War: The Metaphor

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 4, 2005; 12:21 PM

Metaphors are hell for the Bush administration.

In a speech in Texas yesterday, President Bush made it clear that he is not deserting the "global war on terror" phraseology, in spite of indications from senior aides in recent weeks that a nomenclature shift was in the works.

The much-discussed would-be change in locution to "global struggle against violent extremism" -- from G-WOT to G-SAVE -- had become a source of mirth to some administration critics.

But this isn't the first time Bush or his aides have temporarily retreated from -- and then returned to -- the metaphor that has consistently been his most potent weapon in the battle for public opinion.

Almost exactly a year ago, after one of the president's rare speeches to a not entirely friendly audience, Bush briefly went off script. Here's the transcript of the Aug. 6, 2004, event at a minority journalists' convention.

Bush was asked to describe the mission for the U.S. troops in Iraq and to explain how they would know when they're done. Toward the end of his meandering reply, he had this to say:

"We actually misnamed the war on terror. It ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world."

The transcripts records laughter from the audience.

Dana Milbank related the incident in The Washington Post a few days later. He generously offered up the acronym: "SAIEWDNBIFSWHTUTAAWTTTSTCOTFW."

Bush never mentioned it in public again.

Just a few weeks later, in an interview with Matt Lauer broadcast on NBC's "Today" show on Aug. 30, Bush himself exposed one of the metaphor's major flaws.

"Lauer: So I'm just saying can we win it? Do you see that?

"President Bush: I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world -- let's put it that way."

The Bush campaign went into major damage control after that one.

As Mike Allen reported in The Washington Post a few days later: "President Bush rushed Tuesday to reverse his assertion that the war on terrorism cannot be won, as his campaign sought to limit the damage from a statement that Democrats had used to paint the commander in chief as defeatist.

" 'Make no mistake about it: We are winning and we will win,' Bush told the 86th annual convention of the American Legion as he continued his journey toward the Republican National Convention for his acceptance speech Thursday night."

The metaphor has an internal structural weakness. War is generally declared against an opponent. But terror is a tactic. As some have pointed out, declaring a "war on terror" is like declaring a "war on flanking maneuvers."

But this latest rebranding attempt has its roots in more practical considerations. Strictly speaking, the war on terror is not going well. Osama bin Laden is still at large and the insurgency in Iraq -- where terror had not previously been a problem -- is flourishing.

The big thinkers in the Bush administration would understandably rather emphasize the (much more popular) ideological nature of the struggle than just the military side.

As Susan B. Glasser wrote in The Washington Post in May: "The Bush administration has launched a high-level internal review of its efforts to battle international terrorism, aimed at moving away from a policy that has stressed efforts to capture and kill al Qaeda leaders since Sept. 11, 2001, and toward what a senior official called a broader 'strategy against violent extremism.' "

Then Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker wrote in the New York Times last week: "The Bush administration is retooling its slogan for the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, pushing the idea that the long-term struggle is as much an ideological battle as a military mission, senior administration and military officials said Monday. . . .

"Administration and Pentagon officials say the revamped campaign has grown out of meetings of President Bush's senior national security advisers that began in January, and it reflects the evolution in Mr. Bush's own thinking nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks."

Much discussion -- and no little ridicule -- ensued.

Harvard scholar Juliette Kayyem , for instance, wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: "It was President Bush himself who insisted on calling it a global war on terror. . . . 'A war between good and evil,' he called it. A war 'to save the world.'

"But now, apparently, a decision has been made that the language of war isn't working for him anymore."

On the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, correspondent/satirist Stephen Colbert reported: "Finally the phrase 'war on terror' is over, and we can all get on with our lives."

But some administration observers wondered if the change in fact signaled a significant change in strategy.

Just yesterday, Brookings Institution scholar Ivo Daalder blogged that it "represents a repudiation of the last four years of American policy."

But No

Richard W. Stevenson writes in today's New York Times that Bush left no doubt yesterday: "President Bush publicly overruled some of his top advisers on Wednesday in a debate about what to call the conflict with Islamic extremists, saying, 'Make no mistake about it, we are at war.'

"In a speech here, Mr. Bush used the phrase 'war on terror' no less than five times. Not once did he refer to the 'global struggle against violent extremism,' the wording consciously adopted by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other officials in recent weeks after internal deliberations about the best way to communicate how the United States views the challenge it is facing."

Stevenson writes that "administration officials became concerned when some news reports linked the change in language to signals of a shift in policy. At the same time, Mr. Bush, by some accounts, told aides that he was not happy with the new phrasing, a change of tone from the wording he had consistently used since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It is not clear whether the new language embraced by other administration officials was adopted without Mr. Bush's approval or whether he reversed himself after the change was made."

Here is the text of Bush's speech.

Reuters reports: "President Bush, following the deadliest roadside bomb attack on U.S. forces in Iraq, said on Wednesday the best way to honor the dead was to fight the insurgents and train Iraqi troops, and he rejected any early U.S. pullout."

Ziggurat of Zealotry?

The Financial Times editorializes that "the Bush administration sometimes resembles the Chinese communist party in the pithy language and acronyms it concocts to get important messages across to an American public that is really not very interested. . . .

"Another catchphrase, favoured by Philip Zelikow, the State department guru on all this, to describe al-Qaeda's radical message of terror, is 'the ziggurat of zealotry'."

Poll Watch

CBS News reports on its latest poll: "The president's approval level remains below 50 percent, and Americans are still divided over the war in Iraq. They are paying attention to one of the summer's major news stories -- the possible 2003 leak to reporters of the identity of CIA covert agent Valerie Plame. In fact, the story has captured a level of attention from the public similar to the early stages of political scandals such as Whitewater, the Democrats' 1996 fundraising and Iran Contra. . . .

"Americans are skeptical about the Bush administration's behavior and public statements about the 2003 leak of the name of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame to reporters. Only 12 percent think the Bush administration is telling the entire truth about the matter; more than half -- 55 percent -- think the administration is mostly telling the truth but hiding something, and another 22 percent think it is lying."

Here are the complete results .

Could Get Worse

Agence France Presse reports: "Another day of carnage in Iraq threatened to deal a new blow to brittle public backing for President George W. Bush's handling of the war, as 14 Marines perished in a roadside bombing. . . .

"[T]he fact that the admired and talismanic US Marines were caught in the crosshairs could weigh on public opinion, after recent polls showed increasing disquiet among Americans at the cost of the Iraq war."

Pushing the Domestic Message

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Wednesday that the combination of Republican tax cuts and new pro-business policies is helping to spread 'economic vitality' across the country and has put the White House ahead of pace toward trimming the deficit in half by 2009. . . .

"The president has not realized the lift in public polls that aides had hoped for amid the upbeat economic news and bipartisan agreements on Capitol Hill. With Bush's approval ratings stuck at or near all-time lows in several national surveys, GOP strategists suspect that high gasoline prices and uncertainty in Iraq have overshadowed job gains, a strong stock market, and better-than-expected economic growth and legislative results. . . .

"Bush and congressional Republicans plan to spend much of August touting the economic indicators and the potential benefits of the new energy and transportation policies, which will pour billions of dollars into local communities and scores of industries."

Big Spenders

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "When the year started, President Bush made spending restraint a mantra, laying out an austere budget that would freeze non-security discretionary spending for five years and setting firm cost limits on transportation and energy bills. But now, as Congress fills in the details of the budget plan, there is little interest in making deep cuts and enormous pressure to spend.

"Lawmakers have seen little to fear from a political backlash, some acknowledge, and Bush has yet to wield his veto pen. In fact, the White House has proved itself largely unable to overcome the institutional forces that have long driven lawmakers to ply their parochial interests with cash."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "In a piece of legislative legerdemain, Congress managed to stuff an extra $8.5 billion into the highway bill and still meet Mr. Bush's demands by requiring that the added money be turned back to the Treasury on Sept. 30, 2009, the day the bill expires.

"The question of whether that new bottom line translates into financial flexibility or fiscal irresponsibility now depends on who is adding things up.

"Budget watchdog groups, already upset at spending they equate to highway bill robbery, say the maneuver is the crowning offense perpetrated by a profligate Congress and exposes the administration as co-conspirators."

About ALEC

Bush's speech yesterday, by the way, was to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of conservative policy advocates founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, and historically funded by conservative foundations, pro-gun groups and corporations, including pharmaceutical manufacturers and tobacco companies.

Rove Watch

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News: "White House officials and senior Republican strategists are bracing for a new round of attacks on Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's involvement in the CIA leak probe, as Democrats move to take advantage of the slow news cycle in August. But insiders say they don't expect to hear anything new in the charges.

" 'There is no new news,' says one senior White House adviser and Rove ally. 'Rove is cool as a cucumber.'

"The Democrats, nonetheless, are looking at the case involving the leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame as a way to paint the White House as stonewalling a legitimate investigation. Coupled with the Bush administration's decision not to provide all documents related to Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, some Democrats believe they can make the case that the White House isn't being honest with the public. Part of the strategy was unveiled this week when the Democratic National Committee released a fact sheet titled 'Mr. Bush, Tear Down That Stone Wall.' The opening paragraph said the theme will be built on every day."

Terry Gross had New York Times reporter Adam Liptak and Wall Street Journal reporter Anne Marie Squeo talking about the Plame case on Tuesday.

Here's Liptak on syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who first published Plame's identity: "Robert Novak, although he's free to talk about what he may have said to the grand jury, if indeed he testified, just won't lay out the facts. And that lack of transparency is a kind of violation, I think, of the bond that journalists have with their readers -- not to say who his source was, no one's suggesting that -- but that he should say what he has done or not done in cooperating with the special prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald."

Here's Liptak on the news-gathering process on the story: "Well, it's a funny thing because even as this case supposedly is drying up confidential sources all over town, in this very case people are leaking like crazy. And, of course, they leak for partisan ends."

Here's Liptak apparently acknowledging that none of his leaks are coming from the prosecution: "Grand juries are secret, meant to be secret, and perhaps Anne Marie has better luck than me. But Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, has run an exceedingly tight ship."

Here's Liptak on whether jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller has ever even asked her source for permission to break confidentiality: "Judy and her lawyers have declined to answer the question of whether they have done anything at all to contact the source and try to obtain a satisfactory waiver."

And here's why Liptak thinks it's a great story: "It's just fascinating. It's authentically important. It implicates Justice, intelligence, foreign policy, the role of the press. It's a terrific, fascinating story, and I only wish it were a little less tangled because I have the feeling that sometimes readers get lost when you try to explain, as we have to over paragraph after paragraph, the tangled background of the story. But the patient reader who, you know, is willing to absorb and take it all in will find that it's a very illuminating, interesting story."

Here's Squeo agreeing: "Yeah, absolutely. And . . . to echo what Adam has said, I mean, I think that as a reporter, these are the kinds of stories you want to cover. You know, it's kind of invigorating, and every morning you pick up your rivals' newspapers with dread and anticipation that they may have scooped you, you know, or really excited 'cause you might have scooped them. And, I mean, I think it's -- you know, if you're a reporter, this is a hot story. There's a lot of very interesting aspects to it. And, you know, there's still so much intrigue about it that we have yet to find out."

Fitzgerald Indicts and Chuckles

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald held a press conference yesterday to announce indictments -- but not in this case. Something about fraud in Chicago .

Abdon M. Pallasch writes in the Chicago Sun Times: "U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was a bit coy Wednesday when asked if he wants to stay on the job.

" 'I'm going to just do my job until somebody tells me otherwise,' he said. 'I love my job. I'm very, very lucky to work with the people behind me. I have no plans to do anything else.' . . .

"How many more years would he like to serve?

" 'I'm not going to start lobbying for a job,' he said. 'You always serve at the pleasure and the will of the president. You're not guaranteed four years. You're just told you're very lucky to get a job. You do your job and if someone tells you it no longer serves the pleasure of the president, you pack your bags and you move on.''

"Chuckling a little, he added, 'I'm just doing my job, and if the phone doesn't ring and someone tells me to leave, I just keep doing my job.' "

Colombian Visitor

Nedra Picker writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has turned his remote ranch into a stage for down-home diplomacy, where a barbecue grill and a pickup truck have become his favorite tools for dealing with world leaders.

"The 1,600-acre property in central Texas is a place where aides say the president feels most comfortable and can spend more get-to-know-you time with his guests than in hurried Washington. On Thursday, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will be the 14th foreign leader to visit the ranch."

The Associated Press has a list of foreign dignitaries who have visited Bush at his ranch.

Andy Webb-Vidal writes in the Financial Times: "President George W. Bush will today welcome his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, to his ranch near Crawford, Texas, cementing a political relationship that is now Washington's most significant in Latin America.

"The meeting is important for Mr Uribe, who wants to get more military and financial aid to improve his chances of defeating a 41-year-old insurgency that funds itself largely from Colombia's illegal drug exports."

Over There

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek about the White House's great interest in the new 13-part drama "Over There" on FX -- the first TV drama about the current war in Iraq.

"The art-imitates-real-life idea is breaking new ground in both TV and politics, posing a curious question for President Bush and his aides: could 'Over There' affect the already-fragile poll numbers on Iraq? According to one senior Bush aide, the president has voiced a strong interest in the series but hasn't yet seen it for himself. Bush quizzed his aides last week about how the show was produced and how faithful it was to the conflict. 'Does it really depict what is going on? Do you get a sense of it?' Bush asked. In fact, just a handful of senior aides have seen the show and report it to be 'riveting' and 'pretty vivid.' But the senior aide says, 'We don't have an official opinion yet. I don't think enough people have seen it.'

"You can understand why Bush's aides would be unsure of the show. While the White House likes to honor the troops in Iraq, it remains uneasy about other institutions speaking for those same troops."

The Helen Thomas Affair

Albert Eisele writes in The Hill about how Helen Thomas's private commentary about Vice President Cheney ended up on the Drudge Report.

After a conversation with Thomas, which Eisele believed was clearly on the record, he recounted, "I then wrote what I thought was an innocuous item in our 'Under the Dome' column Thursday in which I quoted her response: 'The day I say Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I'll kill myself. All we need is one more liar.' She says I shouldn't have quoted her 'because we all say stuff we don't want printed.'

"Little did I know, being a creature of the typewriter/telegraph era of journalism, that cybergossip Matt Drudge would pounce on the item and transmit it to the farthest regions of the Internet universe, along with an unflattering photograph of Ms. Thomas. That was all Drudge acolytes needed to unleash a flood of e-mails condemning her -- and me, as her unwitting accomplice."

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