One of the defenses used by supporters of the Obama administration against criticism of its anti-terrorism policy is that, despite the partisan hype, it is not doing things all that much differently from the Bush protocols (e.g., continuance of the Patriot Act, renditions, tribunals, the Bush-Petraeus Iraqi withdrawal plan, etc.) or indeed has trumped the Bush administration, as in the radically expanded Predator-drone targeted assassinations and the general escalation in Afghanistan. A few of the more cynical administration supporters, off the record perhaps, would even argue that Obama’s rhetorical outreach (such as his loudly virtually closing Guantanamo and virtually scheduling KSM for trial), his confidence-building in the Muslim world, and his nontraditional name and lineage allow him to do things that the cowboyish Bush could not — as in expanding renditions, or blowing up at an unprecedented rate suspected terrorists and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the general vicinity, all as he soars in Cairo about a Muslim-fostered Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Even if the administration were that cynical, the problem is, to paraphrase the president himself, that “words matter,” and that our enemies are simultaneously also waging a symbolic war in which imagery, vocabulary, and perceptions matter as much as battlefield realities. So when Obama and his team were dreaming up euphemisms like “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters,” and loudly disowning terms like “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremism,” and “jihad,” and magnifying our own past misdemeanors while downplaying the felonies of Islam, and bragging of their intention to give KSM his day in court, or Mirandizing Abdulmutallab, or declaiming about Guantanamo, perhaps a subtle message was delivered to radical Islamists that we either would not or could not any longer wage war against them. As we know, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri put great stock in words as windows on the soul. So while we think we are as tough as before — though now smarter, with less polarizing rhetoric and a postnational commander-in-chief — our terrorist enemies may well sense that we feel culpable and will not be as unpredictably vigilant as in the past — even if actual policies in some cases remain unchanged.
Bottom line: Words matter. While we may think the “reset button”/“I’m not Bush” Obama rhetoric will win hearts and minds abroad, and give us new parameters of operations, our enemies may well look far more to words than to deeds — and see in them a radical loss of our deterrence ability. So the Hasans, Abdulmutallabs, and Shahzads of the world interpret our new philological magnanimity as weakness, regardless of whether it is or not. And that seems to me very dangerous indeed. Maybe the president can drop the “tea-bagger” slurs and forget Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and instead warn radical Islamists to knock it off — or else.