Warring Over Words

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

Warring Over Words

Apr 23rd, 2007 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Victory in war requires, at a minimum, honesty about the type of war you're waging. So you really have to wonder if certain members of Congress understand what's at stake.

Case in point: The House Armed Services Committee recently ruled that the phrase "the long war" cannot be used in writing the annual defense authorization bill. Committee leaders claim they want the language of the law to be more precise. If that is truly what they want -- that is, if this wasn't about scoring political points -- then maybe they don't understand what the war on terrorism is all about.

Ironically, the one thing that every one in Washington (Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, right, left) agrees on is that transnational terrorism isn't going away anytime soon. That admission is vital, because it means it is going to be a "long war," and the strategies for protracted conflict differ from those that might be used in other wars.

In long wars, leaders have to be as concerned about protecting the capacity of the state to compete and thrive over the long term as they are with getting the enemy. Otherwise, war devolves into a battle of attrition where the two sides hit each other, tit for tat, until the side least prostrate at the end declares itself in a winner.

Without a good long-war strategy, states often taken steps that are self-defeating and self-weakening (like establishing state-directed economies or declaring martial law) in a desperate battle to prevail. Good long-war strategy must provide for security, economic growth, the protection of individual liberties and winning the ideological struggle -- and doing all equally well to ensure that the nation doesn't just win, but emerges from the conflict a free, safe and prosperous victor.

Acknowledging that America is waging a long war is essential. It must be recognized to make sure this nation takes the right steps to win. It's just as important as when we called the Cold War "cold," which helped Americans understand that we couldn't defeat the Soviet empire through direct military confrontation.

When Congress tries to call a particular war by the wrong name, it risks losing sight of what needs to be done.

At least the House Armed Services Committee had the good sense to let its members continue to call the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "wars." This, at least, acknowledges the fact that our troops are battling terrorists in both countries -- terrorists who are trying to overthrow democratically-elected governments, fuel sectarian violence and slaughter innocents in the street.

That said, it is a bit puzzling that they supported legislation declaring the U.S. should simply give up and go home, as if quitting wars had no serious consequences -- as if the enemy will quit, too, and go home.

What the House Armed Services Committee appears to be guilty of is the criticism so often thrown at the administration -- hubris, or overweening self-confidence in its own beliefs. It is the ultimate folly to believe that American power is so great that if the U.S. isn't successful in the world it is because of us -- because our intelligence was flawed, or the Pentagon didn't send enough troops, or officials lied, or we were the victims of bad ethics, vain leaders and greedy corporations.

It is hubris to think it is all about us, to believe that if we just change the words, elect new leaders, or adopt "smarter" policies that America will automatically triumph. It takes a humble and realistic leadership to admit that the fight is tough -- that the war will, in fact, be a "long" one -- because the enemy is determined.

Simply changing words won't change the nature of the war.

Changing words substitutes rhetoric for substance and sound strategic thinking. Congress can do better.

James Carafano is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation and author of the new book "G.I. Ingenuity."

Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune wire