Has Obama Ended the “War on Terror”?


Has President Barack Obama ended the “war on terror”?

On his second day in office, he signed an executive order that would prevent any officer of the US government from engaging in torture. As he placed his name on the order–keeping a prominent campaign promise–he declared that this move “effectively ensures that anyone detained by the United States for now” will be interrogated in a fashion consistent with the Army field manual, which notes that the use of force, threats, or inhumane treatment is prohibited by law. “We can abide by a rule that says we don’t torture,” Obama maintained. In other words, good-bye to waterboarding.

Obama signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by a group of retired generals and flag officers who had advocated a torture ban. It was yet another historic moment in a series of such moments this week. Obama reiterated what he said during his inaugural address: that the United States need not be forced into the false choice between protecting its values and honoring its ideals.

What was intriguing was how Obama characterized the fight against terrorism. He said, “The message we are sending around the world is the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism” vigilantly, effectively, and “in a manner consistent with our values and ideals.” Notably, he did not use the term “war on terror.” And moments later, he proclaimed, “We intend to win this fight and we’re going to win it on our terms.” Again, no “war.”

Is this a purposeful shift in rhetoric? Has Obama decided to drop the war on terrorism metaphor that the Bush-Cheney administration used extensively?

At Robert Gibbs’ first briefing as White House press secretary on Thursday afternoon, I asked if the president had booted the war metaphor. Gibbs replied that Obama had used language that was consistent with his inaugural address. In that speech, Obama had indeed said that “our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” But he did not use the standard “war on terror” phrase. Instead he threw the word “war” against a specific target.

At the press conference, I followed up and inquired if Obama had decided not to deploy that phrase as president. “Not that I’m aware of,” Gibbs answered.

De-emphasizing the war metaphor would be a significant change. But if it is a deliberate change, the White House does not want to acknowledge it.

UPDATE: Speaking at the State Department later in the day, Obama characterized the battle against terrorists as a “twilight struggle.” But when listing the national security challenges the nation faces, he quickly ran through the line-up: “the war on terror, sectarian division, and the spread of deadly technology.” He’s obviously not allergic to the term. But it’s not the description he reaches for first when he publicly discusses the matter. Not so far in his presidency.

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  • David Corn

    David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief and an on-air analyst for MSNBC. He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Showdown, Hubris (with Isikoff), and The Lies of George W. Bush, as well as the e-book, 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook.