It’s official. The United States is no longer engaged in a “war on terrorism.” Neither is it fighting “jihadists” nor locked in a “global war.”
President Obama’s top homeland security and counterterrorism official on Thursday declared as unacceptable the terms crafted by the George W. Bush administration.
It is now solely a “war with al Qaeda” and its violent extremist allies, said John Brennan, head of the White House homeland security office, during a speech Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
The semantic shift is intended to bring precision to the way the president and his aides talk about the nation’s efforts to defeat al Qaeda, though Bush administration officials say the policies that are being put to use have not changed dramatically.
To say the United States is fighting “jihadists” is wrongheaded, Mr. Brennan said, because it is using “a legitimate term, ‘jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal,” which “risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve.”
“Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself,” Mr. Brennan said.
As for the “war on terrorism,” Mr. Brennan said, the administration will not use the phrase “because terrorism is but a tactic - a means to an end, which in al Qaeda’s case is global domination by an Islamic caliphate.”
He also dismissed “global war” as a term that feeds al Qaeda’s vision of itself as a “a highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in March that the administration was not using the term “war on terror” but no specific directive had come from the White House itself. Mr. Obama used the term “war on terror” Jan. 23, his fourth day as president, but he has not used it since.
Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism to Mr. Bush, was in the audience and dismissed Mr. Brennan’s speech as cosmetic.
“It’s a straw man. The question is: How do you deal with the policy?” said Mr. Zarate, who disagreed with Mr. Brennan’s suggestion that the Obama administration is not continuing Bush-era policies.
Critics on the left and the right have pointed out that the Obama administration has continued such Bush-era policies as extraordinary rendition and drone attacks in Pakistan. There remains an international and domestic surveillance program that is cloaked in mystery, and the war in Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama has increased the number of U.S. troops and the military continues to house enemy combatants at Bagram Air Base.
In addition, the White House is still considering the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects.
“A challenge for John and the administration is to preserve the perception of a new approach while still continuing with counterterrorism strategies that have proven effective,” Mr. Zarate said.
Mr. Brennan’s speech was aimed at outlining ways in which the Obama administration intends to undermine the “upstream” factors that create an environment in which terrorists are created.
The president’s adviser talked about increasing aid to foreign governments for building up their militaries and social and democratic institutions, but provided few details about how the White House will do that.
James K. Glassman, who served as Mr. Bush’s ambassador to the Muslim world as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said the focus on “upstream” factors was “a good strategy because it’s the same strategy that we had.”