TCSDaily | 3.31.09
By Alan W. Dowd

With little fanfare—in fact, it was kept quiet for many weeks—President Barack Obama discreetly returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British government soon after his inauguration. During his predecessor’s administration, the statue rested in an honored place near the president’s desk—a powerful symbol that the nation was at war. Its removal and absence are equally potent symbols.

We can read too much into symbolism and metaphors, to be sure, but Obama is someone who believes in the power of symbols. Indeed, his campaign was as much about branding and marketing as it was about policy. Moreover, he presents himself as a symbol of change, his biography a reflection of America itself: He reminds us that his father was “born and raised in a small village in Kenya,” his mother “on the other side of the world, in Kansas.” His grandfather “signed up for duty, joined Patton's army, marched across Europe.”

In short, Obama knows symbols can say more than words. Thus, the unceremonious removal of Churchill’s likeness speaks volumes. It was Obama’s wordless way of saying that America’s war on terror, at least as the previous administration conceived it, is over.

Some will applaud this development, especially our allies in Europe, most of whom were never comfortable with the “war on terror” phraseology. Likewise, a healthy portion of America didn’t care for the Bush administration’s martial language, as evidenced by the House Armed Services Committee’s decree—soon after Democrats won back Congress—banning the use by committee staff of phrases such as “Global War on Terror” or “The Long War.”

In some cases, this was a function of discomfort with war itself. After all, today’s Europe, as Robert Kagan has written, largely embraces a postmodern, post-heroic, postwar worldview. And the American Left has viewed war as the “real” enemy at least since the 1960s.

In other instances, resistance to the term Global War on Terror (GWOT) was a function of etymology. We cannot defeat “terrorism,” the critics argued, because it is a condition or method. Hence, a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst.

Of course, as historian John Lewis Gaddis has suggested, the civilized world has, in the past, defeated, marginalized or consigned to history uncivilized behavior and methods. In other words, a war on terror is no more or less futile than a war on slavery or a war on piracy.

Truth be told, the Bush administration itself struggled with what to call its post-9/11 campaign of campaigns—an indication of the postmodern, diffuse nature of the enemy and of a conflict that began long before 2001. Almost three years after 9/11, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used one of his “snowflake memos” to openly ask, “Are we fighting a Global War on Terror? Or are we witnessing a global civil war within the Muslim religion…Or are we engaged in a global insurgency by a minority of radical Muslims?”

The answer to each question was—and still is—yes. But the new president promised change, and he is making good on his promises:

  • Obama has ordered the closure of the detention facility at GuantanamoBay. A presidential taskforce is scrambling to determine what will become of its residents; it has less than year to come up with a plan. Of the estimated 245 detainees at GITMO today, the Pentagon says 110 “should never be released because of the potential danger they pose to U.S. interests,” according to a Reuters report. It’s worth noting that of the hundreds of detainees that have cycled through GITMO since 2002, 61 have returned to their global jihad, according to the Pentagon. In fact, one former GITMO inmate—a terrorist released in 2007 into a Saudi rehabilitation program—is now second in command of al Qaeda in Yemen. That branch of al Qaeda has been very active of late, launching an attack on the U.S. embassy in Yemen last fall. In other words, the risks of closing down GITMO—the prospect of terrorists being set free by foreign governments or U.S. prison populations being radicalized by jihadist inmates—are not insignificant.
  • In Iraq, Obama has gazed into the future and determined that August 21, 2010, will serve not as D-Day or V-I Day, but E-Day—the date “our combat mission in Iraq will end.” He plans to remove all US forces from Iraq by 2011. The debate over the necessity of going to war in Iraq—and whether Iraq was a part of the war on terror or a distraction from it—will rage for decades. But even many critics of the Iraq war concede that it became a part of the wider war on terror; hence, many worry about withdrawing according to a political rather than strategic timetable.
  • Finally, Obama promises “principled and sustained engagement” with perhaps the two most active state sponsors of terrorism on earth: Iran and Syria. One can hardly blame him for trying. After all, isolation did not work, as the past eight years remind us. Of course, engagement didn’t work, either, as the first Bush administration and Clinton administration can attest vis-à-vis Syria, and as Europe can attest vis-à-vis Iran.

Congressional leaders are getting the hint. As The Hill has reported, Rep. Barney Frank wants to cut a staggering 25 percent from the Pentagon’s budget. The “savings” will come from disengagement in Iraq and elimination of or cutbacks to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, submarine programs, nuclear forces and missile defense. To grasp the enormity of this, just consider how Frank and his ideological brethren would have reacted to a proposal by, say, Rumsfeld to increase the defense budget by 25 percent.

To be sure, one can still find faint traces of the war on terror in isolated corners of the Obama administration: Missile strikes by American unmanned aerial vehicles against Taliban and al Qaeda targets in the ungoverned reaches of Pakistan have grown in intensity under the Obama administration, to the point that this aspect of what was once the GWOT has been dubbed the “drone war.” Likewise, there is continuity with the Bush administration’s plans for an “Afghan surge.” In addition, CIA Director Leon Panetta recently conceded, “There’s no question this is a war.” His boss and the White House, on the other hand, take pains not to use that word.

So we can quibble about what to call the thing we’re in the midst of—a global war on terror, “a long, twilight struggle,” a civil war within Islam, a global guerilla war, a reckoning, a worldwide police action, the long war, the away game (as American troops call it)—but one thing is beyond debate: The enemy believes he is at war with us. As al Qaeda’s leadership has vowed, their goal—and that of their kindred movements—is to wage war against the secular countries of the Islamic world and to establish sharia law across vast stretches of the planet. The United States and a handful of other countries stand in their way, and the consequences are on display in Manhattan and Madrid, Bali and Beslan, Iraq and Israel, Waziristan and Washington, London and Lebanon.

If the enemy’s words don’t convince us that we are at war, his actions should.