What to Call the Bad Guys

Steve Benen is concerned by a Newsweek piece discussing Bush administration’s internal debate on how to publically describe the enemy:

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.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, Terrorism, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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. Mark says:

    I saw no problem with Islamofacists, and Bush should have stuck with it rather than capitulate to a PC crowd.

    Christ, we had to take out the word “Crusade” in the Afghan operation name because people complained, and now they complain about a name used to call the enemy. How are we going to win this war when people complain each time we call the bad guys something that offends their sensibilities?

  2. legion says:

    Umm… it’s not the bad guys we’re trying not to offend. It’s the ~billion or so Muslims who aren’t trying to kill us (and whose help & cooperation we need to root out the real bad guys) that we’re trying to keep happy.

    Now I’m holding my breath for the first troll to post that we should kill all the Muslims… 🙂

  3. Cernig says:

    How are we going to win this war when people complain each time we call the bad guys something that offends their sensibilities?

    I think James’ point was that we have to find words to call the bad guys that don’t offend the Muslims who happen to be good guys. That is, most of them.

    Unless, of course, you figure that when it comes to Moslems “the only good injun/gook/wog is a dead injun/gook/wog”, in which case why not just call them “hajis” and have done with it?

    Well, just how far does your bigotry go, Mark?

    Regards, Cernig

  4. LJD says:

    Now I’m holding my breath for the first troll to post that we should kill all the Muslims…

    The little smiley doesn’t help your poor sense of humor. Keep holding your breath, maybe you’ll pass out and stop writing such nonsense.

    Cernie- explain what is bigoted about the term Islamo-fascist? Isn’t that just calling a spade a spade?

  5. silverfish says:

    “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.

    How many Americans even understand the word? I bet most don’t.

    For domestic US consumption, I bet “jihadist” would be better.

  6. John Burgess says:

    The problem with the term “Islamofascism” is that it does truly offend the non-fascist Muslims.

    The term is arguably correct; what the jihadists propose sure walks/looks/quacks like fascism in its extreme intolerance for difference.

    But Muslims (1.6 billion of them, 1/6 of the earth’s population) are increasingly thinking that their religion, no matter just how they express it, is under attack from the US in particular and the West in general.

    When they see people being hauled off planes for just being a bit stupid, the impression grows. When they see people arrested for getting on a schoolbus (equally stupid), the impression grows. When they read blogs that do call for the extermination of Muslims or the nuking of Mecca, the impression grows.

    That’s why it’s not really clever to antagonize them needlessly. They’re comfortable with the phrase “Islamist” or even “terrorist”, but they resent being linked to what they see as a purely Western phenomenon (fascism). That word carries too many connotations–including total destruction by the Allies–to make them happy.

  7. Mark says:

    But wouldn’t “jihadist” offend the millions of muslims who do not want to kill us but use the term to denote the inner struggle to strengthen one’s faith?

    So we cannot use that term – gotta come up with something else! 🙂

    Islamist – bad because it is grouping all of Islam and CAIR is bound to be pissed off enough to issue a press release. Next…

    Terrorist – well, you know the saying, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Next…

  8. Cernig says:

    LJD,

    I wasn’t addressing the term, I was addressing Mark’s words, which I quoted so it would be clear what I was addressing.

    It’s also pretty clear that he thinks all Moslems come under the heading of “bad guys”, since he didn’t even consider the possibility that many are good guys.

    That qualifies as bigotry, doesn’t it?

    Regards, C

  9. LJD says:

    This is P.C. run amok.

    Where do we think the ‘Muslims’ (as if ‘we’ could determine what ‘they’ think) got the idea that their religion is under attack? From OUR media, perhaps?

    When they see people being hauled off planes for just being a bit stupid, the impression grows.

    That one is colorblind, my friend. People of any color no longer have the luxury of ‘being stupid’ around an airport.

    I would think ‘Islamist’ would be even more ‘offensive’ since it doesn’t identify them by their actions.

  10. John Burgess says:

    The benefit of the term “Islamist” is that Arab Muslims use the term. It is, in its way, a “term of art” understood to mean “one who politicizes Islam, often with recourse to violence”.

    They have other favored terms depending on both the country and the object group involved. The Saudis, for instance, refer to them as “deviants” for their twisting of what “real Islam” is meant to be.

    Somewhat like a preference not to mix Latin and Greek in the same word, Muslims prefer not to mix heinous Western political theories with their religion.

    I certainly do agree, though, that being stupid at airports is being really stupid, no matter what race, creed, color, etc. Even here, though, I’m not sure incarceration is the right remedy for stupidity. Maybe an overnight in the clink and a fine, but that’s about it.

  11. James Joyner says:

    “Islamists” has generally been my default term here as well. It’s not perfect but I think it strikes the best balance of accuracy, sensitivity, and neutrality.