‘War on Terror’ Now ‘Countering Violent Extremism’

The Obama administration is quietly dumping the Bush era “War on Terror” for “Countering Violent Extremism,” Marc Ambinder notes.

The Obama administration has unofficially rebranded “war on terror” phrase that dominated public discourse throughout the Bush administration. The replacement phrase, carefully chosen, is “CVE” — Countering Violent Extremism.

Early in the administration, the Office of Management and Budget changed the wording of the line item under which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were funded. They called it “Overseas Contingency Operations.” That phrase was never intended to be for public consumption (and public ridicule), but burrowed bureaucrats leaked it to the press, a field day was had.

Countering Violent Extremism is noticeable for two words that aren’t there: some variant of “jihad,” which is the preferred predicate for counter-terrorism-fighting conservatives, and “war,” which is because the administration has put de-radicalization alongside the Predator drones as  a primary instrument of combat.  No mention of Islam, of course. That’s because the administration wants to try and decouple the notion of combating terrorism from the Muslim faith itself.  BTW: when I first heard the phrase, I assumed it stood for “combating violent extremism.”  But no — the word combat denotes military action only — Obama’s approach combines hard and soft power.

Certainly, “Countering Violent Extremism” has a better ring to it than “Overseas Contingency Operations.”   And it’s both more accurate and less silly than “War on Terror” or the old GWOT (“Global War on Terror”).    But it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

What we call things matters, both for public consumption and perception abroad.   And one doesn’t conduct a “war” on “terror.”  Moreover, we weren’t conducting a war on terror — or even on terrorism.  If we were, we’d be operating under much different precepts abroad — most notably, in the kid gloves with which we’re treating Pakistan and the way we’re totally ignoring Saudi Arabia’s role in al Qaeda — and be doing much more to mobilize the public here.

“Countering” is rather tepid but is much more accurate than “War” to describe what we’re doing.  Indeed, even in Afghanistan — where our troops are doubtless engaged in a shooting war, having cost us more than 1000 dead — our top generals have long told us that the military component is merely a part of the overall effort.

Interestingly, “Countering Violent Extremism” has been around as a terminology for quite some time.  Notably, John Nagl and his CNAS colleagues wrote a report titled “Beyond Bullets: Strategies for Countering Violent Extremism” back in June 2009 and the EastWest Institute has had a “Countering Violent Extremism” initiative since January 2007.   It’s apparently just taken a while to take hold in government circles.  Amusingly, it seems that the institution of this new phrase is Dennis Blair’s signal achievement as DNI.

It’s interesting, too, that this change has taken place so quietly.  Ambinder isn’t the first to point this out — he notes that Newsweek noticed in April and presumably others had before that, since the State Department was publicly using the phrase as early as March 10.  But, although I pay pretty close attention to this sort of thing, and have doubtless heard the phrase “countering violent extremism” several times before today, I wasn’t aware of the “official” change.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    How many legs does a horse have if you call its tail a leg?

  2. Countering Violent Extremism seems rather passive and reactionary in nature. I guess you’ll never hear “the best defense is a good offense” from this administration. I guess I’d worry less if they wasn’t so much concurrent rhetoric about violent extremists coming from this administration and its supportors concerning veternas, Tea Partiers, etc.

    Hety, why not call it Happy Happy Joy Joy.

    Did these people think Orwell was writing training manuals?

  3. Bill H says:

    I cannot think that bombing the hell out of multiple nations in the Middle East is “Countering Violent Extremism” in the least. If some foreign nation were bombing the United States with drones in the middle of the night on a regular basis, killing dozens of our citizens and scaring the hell out of the rest of them, would we be less inclined to want to retaliate?

    Throughout the whole ugly mess the Taliban has been noted for the fact that it just wanted to be left alone and had made no attacks outside its own territory. Now they are attempting to blow up Times Square. Does that sound like we are “Countering Violent Extremism” at all? It sounds to me like we are “Fomenting Violent Extremism” instead.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Throughout the whole ugly mess the Taliban has been noted for the fact that it just wanted to be left alone and had made no attacks outside its own territory.

    ?

  5. floyd says:

    Dave;
    Five … if it’s a mare.

    Charles;
    Of course that’s only if you don’t buy 2+2=5

    Bill H;
    You been up in the mountains taking bowling lessons?

  6. JKB says:

    Again with the battle against concepts and feelings. Can we not man up and fight against people who would do us harm be they called terrorists or violent extremists?

    It would have been much better if we’d had a war against terrorists instead of a War against an overwhelming feeling of fear and anxiety (Terror)

    Just so, now we are Countering Violent political theories favoring immoderate uncompromising policies (Extremism). Can a political theory be violent? Would it not be better to Counter Violent Extremists? You can kill an extremist. You can alter his environment to moderate his views or cause him to not use violence to promote his extremism. If you could kill a political theory, don’t you think we would have killed socialism or at least communism long ago?

    How will we know when we have defeated a political theory favoring immoderate uncompromising policies? For that matter, how would we have known if we had defeated a extreme fear?

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Five … if it’s a mare.

    Nope. Still four. Whatever you call it, a tail is not a leg.

  8. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    I guess that I’m a “It’s the Islam, stupid” kind of guy still. This semantical pussyfooting will not move us forward on the road to victory. Oops, I meant a Little Bit Less Violent Extremism (LBLVE).

    There’s the what they do, but there’s also the why they do it. Giving these Seventh Century A.D. (Oops 2) aficionados a free pass on their idiot ideology is not a very strategic plan. As long as Islamic scriptures and practices remain extant, they will be available for the next ideologue to exploit. Fourteen hundred years is n more than enough. It’s time to end the Islam.

  9. TangoMan says:

    Whatever happened to the rule of language where the specific is always preferred over the general?

    Are we fighting violent extremism from Buddhists?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from Catholics?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from Burmese Freedom Fighters?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from Thai Red Shirts?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from La Raza race warriors?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from The Shining Path?

    If we’re fighting violent extremism that seems to only come from Muslims, then the proper course of action is to convey specific information to accurately describe what we’re doing, rather than burying the specific in the general and muddying the the nature of our actions.

  10. James Joyner says:

    If we’re fighting violent extremism that seems to only come from Muslims, then the proper course of action is to convey specific information to accurately describe what we’re doing, rather than burying the specific in the general and muddying the the nature of our actions.

    The problem is that we’re not fighting a war against any of it. We’re fighting al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban as part of a larger, murkier effort.

    Yes, our foes are Islamic extremists. But, then again, so are most of our key allies in the region. There’s such a thing as public diplomacy.

  11. TangoMan says:

    The problem is that we’re not fighting a war against any of it. We’re fighting al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban as part of a larger, murkier effort.

    Large, murky effort. Certainly. Not a war. No. The tactics of war are ever evolving. The conceptualization of war of those who were in the trenches of WWI, is quite different than the conceptualization of war of those who served in Vietnam. And so on. We want to eradicate our designated enemy. We want to disrupt their supply lines. On balance, most of the initiatives are directed towards achieving military ends, even if we use social, political, economic and trade means to achieve those ends. This all spells war effort.

    Yes, our foes are Islamic extremists. But, then again, so are most of our key allies in the region. There’s such a thing as public diplomacy.

    I think you meant to write that our allies are Muslim rather than also being Islamic extremists, so I’m going to answer on the basis of this interpretation. If you actually meant what you wrote, please correct me and I’ll modify my response.

    We had Korean allies in the Korean War even as we were fighting Chinese and Korean troops. Were our Korean allies insulted that we were fighting in the Korean War? We had Vietnamese allies as we were fighting the Viet-Cong in the Vietnam War. Were our Vietnamese allies insulted that we were fighting in the Vietnam War? Our law enforcement agencies fought against White supremacists on the domestic front, not white citizens. Did Caucasians feel lumped together with White Supremacists and therefore feel insulted when reference was made to the Caucasian attribute of the WS groups?

    Look, the description of the effort was generally framed as a War against Islamic Terrorism. That’s a very specific formulation. This formulation says nothing derogatory about Islamic allies who are aiding our effort. Do these allies view themselves as “Islamic Terrorists”?

    This double-think language contortion is offensive and it’s a gimmick. If you can be specific when you convey information then the information will be more useful than if you simply relay generalized platitudes stripped of meaning.

  12. steve says:

    “We had Korean allies in the Korean War even as we were fighting Chinese and Korean troops. Were our Korean allies insulted that we were fighting in the Korean War? We had Vietnamese allies as we were fighting the Viet-Cong in the Vietnam War. Were our Vietnamese allies insulted that we were fighting in the Vietnam War?”

    Al-Qaeda has numbered in the thousands. The muslim world is roughly a billion. In Nam, we fought one half, roughly, of the Viet namese. Same in Korea. Our Muslim allies number in the millions, hundreds of millions if you count Pakistan. Our Korean allies and Vietnamese allies were many fewer.

    Steve

  13. Grewgills says:

    We had Korean allies in the Korean War even as we were fighting Chinese and Korean troops. Were our Korean allies insulted that we were fighting in the Korean War? We had Vietnamese allies as we were fighting the Viet-Cong in the Vietnam War. Were our Vietnamese allies insulted that we were fighting in the Vietnam War?

    Those wars were named after the geographic location where they were fought. Notice they were not the War against the Vietnamese or the War against the Koreans or even the war against the communist Vietnamese or Koreans. I think you and everyone else can see the distinction.

    Our law enforcement agencies fought against White supremacists on the domestic front, not white citizens. Did Caucasians feel lumped together with White Supremacists and therefore feel insulted when reference was made to the Caucasian attribute of the WS groups?

    White supremacist groups were/are allowed to exist freely. Law enforcement (largely white) investigated and prosecuted illegal acts by said groups within a largely white society. This is also a pertinent distinction.

    Are we fighting violent extremism from Buddhists?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from Catholics?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from Burmese Freedom Fighters?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from Thai Red Shirts?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from La Raza race warriors?
    Are we fighting violent extremism from The Shining Path?

    We should be countering violent extremism from all of those groups where it intersects out interests.