The "War on Terrorism" gets a new name

The Bush administration tries a new way to market an old policy.

Published July 27, 2005 12:21AM (EDT)

Say you're reading today's print edition of the New York Times. On page A3 you find this headline: "Checkpoints are Thought to Have Hastened 2 Egypt Blasts." Then you flip to page A6, where you find this at the top of the page: "Police Name 2 of 4 Men Linked to Bomb Attempts." At the bottom of that page, there's this: "Londoners Grappling With Pervasive New Foes: Fear and Suspicion." In other words, you're reading the paper and it's not at all pleasant -- it's bombs, death, fear, terrorism, hate, ethnic conflict, apocalyptic dread, and you haven't even reached John Tierney's column yet.

And then you flip to page A9 and see this headline, which apparently represents our government's response to all these troubles: "New Name for 'War on Terror' Reflects Wider U.S. Campaign." That's right. Bombs are exploding all over, and the main revision George W. Bush will make in the war on terrorism is to change its name. From now on, the United States is no longer engaged in a "global war on terror," and instead, we're fighting a "global struggle against violent extremism."

According to officials interviewed by the Times, the name change came about after a series of Bush administration meetings held in January. The meetings prompted national security officials to decide that fighting terrorism is not only a military endeavor, but that it also requires diplomatic, economic, and political tools. "It is more than just a military war on terror," Steven Hadley, the national security adviser, tells the paper. "It's broader than that. It's a global struggle against extremism. We need to dispute both the gloomy vision and offer a positive alternative." Also significant: Karen Hughes, the Bush aide known for her sloganeering skills, has just rejoined the administration; the name change, the Times subtly suggests, has Hughes' fingerprints all over it.

Slate's Fred Kaplan has just posted about the most appropriate, pithy response to this news that we can think of: "It took four years for the president of the United States to realize that fighting terrorism has a political component?" Kaplan writes. "It took six months for his senior advisers to retool a slogan? We are witnessing that rare occasion when the phrase 'I don't know whether to laugh or cry' can be uttered without lapsing into clichi."

The new name doesn't signify a new strategy, by the way. The Bush administration clings to the idea that the war in Iraq has reduced the threat of global terrorism, even though there's no evidence to support its position -- and some evidence to refute it. Bush still maintains that we're fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to face them in New York, a theory that seems completely devoid of any political calculus.

What we've got here, in other words, is just a revised branding campaign, a new way to sell old soap. The War on Terrorism -- same ineffective policy, now with a catchier name!

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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