WASHINGTON-The new administration has dodged the phrase "war on terror" since President Obama took office. Reports emerged yesterday that the president's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had instructed Pentagon staff to no longer use the phrase but instead call U.S. military action abroad an "overseas contingency operation."
On the phone Wednesday morning the head of the OMB, Peter Orszag, said, "I sometimes am amused by things that I read in the press. . . . I am not aware of any communication that I've had on that topic."
And OMB spokesman Ken Baer followed up, saying, "It was a communication by a mid-level career civil servant. There was no official guidance on that subject by OMB."
Regardless of guidance, the "war on terror" phrase has been absent from the lips of Obama administration officials and the president himself. One reason is that terrorism is far from public discussion as Americans focus on economic troubles. In the president's prime time press conference Tuesday, not one reporter posed a question about Iraq, Afghanistan, or terrorism.
Critics of the "war on terror" phrase say it gives too much credit to terrorists, as if they were a unified movement instead of diverse factions of varying power and ranging nationalities. At one point the Bush administration tried to call the "war on terror" the "struggle against violent extremism," and eventually, "the long war."
Obama administration rhetorical alternatives are misleading, said Cully Stimson, who served in the Pentagon during the Bush administration. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano refused to use the word "terrorism" in her testimony to Congress, saying instead "man-caused disasters." Democrats often say global warming is a "man-caused disaster," Stimson pointed out.
"I would expect that she would not use that silly expression to a family member who suffered the loss of a loved one to an IED explosion," Stimson said. "Terrorists are terrorists."
The softening of terminology, he added, fits with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "soft power" strategy, which emphasizes diplomacy more than the previous administration did. At the end of the day, Stimson said, "you can call it cherry pie, but it's a war."
Just over 60 days into Obama's administration, few can analyze whether the change in rhetoric will result in a change in policy toward fighting terrorists, where they would be treated more like criminals instead of enemy combatants, warranting law enforcement instead of military action.
But top members of his administration have signaled that they will continue many of the policies toward terrorists that President Bush endorsed, even if Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay, where suspected terrorists have been held as "enemy combatants."
Attorney General Eric Holder said in his confirmation hearing that al-Qaida attacks show that "we are at war" and that battlefield rules would apply to al-Qaida operatives.
In his confirmation hearing, CIA Director Leon Panetta echoed Holder on battlefield rules for suspected terrorists, adding that he believed "extraordinary rendition," the practice of moving prisoners to prisons in foreign countries without legal rights, is still necessary.
The Obama administration also has cited national security concerns for releasing certain state secrets, another characteristic of the Bush administration's approach to terrorism. Members of the administration have denied that they are following in Bush's footsteps.