One of the most intriguing aspects of the Obama administration’s still-evolving counter-terrorism policy is the move away from the term “war on terror.” This change of terminology is too significant to be accidental, and almost certainly reflects a concerted effort to locate terrorism in its proper place within the panoply of threats facing the country. If so, it’s a welcome change.
It all started when the new head of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, in her confirmation hearings, used the term “man-made disaster” rather than terrorism. For this, she was mercilessly mocked by conservative blogs and commentators. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton recently joined Ms. Napolitano by declaring that she too has stopped using the phrase “global war on terror.” No doubt, she too, will be subjected to an onslaught of criticism. But critics should recognize the benefits of stepping back from a counter-terrorism policy that is framed only in terms of war.
This change in terminology allows the Obama administration to distance itself linguistically from the policies of the past eight years and the distasteful linkages to abused detainees and midnight flights to torture. It also sets the stage for a move from a purely militaristic reaction to terrorism to a more nuanced response that recognizes the role of policing and criminal justice and, hopefully, building relations with affected communities. Such a move was, of course, presaged by President Obama’s initial executive orders (ordering the closure of the detention facility at Guantànamo Bay, for example) and his decision to end the indefinite military detention of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri and instead bring criminal charges against him. While the legal implications of the change in terminology remain to be seen, the jettisoning of the war metaphor is of enormous significance for the countries and the communities that have been most affected by post-9/11 counter-terrorism laws and policies.
Around the world, in countries with significant Muslim populations, the US is viewed with suspicion and hostility. In these countries, many believe that the “war on terror” is a proxy term for “war on Islam” and that the West—led by the United States—is bent on the destruction of their religion. The war metaphor naturally feeds into this perception. In the face of the West’s “war,” some justify the use of the opposing war metaphor of “jihad.” By declaring war on Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, the United States treated them as the functional equivalent of a nation state, thus elevating their standing and nudging many to join their ranks.
Will abandoning the war metaphor change how the Muslim world perceives US counter-terrorism policy? Not by itself. But changing the terms of the discussion signals a willingness to shift the paradigm, and such a signal from the government of Barack Hussain Obama could well find a receptive audience. Over time, and if accompanied by appropriate policy change, a new discourse would diminish the sense that all Muslims everywhere are under attack and allow the governments of Muslim majority countries to cooperate more fully and openly with the US in combating terrorism.
The change in metaphor will also certainly be a welcome change for the Muslim communities in the United States. Recent data show that while Muslim Americans are on the whole very moderate politically, over three-quarters believe that the US war on terrorism is not a sincere effort—in other words, that there is another motive behind the “war on terror.” It is not a stretch to say that most believe that this motive relates in some way to the suppression of Islam. Yet these are the very communities on which the FBI and local police departments depend for information that is used to thwart terrorist plots. If these communities are convinced that, in exposing terrorism, they are reporting criminal activity rather than actions that are part of a greater geo-political and religious struggle, they are far more likely to come forward. In terms of recruitment, too, participating in a criminal conspiracy would be far less attractive to would-be violent radicals than fighting in a global war.
Credit must be given to the Obama administration for shifting the dialogue to reflect the reality that terrorism is not a simple enemy that can be fought to the finish, but rather an ongoing challenge that requires a variety of strategies, some military, some not. The zero-sum game paradigm has shifted; it remains to be seen if policy will follow.