Addressing a joint session of Congress a little over a week after the United States was attacked by al Qaeda terrorists, President George W. Bush stated that the nation was now engaged in a “war on terror” that would involve conventional military action, covert intelligence operations, and disruption of terrorist financing.
The phrase and the commentary surrounding it illustrated both the highly unusual, even unprecedented, nature of the war and the elastic nature of the U.S. government response. Both of these factors explain why it has been impossible to bring the resulting military action to a definitive conclusion.
First, notice what President Bush’s message was not: a request that Congress declare war, even though “war on terror” may have been the most enduring linguistic coinage from the address. Congress has not fulfilled this constitutional duty since WWII. In a way, both the executive and legislative branches get what they want from this state of affairs: a President gets to act with maximum freedom to act, while Congress possesses plausible deniability if a war to which it has explicitly acquiesced goes awry.
Early on, U.S. intelligence determined that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were carried out by al-Qaeda, a terrorist network with training camps in Afghanistan. But unlike, say, WWI and WWII, where the United States deemed that foreign governments were directly involved in infringing on American sovereignty, the U.S. sought to get at the perpetrators of 9/11 initially by confronting a party indirectly responsible: the Taliban regime that allowed al-Qaeda to flourish within its borders.
The nomenclature of a war how it will be prosecuted and, decades later, how it will be perceived. The conflict that raged for four years after the firing on Fort Sumter was known, particularly among Northerners, as the “War of the Rebellion.” (Its primary documents are known as The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, or the “O.R.” for short among historians.)
As an “Opinionator” blog post in The New York Times’ by Chandra Manning and Adam Rothman a few years ago noted, calling secession a “rebellion” enabled the federal government to invoke the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8 authority granted to “suppress Insurrections,” and Article I, Section 9 to suspend the writ of habeas corpus for the same contingency.
It was only after 1881, when former Confederate President Jefferson Davis began to refer to it as the “Civil War,” that Union advocates adopted it. (Manning and Rothman note that the new term was more conciliatory than “War of the Rebellion,” but there may have been another reason why it caught on: it was shorter. That convenience probably led them to resist southern sympathizers’ attempt at a more nakedly ideological phrase for the conflict: “The War Between the States.”)
The “War on Terror” (soon known as the “Global War on Terror,” or the bureaucratic shorthand GWOT) was seemingly designed both to describe the asymetric warfare of the enemy and to seize the moral high ground claimed by victims. But it also opened the doors to a situation difficult, if not impossible, to resolve. (No sooner would the resources of al-Qaeda be dramatically reduced, for instance, than ISIS rose from its ashes.)
At the same time, a broader name for the war allowed the Bush administration to push to the limit of public opinion. Within three days of 9/11, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and even Bush himself were requesting reports on possible Iraqi involvement with the attacks—and expressing annoyance when intelligence agencies did not turn up credible evidence of this. (See, for instance, this account of the preparations for the Iraq war with Iraq by Joyce Battle, senior analyst for the National Security Archive at George Washington University.)
Had Bush delivered a sharply focused message after 9/11, he could have confined military and political objectives to the demands he made on the Taliban in Afghanistan (e.g., “Deliver to United States authorities all of the leaders of Al Qaeda who hide in your land”). Those demands might have involved time to bring to a successful conclusion, even bloodshed. But they would not have required a constant change in priorities with new countries and organizations in this regional drama.
Bush thrust these new actors to the forefront only four months later in his next State of the Union address. Not without some controversy, he denounced an “Axis of Evil” of state-sponsored terrorism: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the mullahs of Iran, and one of the last surviving Communist regimes, North Korea.
Linguistic purists might have noted that the original Axis powers that inflicted World War II on the world were already dictatorial, so the “Axis of Evil” was a redundant phrase and the trio might have been better called “the New Axis.”
But the Bush Administration missed an even larger point: in the run-up to WWII, Germany, Italy and Germany were formally bound by treaty, facilitating the military actions of each around the globe. In contrast, 21st-century Iraq, Iran and North Korea might have been hostile to the U.S., but had shown no inclination to cooperate militarily. (In fact, tensions between Iraq and Iran remained high, only a dozen years after a drawn-out, bloody war between the two.)
Moreover, none of the three could be shown to have aided al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks. The “Axis of Evil,” then, was an advertising slogan more than an actual structure of international affairs. If you want to be charitable, you could call it a metaphor.
But the use of metaphor was a huge part of the problem with the term “the war on terror” itself, which was no more of a metaphor than WWI, WWII, or any other 20th-century American war. Thousands of service personnel are not put in harm’s way for a “metaphor.”
There have been instances when “war” has been used, correctly, as a metaphor: Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” and a phrase that Jimmy Carter borrowed from philosopher William James to describe his energy conservation program: “the moral equivalent of war.” If any of these “campaigns” resemble the war on terror, however, it lies in the meager results achieved despite immense Presidential ambitions and government expenditures.
The War on Terror not only defined Bush’s presidency, but limited the options, linguistic and otherwise, of his successor. In a 2010 article in The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder pointed to a new initiative of the Obama Administration, intended to replace the War on Terror: Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).
The new term, meant to promote the use of “soft power” in stemming terrorism, displays none of the imagination of its predecessor, however. It reeks of the bloodless bureaucrat, someone ready to talk an issue to death rather than to solve it. It’s death by linguistic rather than military drone.