So are we at “war” with terrorism? If not, then what is it? Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards objects to the term, saying it has been concocted to give rhetorical support to the Bush administration’s foreign adventurism. Congress has stopped referring to the global war on terrorism in legislation for similar reasons. Central Command Combatant Commander Admiral William J. Fallon has deep-sixed the expression “The Long War,” a term of art that emerged from a Pentagon PowerPoint briefing a few years back. And former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld himself tried to replace the expression Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) with the clunkier Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSAVE) back in the summer of 2005. The term was concocted to capture every nuance of the challenge we face and the means to combat it. Unfortunately in the Arab-speaking world “struggle” in this context was translated as ”jihad,” which caused some confusion overseas. Is the U.S. pro-jihad or against it? But the White House quickly killed GSAVE for other reasons — arguing that this isn’t a “struggle,” this is war, and we should keep it that way.
There was some sound reasoning behind GSAVE, even if the expression did not resonate. “War” implies a conflict in which the military takes the lead role. Combating terrorism is a much broader endeavor which requires participation from numerous elements of national power. The intelligence community arguably plays a more critical role than the military. Law enforcement also has a major piece of the action, as does the diplomatic community. To the extent the military is involved in this mission it is through inter alia
employing special-operations forces, supplying communications and logistics support, training forces from partner nations, and engaging in various ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target acquisition and Reconnaissance) activities. It is worth remembering that the DOD controls half the offices and agencies of the intelligence community and the lion’s share of the budget.
As well, “war” traditionally suggests conflict between sovereign entities that control territories and govern populations. This is the understanding of war that has shaped the international agreements that have sought to limit the outbreak of wars and regulate their conduct. The enemy we face is not a sovereign entity recognized by the international community, which has led to a number of difficult legal issues in the conduct of the war that may not have arisen under more conventional circumstances.