George W. Bush took a brief vacation from his vacation yesterday to announce that the "war on terror" isn't over after all. Just last week, administration officials were suggesting that the "war on terror" would be known henceforth as the "global struggle against violent extremism." Not so, says the president. On a day in which 14 Marines were killed in a single roadside bomb attack in Iraq, Bush left Crawford for Grapevine, Texas, to say that the "war on terror" is the "war on terror" again. "Make no mistake," the president said, "we are at war."
You can understand our confusion. Bush and his people have flip-flopped so many times on the "war on terror" that it's hard to keep things straight anymore. The problem: The president and his advisors understand full well that fighting terrorism requires something more than the killing of terrorists, but their own political rhetoric has left them in a box in which they can't always bring themselves to admit it.
When John Kerry said during the 2004 presidential race that the "war on terror is less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering and law-enforcement operation," Bush laid into him hard: "After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States of America, and war is what they got." And when Kerry said that the United States should wage "a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history," Vice President Dick Cheney sneered that a "sensitive war will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans."
But a short time later, when Matt Lauer asked Bush about the war on terror, the president slipped up. "I don't think you can win it," Bush said. "I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world." Perhaps realizing that he'd sounded both defeatist and soft, the Bush tried to extricate himself by backpedaling hard a few days later. "Make no mistake about it," he said. "We are winning and we will win." What about his remarks to the contrary? "What I meant was that this is not a conventional war," Bush told Rush Limbaugh. "It is a different kind of war."
A more sensitive war? Well, yes, Dick Cheney said this spring. In an interview with the Washington Post, the vice president said: "If we are going to be successful long-term in the war on terror and in the broader objective of promoting freedom and democracy in that part of the world, we have to get the public diplomacy piece of it right. Up until now, that has been a very weak part of our arsenal."
So we need to bring a little more understanding to the war? Well, no, Karl Rove said this summer. "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," Rove said in a speech in June. "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war."
So it's a war, right? Well, yes, but, National Security Advisor Steven Hadley said last week. "It is more than just a military war on terror," Hadley told the New York Times. "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."
So it's not just a war? Well, no, the president said yesterday. "Make no mistake about it," he said, "this is a war against people who profess an ideology, and they use terror as a means to achieve their objectives."
Even Donald Rumsfeld is having a hard time keeping up. In recent days, the secretary of defense has taken to calling the "war on terror" the "global struggle against the enemies of freedom." But yesterday, the White House was calling reporters' attention to a speech Rumsfeld gave Tuesday. Acknowledging that "some" ask whether the United States is "still engaged in a war on terror," Rumsfeld said: "Let there be no mistake about it. It's a war."
So has the administration flip-flopped, and is Bush pushing back now? Not at all, says Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita: The president's comments Wednesday were simply "an important clarification."
Make no mistake about it.