Call Me Ishmael

Five years after 9/11 and two months away from elections, the White House still doesn’t know who they’re fighting exactly or what to call them or where they are, which kind of makes it hard to fight them not to mention what the speechwriters have to go through. Maybe it’s in their best interest to keep the definition…uhem…flexible.

By Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey

Sept. 11, 2006 issue – 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.

But when national-security adviser Steve Hadley called the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department, the experts nixed the idea of a single phrase for a war that was so complex. “There was a conscious desire not to use just one definitive word, because there wasn’t a perfect word,” recalls Michael Gerson, Bush’s chief speechwriter at the time (and now a NEWSWEEK contributor). The result was a rhetorical mishmash. “Some call this evil Islamic radicalism,” Bush explained, “others, militant jihadism; still others, Islamofascism. Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.”

Five years after 9/11, and more than three years after invading Iraq, President Bush is still searching for the perfect phrase to define the enemy in the war on terrorâ??and reassure Americans who will soon head to the polls. Other Republicansâ??including Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is in a tough re-election raceâ??have adopted “Islamofascism” as shorthand for terrorists. The term gained currency in the early ’90s in reference to radical Muslim clerics, and was popularized after 9/11 by neocons.

Bush has used the term “Islamic fascists” sporadically, most recently to describe the alleged London bomb plotters last month. But the phrase was noticeably absent from his latest major speech on the war last weekâ??which was part of a procession of campaign-style addresses by the administration’s biggest names. This time he called the bad guys “a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology.” It was hardly the kind of pithy slogan GOP activists could slap on a bumper sticker.

With the elections just two months away, the White House is turning once again to a strategy that has worked so well in the past: evoke 9/11, raise the specter of Al Qaeda and accuse the Democrats of fatal weakness in the face of the enemy. But 2006 is not 2004, when the administration found it easier to tie bin Laden’s loyalists in with the insurgents in Iraq. One of Bush’s strengths has been his ability to make the complex seem simple. But the war on terror’s many frontsâ??British airline plots, Lebanese militias, Iranian nukes, brewing civil war in Iraqâ??defy any simple political packaging. (Some foreign-policy analysts question whether Bush may be unwittingly helping the jihadists by lumping together disparate groups, instead of exploiting the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and non-Arabs.) [source]

1 Comment

  • they really should just call the enemy “al qaeda.” that’s who attacked the u.s. by generalizing it to “terrorist” or “islamic fascists” they’re just trying to cast a wider net so that they can justify invading iraq, iran, syria, or whatever new bugaboo they can slap with the evildoers label

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