What's in a Name? "War on Terror" Out, "Struggle Against Extremism" In

Report Homeland Security

What's in a Name? "War on Terror" Out, "Struggle Against Extremism" In

July 26, 2005 4 min read
Executive Vice President
Kim R. Holmes is the Executive Vice President at The Heritage Foundation.

Recently, top officials of the Bush Administration have changed the way that they are talking about terrorism. They have stopped talking about a "war on terrorism." Thinking it too narrowly defined, Administration officials now speak of a "struggle against global extremism." Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld describes America's policies as a "global struggle against the enemies of freedom, the enemies of civilization."


Although all this may seem to be merely playing with words, this change is in reality something much more important: It is a clear-headed change of definition of America's long-range strategic aims. It may not alter U.S. tactics or goals in the short run but could, over time, have a profound effect on the way Americans think about the current conflict against radical Islamic terrorist groups.


The Administration made the change for a number of reasons. The "war on terror" incorrectly focused too much attention on the military side of the campaign. Other efforts-such as homeland security, law enforcement, and international diplomacy-were not captured by a phrase that conjures an image of soldiers in uniform combating other soldiers in uniform-something that the current struggle decidedly is not.


The term "war on terror" overlooked the ideological component of the struggle. Radical groups employing terrorism against governments and civilians have an agenda, and that is to destroy certain governments, challenge certain Western values of civilization, and erect in their place their own governments and notions of culture and religion.


Finally, the change in terminology overcomes a problem long recognized in the phrase "war on terrorism." Terrorism is a tactic employed by people to achieve certain political purposes. The new, broader approach captures not only the enemy's political intent, but also suggests more precisely that our efforts will be a long-term "struggle" that may not have a termination date. Unlike with a war, there will be no simple peace treaty.


Of the two new terms used by the Bush Administration, Rumsfeld's "struggle against the enemies of freedom and civilization" is the better. For one thing, it avoids making the mistake of replacing one inadequate term for the enemy with another equally inadequate term-namely, replacing "terrorism" with "extremism." If "extremism" alone were the problem-as opposed to the fact that certain extremists are using terror as a weapon-then we would be making war against non-violent groups outside the political and religious mainstream. But we're not, and for good reason: Non-violent groups are not threatening anybody. The problem is the use of terror, not whether their views are "extreme" or not. We are fighting al Qaeda 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.


For another, Rumsfeld's description better captures the real principle at stake: These "enemies of freedom and civilization" are using violence against innocent people-something so despicable that we call it "terrorism"-not just to take away their lives, but also to deprive them of their freedom. If Osama bin Laden and his friends ever manage to create the medieval Caliphate of their dreams, not only will the people who live under its boot suffer a loss of freedom, but so will the rest of us, as bin Laden goes about wiping out infidels in New York, Paris, and London.


The Administration still appears to be squeamish about naming radical Islam by name. While it is true that America opposes any ideological group that employs terrorism, it also is true that we are, correctly, fixated on radical Islamic groups. We have hesitated emphasizing this fact in some of our official public statements for fear of offending innocent Muslims or alienating potential allies in Muslim countries.


Might something be wrong still with our stated policy if we cannot articulate an obvious fact about our strategic aims? It's one thing to be tactically clever and not alienate innocent people or potential allies. But it is another if that reluctance blurs the reality of our objectives and confuses people-particularly Americans-about who our enemy really is and what really is at stake.


Tony Blair spoke clearly last week when he said, "The best defense of the Muslim community in this country is for that leadership to be exercised and for the mainstream Muslim community to take on the extremists within their midst, within our midst." He recognizes that this struggle against radical Islamic terrorists will never be won unless Muslims themselves become as outraged as non-Muslims when terrorists defame Islam far more than any Gitmo soldier or any U.S. official's slip of the tongue could ever do.


Sometimes it is a good thing to speak plainly. The Bush Administration has rightly made a course correction in one of its most important slogans. The next step should be to think more seriously, as Tony Blair has done, about how to articulate the struggle in such a way that freedom-loving Muslims all over the world will want to unite to rid the scourge of violent extremism from their midst.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Kim Holmes

Executive Vice President