WASHINGTON – President Bush and White House officials still use the phrase “war on terrorism” to describe the global fight against al-Qaida and other militant extremists.
But with the failure to capture Osama bin Laden and a recent surge in terrorist bombings, there is growing sentiment at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the administration to retire “war” and use broader terms.
The internal debate broke into the open last week when Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the National Press Club that he had “objected to the use of the term ‘war on terrorism’ before.”
“Because, if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution. And it’s more than terrorism,” Myers said. He said “violent extremists” were “the real enemy here, and terror is the method they use.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld already has moved away from the “war on terror” description, saying the conflict is a “global struggle against violent extremism.”
Bush has not wavered, however, since the term took hold after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We are engaged in a war on terrorism. It’s a long-term ideological struggle that we’re engaged in,” said his spokesman, Scott McClellan.
Asked about the language that Rumsfeld and Myers were using, McClellan said, “I think that they’re just talking in greater detail about what we’re engaged in.”
An analyst who has studied the Iraq war’s effect on U.S. politics said the administration “purposely commingled the war on terror and the war in Iraq.”
“We’re going to have an interesting time watching how the Bush people get themselves out of this rhetoric cul-de-sac,” said Stephen J. Cimbala, a Penn State University political science professor.
Bush also likes to say the U.S. is fighting terrorists abroad “so we do not have to face them at home.”
But bombings this month in London and Egypt showed that terrorists seemingly can strike with impunity anywhere, renewing debate about Bush’s formulation.
Critics suggest that the Iraq war, rather than making Americans safer at home, has provided terrorists with a laboratory for new tactics.
“In fact, what Iraq has become is a training ground for al-Qaida beyond its wildest dreams,” said Michele Flournoy, a senior Pentagon official in the Clinton administration.
Bush has added a second part to his fighting-terrorists-abroad line to emphasize what he calls “a dual strategy.”
“One, stay on the offense, bring these people to justice before they hurt us. And, at the same time, spread an ideology that competes with their ideology, and that’s an ideology of democracy and freedom,” the president recently told an Atlanta audience.
Bush said the battle is with those who have an “ideology of hate.”
It echoes the main theme of Bush’s second inaugural address: spreading democracy and freedom through the world.
Some outside experts think the time to retire the “war on terrorism” phrase is long past.
“We are fighting al-Qaida and its allies precisely because they are bombing people. We should be challenging not only their terrorist tactics but also their ideology that leads them to kill in the name of religion,” said Kim R. Holmes, former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration. Holmes now is affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization.
Yet even at the Pentagon, there is some support for the catch phrase.
Lt. Gen. James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “war on terror” probably is here to stay for a while longer.
“It is a discussion that has been had philosophically with our allies. And we’ve been told actually that global war on terrorism translates pretty well into the various languages. So I think that continues to make it a part of the discussion,” Conway said.
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