The War on Terror appears to be over — at least rhetorically. The Washington Post is reporting that the Obama administration has directed its officials and representatives to begin replacing the term “Global War on Terror” with the more anodyne “Overseas Contingency Operation” in their speeches and public pronouncements.
The move is not entirely unexpected. As the Post points out, the term has been used by the new administration “in a war context” for several weeks now, almost since it first took office at the end of January. But what does the change mean, on a practical level?
Here, it’s useful to remember that even the Bush administration had doubts about the phrase, despite having coined it. “We actually misnamed the war on terror, it ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world,” President Bush himself said back in 2004. Back then, Bush was responding to critics who said the GWOT was a misnomer, since “terrorism” is simply a tactic used by radicals to advance their agendas. But, at the end of the day, his administration knew full well that, whatever the official name, we were engaged in a long-term struggle against the forces of radical Islamic extremism.
So, I suspect, does this one. A great many dedicated public servants in the U.S. government, to say nothing of our armed forces, remain committed to the “long war,” irrespective of what it happens to be called these days. Of much greater concern, however, is that our allies, and our adversaries, may conclude that the change is not simply semantic — or benign. Rather, if the perception is that Washington has “gone wobbly” in the fight against radical Islam, the U.S. may soon face a reinvigorated challenge from a range of hostile actors, and a dwindling field of strategic partners to help it fight that threat.
If that turns out to be the case, we are liable to find out just how expensive semantics can be.