Op-Ed

Words Matter in Fighting Terrorism

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Charles Krauthammer, in a July 2 Washington Post op-ed column, objected to the Obama administration’s references to our enemy in the broader struggle against terrorism.

Like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Krauthammer finds the administration too politically correct — and too analytically imprecise — in depicting our adversaries as loose groups of extremists. For both men, a term like “Islamic extremist” is more accurate — and more appropriate — in describing those whose warped visions of jihad lead them to kill others in Allah’s name.

This critique — derived, in part, from the administration’s word choice in its new National Security Strategy — does not make sense.

More precisely, while Krauthammer and Lieberman may be analytically correct about the nature of the enemy, they are unconvincing in their argument that Washington should use religiously laced language.

They are particularly incorrect to suggest that somehow a change in semantics reflects a weakening in this administration’s commitment to defeat those who would harm the United States and its allies around the world.

We understand many things to be true analytically but not desirable to state explicitly when defining official U.S. policy.

China, for example, is seen by many as a major rising power that could someday rival the United States militarily and, indeed, in the worst case become an enemy. But to avoid creating self-fulfilling prophecies, most Pentagon planning documents avoid such bluntness. They may refer to Beijing as a concern — but in measured tones.

To take the opposite example, the Bush administration was too blunt when its 2002 National Security Strategy emphasized the pre-emption option.

Of course, President George W. Bush was right that pre-emption was an option for defending the United States. Indeed, international law allows that — and any previous U.S. president would have acknowledged the same thing. But they didn’t go around advertising the idea.

Bush did. And as a result, along with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the administration was forever tarred as an overly unilateralist and aggressive international actor.

The image was unfair. But it was also irreversible at a certain point — and undoubtedly harmful to U.S. interests.

So what is the current basis for alleging that the Obama administration has somehow gone soft on terror?

Its tripling of U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan? Its substantial expansion in the use of drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan? Its wise decision to build on Bush’s eventual success in Iraq and stick to the downsizing plan that he negotiated before leaving office? Its support for new CENTCOM policies to strengthen cooperation with local governments in their counterterrorism activities throughout the Middle East region? Its care in closing down Guantanamo, after campaign promises to shut it down quickly proved undoable?

There is much room for debate about specific policies, to be sure. But let’s have the discussion on those terms, not on polemical ones.

In fact, President Barack Obama is wisely attempting to improve U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

This is clearly difficult. His June 2009 Cairo speech set a hopeful tone, as did his very election. But his increasingly stern efforts to deal with a threatening Iran, his inability to break the logjam in Middle East peace talks because of the positions of local actors and, yes, his continuing war against violent extremists make this difficult.

So every small opportunity needs to be grasped. He must avoid pouring new doses of salt on old wounds.

Maybe the new semantics aren’t perfect. In describing our enemies, there may be a better term than “violent extremists” that acknowledges the Islamic origin of some movements but simultaneously links them to perverted or extremist interpretations of Islam. One better candidate may be “takfiri” — those advocating extreme violence against their opponents.

So there is room for continuing discussion, even on this topic.

But Obama did the right thing in making it clear that we are not at war with Islam in any way, shape or form. Even his generic and vague language on the subject constitutes a step forward for U.S. policy.

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