Our New Sort of War

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

President Obama proclaims no more of George Bush’s “war on terror,” even as he silently keeps most of it in place. The result is as confusing as it soon will be dangerous.

In these first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama has promised that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility will be closed within a year. He has assured us wiretapping and overseas rendition are under re-examination.

The Obama administration has also been busy tweaking terminology in an effort to put a kinder, gentler face to the war. There is no longer a “global war on terror.” It has been replaced by “overseas contingency operation.”

Nor are there any longer “unlawful enemy combatants” in Guantanamo Bay. Apparently, the terrorists there are now merely “detainees.”

According to Janet Napolitano, the new secretary of Homeland Security, there is not even “terrorism” but “man-caused disasters.” At least that’s the term she used in recent testimony before Congress.

By removing words like “war,” “enemy” and “terror” from official usage, perhaps Americans will be convinced there are no such unpleasant realities.

President Obama has also made an effort to apologize to key allies, rivals and enemies. He has told receptive Europeans that we have been arrogant and dismissive. The Turks were encouraged to hear that America “still struggles with the legacy of our past treatment of Native Americans.” The Russians were assured that we were pushing a “reset” button in our foreign policy.

The president has also sent envoys to reach out to a hostile Syria and a video expressing past American culpability in hopes of starting afresh with Iran.

At various times in interviews and lectures, Obama has reminded the world that the United States alone has dropped an atomic bomb, that it has been unnecessarily provocative to Muslims, that it has a shameful record of slavery and racial discrimination, and that almost everything George Bush did was wrong.

There is a problem with all this. While our well-meaning president is apologizing, employing euphemisms and promising not to be George Bush, his government is still also blowing apart suspected jihadists in Pakistan.

We are sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in efforts to destroy Taliban insurgents. The Obama administration has dropped the earlier rhetoric of a quick, unilateral withdrawal from Iraq. Instead, he has embraced Gen. David Petraeus’ plan of leaving slowly as events on the ground dictate.

In other words, our new “overseas contingent operations” seem similar to Bush’s old “war on terror.” Guantanamo Bay will still be open for at least a year. The Obama administration cannot find a country that wants back its expatriate terrorists — nor a legal solution to try terrorists caught without uniform on the battlefield who may not be fully protected under the Geneva Convention.

The new administration has even gone to court to protect the Bush-era wiretapping policies. And it has specifically retained the rights to use overseas renditions of suspected terrorists. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

More importantly, those who commit “man-caused disasters” are still busy. Iran brags that it has stepped up weapons-grade nuclear enrichment. The Taliban has promised a new offensive. Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Taliban in Pakistan — and who is suspected of engineering the assassination of Benazir Bhutto — just boasted, “Soon we will launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world.”

Despite American apologies and softer language, radical Islamists still think we are at war — and that they can defeat us. In short, we are in a new surreal — and dangerous — phase of the old war, doing enough killing to enrage our enemies even as we act sometimes as if we are not.

George Bush may have railed against “Islamic terrorists” and been ridiculed as a cowboy, but he at least prevented another September 11 attack. Plus, we knew we were in some sort of war.

Fighting a clear war against enemies is dangerous. Clearly not fighting a war against enemies may be more dangerous. But sort of fighting a war while acting as if we are sort of not may be the most dangerous thing of all.

©2009 Tribune Media Services

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