Thursday, July 31, 2008

Let's Quit Calling It A War On Terror!

Something I hope all Democratic candidates will do with more forethought is to change the issues language of the campaign. Democrats are sometimes too quick to respond to Republican rhetoric with a negative, rather than a thoughtfully crafted positively worded position statement.

I know it works -- remember in the 1970s when the "pro-life" movement tried to co-opt Americans into believing that if liberals were for abortions and family planning it meant liberals were "anti-life?" Thoughtful Democrats successfully coined the phrase "pro-choice" and since that phrase coinage progressives have been able to accurately refer to Republicans as "anti-choice." Consider the difference in the images brought to mind.

Words do matter! Consider a recent report from the nonpartisan Rand Corp. political think tank that flatly states, "The U.S. Should Rethink 'War On Terrorism' Strategy to Deal with Resurgent Al Qaida."

In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase "war on terrorism," the RAND researchers concluded.

"The United States also should avoid the use of the term, 'war on terror,' and replace it with the term 'counter terrorism.' Nearly every U.S. ally, including the United Kingdom and Australia, has stopped using 'war on terror,' and it's more than a mere matter of semantics," says Seth Jones, the RAND study lead author and a political scientist at RAND.

The study contends the Bush Administration committed a fundamental error in strategic thinking by portraying the conflict with al-Qaeda as a "war on terrorism." The phrase falsely suggests that there can be a battlefield solution to terrorists, and symbolically conveys warrior status on terrorists.

"The term we use to describe our strategy toward terrorists is important, because it affects what kinds of forces you use," Jones said. "Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism."

"The United States has the necessary instruments to defeat al Qaida, it just needs to shift its strategy [and policy phrasing] and keep in mind that terrorist groups are not eradicated overnight," Jones said.

The RAND study, "How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qaida," can be found at The report was prepared by the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center that does research for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the unified commands and other defense agencies.

If Democrats want some lessons on crafting the correct political messages, read George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant.

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