Warring on abstract nouns

The President thinks the enemy is an abstraction. Kerry knows it’s a bunch of proper names. Can you fight an enemy if you’re afraid to name it?

Before support for “the war on terror” became an article of faith on the Right, a number of conservative bloggers pointed out — correctly, it seemed to me — that the phrase was nonsensical.

Terror, they said, is a tactic. Our enemy is not “terror” or “terrorism” or even “terrorists,” but a group of fanatical Islamic extremists who are waging war on the West and who employ terrorism as one means of asymmetric conflict.

Unless, they said, we are willing to resist the impulse to political correctness that avoids mentioning that our enemy is one aspect of Islam, rather than an abstract noun, we cannot prevail. How can you fight a war, they asked, if you are unwilling even to name your enemy?

Well, it turns out they, and I, were completely wrong about that. The Beloved Leader, the Commander in Chief, who is known to be infallible and who must not be criticized for fear of emboldening the enemy, says that our enemy is terrorism in the abstract and not, for example, al-Qaeda or Hamas or Hezbollah or the Islamic Brotherhood.

At least, he sharply criticized Richard Holbrooke, an adviser to Sen. Kerry, for saying that “war on terror” is a metaphor, like “war on poverty,” and that our actual enemy was politicized Islamic fundamentalism and the groups that embody it.

Now that it turns out that it is the Kerry camp that shares their view of what we are fighting, and that Mr. Bush is still sticking by his politically correct but nonsensical formulation, I expect a mass defection of warbloggers to the Kerry camp.


Do you suspect I might be misquoting the President, just a tad? Here are the duelling quotes from the Jodi Wilgoren/Elisabeth Bumiller story in Thursday’s New York Times:

Mr. Bush ridiculed Richard C. Holbrooke, a Kerry confidant on foreign policy, for asserting that the nation is not in a “war on terror, in the literal sense.”

“Senator Kerry’s top foreign policy advisers question whether this is even a war at all,” Mr. Bush told a cheering Republican crowd at the fairgrounds in Mason City, quoting comments Mr. Holbrooke, a former representative to the United Nations, made in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine. “Here’s what he said, and I quote: ‘We’re not in a war on terror in the literal sense. It is like saying ‘the war on poverty.’ It is just a metaphor.’ End quote.”

Mr. Bush added, “Confusing food programs with terrorist killings reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the war we face and that is very dangerous thinking.”

In a telephone interview, Mr. Holbrooke responded: “Perhaps I should be flattered that President Bush has misrepresented me as badly as he has misrepresented John Kerry. But this is serious business. Terror is a tactic, we are at war with Islamic extremists who use it as a tactic and the administration is fighting this war ineffectively.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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