muslim groups have cried foul. Bush's use of the phrase "contributes to a rising level of hostility to Islam and the American-Muslim community," complained Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Conservative commentators have long talked about "Islamo-fascism," and Bush's phrase was a slightly toned-down variation on that theme.
Dennis Ross, a Mideast adviser to both the first Bush and Clinton administrations and now the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he would have chosen different words.
"The `War on Terror' has always been a misnomer, because terrorism is an instrument, it's not an ideology. So I would always have preferred it to be called the `war with radical Islam,' not with Islam but with `radical Islam,"' Ross said.
Why even mention the religion? "Because that's who they are," Ross said. "Fascism had a certain definition. Whether they meet this or not, one thing is clear: They're radical. They represent a completely radical and intolerant interpretation of Islam."
While "fascism" once referred to the rigid nationalistic one-party dictatorship first instituted in Italy, it has "been used very loosely in all kinds of ways for a long time," said Wayne Fields, a specialist in presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis.
"Typically, the Bush administration finds its vocabulary someplace in the middle ground of popular culture. It seems to me that they're trying to find something that resonates, without any effort to really define what they mean," Fields said.
Pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said the "fascist" label may evoke comparisons to World War II and remind Americans of the lack of personal freedoms in fundamentalist countries. "But this could only affect public opinion on the margins," he said.
"Having called these people `evildoers,' fascism is just a new wrinkle," he said.
The tactic recalled the first President Bush's 1990 likening of Iraq's Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler.
"I caught hell on this comparison of Saddam to Hitler, with critics accusing me of personalizing the crisis, but I still feel it was an appropriate one," the elder Bush later wrote in a memoir.
It was one of the few times the younger Bush has followed his father's path on Iraq.
Charles Black, a longtime GOP consultant with close ties to both the first Bush administration and the current White House, said branding Islamic extremists as fascists is apt.
"It helps dramatize what we're up against. They are not just some ragtag terrorists. They are people with a plan to take over the world and eliminate everybody except them," Black said.
Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University, suggested White House strategists "probably had a focus group and they found the word `fascist.'
"Most people are against fascists of whatever form. By definition, fascists are bad. If you're going to demonize, you might as well use the toughest words you can," Wayne said.
After all, the hard-line Iranian newspaper Jomhuri Eskami did just that in an editorial last week blasting Bush's "Islamic fascism" phrase. It called Bush a "21st century Hitler" and British Prime Minister Tony Blair a "21st century Mussolini."