Paul Pillar

War and Semantics

Words can be misused in public and political debate in many tendentious ways that both offend semantic integrity and make discourse more misleading than enlightening. The current political campaign offers many examples, of course. One type of misuse is to ascribe such broad meaning to a term that important distinctions among different possible policies are effectively erased because the term as used comes to embrace them all. This has especially been the case with the term war.

The term had already been thoroughly abused in recent years in connection with counterterrorism and the so-called “war on terror.” The loose and slanted use of the term was, and still is, intended to obfuscate distinctions among the nature of the problem of terrorism, the importance of the problem and methods to deal with the problem. The chief underlying motivation for the obfuscation is to get people thinking in terms of military measures as the main way to combat terrorism. Rather than making an explicit policy argument about the pros and cons of using that policy tool compared with the use of other tools, proponents of the tool use twisted semantics instead. That is a poor way to arrive at policy on any topic. There have been other disadvantages of the “war on terror” terminology, including the misleading tendency to think of the problem as involving a single wartime foe and to think of counterterrorism as having a definite beginning and a definite end. As my former colleague Philip Mudd pointed out last week, the extension of the war metaphor to the handling of terrorist suspects (as reflected in legislation imposing restrictions on the executive branch regarding imprisonment and trials) has the further disadvantage of portraying terrorists exactly as they want to be portrayed—as warriors—rather than as thugs.

Recent expansive misuse of the term war by presidential candidates has been intended to convey the notion that resort to real war—that is, using military force to attack someone—would be no big deal because it isn't essentially different from other things that we could be doing or things that others are already doing now. Rick Santorum, in an exchange with Ron Paul about Iran in a debate last month, said that Iran “has been at war with us since 1979,” citing an Iranian connection with some of the improvised explosive devices used in Iraq. (Santorum followed this statement with some really ignorant remarks about how Iran is ruled by the “equivalent of al-Qa'ida,” that its “principal virtue” is martyrdom and that its “theology teaches” that its objective is to “create a calamity.”) By this use of the term war, Santorum is telling us that the extreme step of attacking Iran militarily would supposedly only be a continuation of something that has been going on for three decades anyway. Of course, in using the Iraqi IED allusion he never mentioned that it was the United States, not Iran, that invaded Iraq and started the war there. Nor did he point out that if someone else's use of a supplied munition constitutes the supplier being at war, then the United States has been at war with many other countries that Americans no doubt do not realize they have been at war with.

In a similar vein, Rick Perry said this in a written response to a question from the New York Times about executive power to use armed force:

There have been numerous examples where a President must direct our armed forces to engage even in the absence of an “imminent” threat. For example, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when there was no imminent threat of missile launch, President Kennedy preemptively acted with a blockade against Cuba (an act of war) on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine and his power to defend the nation as our Commander-in-Chief.

Setting aside the conceptual problem of how an act can be termed preemptive when there is no imminent threat, note how Perry's parenthetical labeling of the naval quarantine as an “act of war” erases the huge differences between policy options that the U.S. decision makers were weighing during those momentous thirteen days in 1962. Not a shot was fired as part of the quarantine; it was carefully designed so that none would be unless the Soviets tried to insert more missiles into Cuba. The principal alternative policy option under consideration would have indisputably been an act of war: a military strike against the Soviet installations already in Cuba. The Kennedy-administration decision makers opted against that alternative because of the risk of escalation to catastrophic levels. Candidates such as the two Ricks may not understand the difference between such policy options, but we should all be thankful that those who had war or peace in their hands during the missile crisis understood the difference.