The British government has decided to drop the phrase "war on terror" from its official vocabulary list. Prime Minister Tony Blair hasn't said "war on terror" since June, and the Foreign Office has told cabinet ministers to find a way to deal with terrorism both at home and in the Middle East without further alienating the growing body of disaffected British Muslims, not to mention the entire Islamic world (apparently the British war on terror never targeted the IRA).
Responding to Britain's rhetorical draw down, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department insisted that the war on terror, a trademark of the George W. Bush presidency, remains alive and well: "It's the president's phrase, and that's good enough for us."
But it's not good enough for Donald Rumsfeld. Before leaving office, the Secretary of Defense bluntly repudiated the phrase: "It is not a war on terror." On hearing this, the president stamped his feet and retorted, "It is too," a comment that White House Press Secretary Tony Snow later denied.
As Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld always maintained a tough and warlike image. He once said, "You get a lot more with a kind word and a gun than you do with a kind word alone," and he insisted on many occasions that "Iraq is really one of the battle grounds in the global war on terror."
But on Pearl Harbor Day, the infamous Rumsfeld told interviewer Cal Thomas that that he had never supported the president's definition: "I don't think I would have called it the war on terror."
Rumsfeld admitted that when he unexpectedly lost his job at the Pentagon, he discovered one of those "unknown unknowns," a truth that he didn't know and didn't know he didn't know. He suddenly realized that calling our efforts in Iraq a war on terror "creates a level of expectation of victory. . . . It isn't going to happen that way." Since the going was getting tough, Rumsfeld did what the tough do: he cut and ran.
While it may seem odd that a Secretary of Defense initially misunderstood the connotations of a word like war – after all, the Secretary of Defense used to be called the Secretary of War – even Pres. Bush may be starting to see that catchy slogans can't always shape reality or hide it from others.
In a tacit acknowledgment that the war's end, like the horizon, keeps receding, last November the president retired his signature foreign policy initiative, "stay the course," though the retraction came too late to influence the midterm elections.
The once-popular Tony Blair is also on his way out, and that might have influenced his own attempt to redefine reality. But despite the Senate testimony of incoming Defense Secretary Bob Gates that the U.S. is not winning in Iraq, Pres. Bush continues to insist on defining the war on terror as well as fighting it. After all, winning isn't everything, and Gates did tell Congress that we weren't losing, either.