The War on What, Exactly?

At the end of August, George Bush admitted to host Matt Lauer of the Today show that he didn't think the United States could win the war on terror. John Kerry's campaign immediately countered that the war was of course winnable, accused the president of flip-flopping, and said Bush had sent the wrong message to America's enemies. The next day the president reversed course and forcefully asserted that the United States was winning the war and would prevail. To further confuse things, a week later Dick Cheney told a group of Iowans that if John Kerry were elected, America would slip back into a pre-9/11 mindset and treat future attacks as criminal acts instead of part of the broader war on terror. If voters made the wrong choice on Election Day, he warned, America was in danger of being hit by a devastating strike.

The stories received prominent play and were appropriately framed in the context of the election in a broad cross-section of papers, including The New York Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. But there was little effort by the major newspapers or TV news operations to deal with the substance of these competing assessments of the war. Really, though, how could they have? What, after all, is the war on terror? It's certainly the war against al Qaeda. But is it the war in Iraq? Does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict qualify as a front? What about North Korea? For that matter, who are terrorists? Osama bin Laden surely counts. But how about Moktada al-Sadr's army? Or ETA, the Basque separatists? Or the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria? For that matter, what about the IRA?

Three years after the United States attacked Afghanistan, it is extremely difficult for the press to gauge where the United States stands in the war on terror because the term itself obscures distinction. Even a presidential campaign that turned largely on the war on terror failed to bring clarity. So now, two questions: How seriously did the press err in adopting the shorthand of the political establishment to describe America's response to 9/11? And, what should it do now that the terminology has been naturalized into the vernacular?

To answer those questions, it's worth revisiting the political tradition in which the phrase is rooted. War, the American philosopher William James argued, is "the only force that can discipline a whole community." As such, we declared metaphorical wars on social crises for much of the twentieth century. This kind of rhetoric made practical and political sense when used to spur the public to dedicate resources to cure diseases like polio and cancer. Things were messier, though, when a succession of presidents declared war against the less curable problems of poverty, crime, and drugs. Like the battles against disease, these wars focused the public's attention. But they were politically trickier because they were essentially endless. No president was ever going to wipe out crime or poverty. Moreover, they were waged against problems that are seated, to some degree, in behavior, which at times made it difficult to distinguish whom these wars were meant to defeat and whom they were supposed to help. The war on terror – which actually was declared first by the Reagan administration and used to justify an array of policies involving Nicaragua, Iran, and Libya – falls into this latter category.

Throughout the 1990s, the press treated the war on terror similarly to the war on crime and the war on drugs, more as a metaphor for the government's broad efforts to kill and prosecute terrorists than as a full-blown military campaign. Then on September 20, 2001, President Bush, in his defining address to Congress, recast the metaphor as a literal war. He painted in broad strokes. "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda," he said, "but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated." The enemy he described was as amorphous as the war's scope. They were, he said, the heirs of Nazism and totalitarianism whose murderous ideology valued only power. They hated the American way of life, freedom, elections, and the press, and they intended to purge vast regions of the Middle East and Asia of Jews and Christians. He then bifurcated the world into two camps: those who were with the United States, and those who were with the terrorists. Beginning the following day, the American press wove "war on terror" into tens of thousands of news reports, features, and editorials to describe the logic for policies ranging from the Homeland Security Act to the Iraq war.

Setting aside the political and practical merit of the president's definition of the war on terror, the important question here is should the media, as custodians of the public discourse, have immediately pressed the president to sharpen his definition? On a certain level the answer is unequivocally yes. Slogans like the "war on terror" are carefully crafted political bumper stickers developed by politicians to generate support for their policies. Think of the "death tax," No Child Left Behind, or the Healthy Forest initiative. The political significance of these phrases is hard to overstate. It's reasonable to ask, for instance, that if the war on terror had been called the war on Islamic extremism, would the American public have supported the invasion of a country, like Iraq, with a secular government? Similarly, had it been called the war for global democracy, would the Patriot Act have become law? What if it hadn't been called a war at all? Journalists, in other words, must resist employing political jargon – it tends to shortcut analysis in favor of mobilization.

Even so, it's probably unfair to skewer the press for initially adopting the president's language. We need a shorthand to effectively navigate crises, and in the world-is-irrevocably-changed fog that enveloped the country after 9/11, journalists initially were struggling to get their bearings. Furthermore, the press's power to shape the language is limited because television gives the president the power to directly define the terms of engagement for the American people. Perhaps most significantly, though, for all of Bush's rhetoric, the war on terror was understood – at least beyond the White House – to be a fairly contained war on Al Qaeda and its hosts in Afghanistan.

The term "war on terror" began to seriously malfunction when the administration turned its attention to Iraq. Part of the reason for this, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of several books on political rhetoric, including "The Press Effect and Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction and Democracy," is that public understanding of a metaphor like the war on terror rests on the relationship between a specific audience and the moment the metaphor is introduced. In other words, its meaning is dependent on context. One could argue, for instance, that the American Revolutionary War was won by terrorist means, or that the United States sponsored terrorism when it funded the Contras in Nicaragua and Pinochet in Chile. The Iraq war instantly confused the definition of the war on terror and several attendant terms like weapons of mass destruction, Islamic extremism, and even terrorist. Suddenly it was unclear who exactly was a terrorist. Terrorism has been defined as a violent act carried out by a nonstate group (like Al Qaeda) for political purposes. But in light of the war with Iraq and escalating tensions with Iran and North Korea, it is unclear if the definition has come to include hostile states that have ambitions to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The point isn't that the United States is waging a dishonest war. Rather, it's that when the media allow the government – or anyone else – to frame the news in language of their choosing, we end up with phrases like the war on terror that invite conceptual incoherence and cloud the ability of the public, the press, and legislators to assess policy.

So the language doesn't work. What can the press do about it at this late date? There has been some effort to report on facets of the war on terror as discrete events. Major papers consistently refer to the war in Iraq without nodding reflexively to the war on terror, for instance. Some limit the use of the phrase primarily to quoted material.

But this isn't enough. The Iraq war, the escalating nuclear tension with Iran and North Korea, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the guerrilla war in Chechnya have been indelibly framed as fronts in the war on terror. Moreover, the press has done little to challenge efforts by Republicans and Democrats to wrap their policies in the trappings of the war on terror. In short, the terminology continues to have impact and we're stuck with it. For the press to now treat issues like the Iraq war as discrete in the hope that they will suddenly be understood as such is to abdicate its responsibility to serve as an independent arbiter of the public debate.

Quite the opposite of phasing out the phrase, the press needs to confront the terminology of the war on terror head on by carefully holding each policy and each action that has been submitted in its name up to the light to determine if it meets the test of protecting the nation from further attacks. For instance, overthrowing Saddam Hussein obviously removed him as a threat. But what new threats did it catalyze? Alternatively, what resources did the Iraq war divert from other potential initiatives in the war on terror? In recent months such questions have begun to gain some traction. But to date, they have been most notably examined by book authors, magazine writers, editorialists, and pundits. James Fallows's article, "Bush's Lost Year," in the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which examined the consequences of decisions made in the name of the war on terror, is an excellent example of this brand of journalism and we look forward to his forthcoming piece about realistic strategies for controlling terrorism.

These questions need to be taken up more vigorously in the hard-news sections of the daily press. These forums, in aggregate, can examine the issues touched on by writers like Fallows with more persistent authority and daily detail than magazines or books can, and would ultimately have greater impact on public understanding.

This kind of journalism requires news organizations to encourage reporters to undertake the difficult task of writing about stories that have yet to unfold, to reinvestigate the logic behind events that have passed, to be more analytically assertive, and when necessary to challenge stated government wisdom. This is about more than disentangling an unwieldy political catch-phrase from the vernacular; it is a significant opportunity for the press to regain control of the language and thereby afford the public a more nuanced understanding of a "war" that is being waged in the public's name.

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