Terror attacks, Taliban resurgence, suicide bombs—obviously, it's time to change the slogan.
One question comes to mind while reading the New York Times'report today that the Bush administration has decided to change the name of its counterterrorist campaign from "the global war on terrorism" to "the global struggle against violent extremism": Are these guys really this clueless?
What else to make of the story's opening sentence:
The Bush administration is retooling its slogan for the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, pushing the idea that the long-term struggle is as much an ideological battle as a military mission, senior administration and military officials said Monday.
Three subquestions arise just from the lead. First, this is the administration's solution to the spike in terrorist incidents, the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan, and the politico-military deterioration in Iraq—to retool the slogan?
Second, the White House and the Pentagon are just now coming around to the idea that the struggle is as much ideological as military? This wasn't obvious, say, three or four years ago?
Apparently not. Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, the Times reporters who co-authored the article, note:
Administration and Pentagon officials say the revamped campaign has grown out of meetings of President Bush's senior national security advisers that began in January, and it reflects the evolution in Mr. Bush's own thinking nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks. [Italics added.]
It took four years for the president of the United States to realize that fighting terrorism has a political component? It took six months for his senior advisers to retool a slogan? We are witnessing that rare occasion when the phrase "I don't know whether to laugh or cry" can be uttered without lapsing into cliché.
But the shallowness gets deeper still. The Times story doesn't notice what appears to be the driving force behind the new slogan—a desire for a happier acronym.
Look at the first letters of Global War on Terrorism. GWOT. What does that mean; how is it pronounced? Gwot? Too frivolously rowdy, like a fight scene in a Marvel comic book (Bam! Pfooff! Gwot!). Gee-wot? Sounds like a garbled question (Gee what?).
Then look at Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism. Its acronym is GSAVE—i.e., gee-save. We're out to save the world, see, not wage war on it. Or, as national security adviser Stephen Hadley puts it in the Times piece, "We need to dispute both the gloomy vision and offer a positive alternative."
Does Hadley, and do all our other top officials, really believe this nonsense? Are they so enraptured with PR that they think a slogan and a strategy are the same thing and that retooling the one will transform the other? Have we lapsed into the banality of the mid-'70s, when President Gerald Ford tried to beat back 20-percent price hikes by urging Americans to wear gigantic lapel pins that read "WIN"—for Whip Inflation Now?
The Times notes, midway into the story, that the "language shifts" come at a time when Karen Hughes, one of President Bush's most trusted advisers, is about to take over the State Department's office of "public diplomacy." If changing GWOT to GSAVE is a sign of campaigns to come, we are in sorrier shape than anyone might previously have imagined.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George Bush by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.