What to Call the Bad Guys
Last fall White House aides were grappling with a seemingly simple question that had eluded them for years: what should the president, in his many speeches on the war on terror, call the enemy? They were searching for a single clean phrase that could both define the foe and reassure Americans who were confused by a conflict that had grown much bigger than Osama bin Laden. But the answer was anything but simple. Some academics preferred the term “Islamism,” but the aides thought that sounded too much as if America were fighting the entire religion. Another option: jihadism. But to many Muslims, it’s a positive word that doesn’t necessarily evoke bloodshed. Some preferred the conservative buzzword “Islamofascism,” which was catchy and tied neatly into Bush’s historical view of the struggle.
Benen asks, “[W]hy is the White House so fascinated with word choice here?” He seems to answer his own question: “One gets the distinct impression that more time is spent considering talking point language than actually crafting an effective counter-terrorism strategy or plan for the future of Iraq.”
There’s no doubt that the language debate is at least partly about domestic politics. Still, how one frames the debate is not exactly irrelevant.
When the administration was talking about “a war on terror,” critics rightly chided them for imprecision. One can not have a war with a feeling, after all. “War on terrorists,” too, is too broad. We’re not going to take on all the the terrorists, just some of them. “War on terrorists with global reach” is both awkward and imprecise; the terrorists in Iraq, for example, have are localized.
To say that we’re fighting “Islamism” or “jihadism” are reasonably accurate but they do indeed have unfortunate international implications. “Islamofascism” is a sufficiently loaded buzzword as to be distracting but it’s probably a good term for rallying domestic support, given that it evokes a more popular war.
Aside from the political propaganda implications of the correct language, moreover, thinking about these things helps tighten the strategy behind them as well. The immediate post-9/11 instinct was to go to war with terrorists or Muslims or “the evildoers” in a generic sense. We just wanted to lash out at the bad guys who hurt us and kill them. Figuring out what to name the enemy goes hand-in-hand with more precisely identifying him.
Conversely, as the strategy is being tweaked in response to realities on the ground, changing the language of the discussion might naturally follow.