New York Times
April 24, 2007
By Michael R. Gordon
WASHINGTON, April 23 — When the Bush administration has sought to explain its strategy for fighting terrorism, it has often said the United States is involved in a “long war” against Islamic extremists.
The phrase was coined by Gen. John P. Abizaid before he retired as head of the Central Command. It was intended to signal to the American public that the country was involved in a lengthy struggle that went well beyond the war in Iraq and was political as well as military.
It would be a test of wills against “Islamofascism,” as President Bush once put it. It would also be a historic challenge that spanned generations much like the battles against Communism.
As it turned out, however, the long war turned out to be surprisingly short-lived, at least at the command that pioneered the term. After taking over last month as the head of Central Command, Adm. William J. Fallon quietly retired the phrase.
Military officials said that cultural advisers at the command had become concerned that the concept of a long war alienated Middle East audiences by suggesting that the United States would keep a large number of forces in the region indefinitely.
Admiral Fallon was also said to have been unenthusiastic about the phrase. He has stressed the importance of focusing on the difficult situation in Iraq and in achieving results as soon as possible. The notion of a long war, in contrast, seemed to connote an extended conflict in which Iraq was but a chapter.
The change “is a product of our ongoing effort to use language that describes the conflict for our Western audience while understanding the cultural implications of how that language is construed in the Middle East,” Lt. Col. Matthew McLaughlin, a spokesman for the command, said in an e-mail message. “The idea that we are going to be involved in a ‘Long War,’ at the current level of operations, is not likely and unhelpful.”
“We remain committed to our friends and allies in the region and to countering Al Qaeda-inspired extremism where it manifests itself, but one of our goals is to lessen our presence over time. We didn’t feel that the term ‘Long War’ captured this nuance,” he added.
The command’s decision to drop the “long war” terminology was reported by The Tampa Tribune last week.
It is far from clear whether the White House and Pentagon will eventually follow Admiral Fallon’s lead. Mr. Bush used the phrase “long war” in his 2006 State of the Union address, and the White House drew on the terminology in announcing its strategy for combating terrorism. The phrase also featured prominently in a major review that the Pentagon did last year on military strategy, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has used it in Congressional testimony.
“This is a generational war, and we are going to be in it a long time,” said a White House official, who declined to be identified. “Nobody I have heard around here is talking about dropping it.”
An earlier push to change the way the Bush administration describes its strategy against terrorism was notably unsuccessful. In 2005, the Pentagon argued that the phrase “war on terror” should be replaced by “global struggle against violent extremism.” The shift was advocated by Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was the defense secretary at the time, but it was overruled by Mr. Bush.
Some adjustments have been made. Administration officials seem to be using “Islamic fascism” and “jihadist” less regularly. The concern was that the terms might be potentially counterproductive because of their potential to further alienate Muslim audiences and that they were culturally insensitive. Mr. Bush, however, used both terms in a news conference in September.
“This is the beginning of a long struggle against an ideology that is real and profound,” Mr. Bush said in August. “It’s Islamofascism.”
For its part, the Central Command has also dispensed with another term, the “Salafist Extremist Network,” a reference to a particularly conservative strain of Islam, to describe Qaeda operatives.
Some allies welcome the change to play down “long war” and other Islamic terminology. British officials have long believed that the terminology was used by extremists as a recruiting tool. More recently, the Democratic-controlled House Armed Services Committee put out a style guide banning the phrases “global war on terror” and “long war” from its committee reports.
Admiral Fallon does not appear to have come up with a catchy substitute for his predecessor’s turn of phrase.
“We continue to look for other options to characterize the scope of current operations,” said Colonel McLaughlin, the spokesman.