Semantic silliness

SEMANTIC SILLINESS…. I suppose it’s not too surprising, but it is depressing to be reminded of how stunted our political discourse really is. Greg Sargent had this disheartening-but-fascinating report.

On an RNC conference call with reporters just now, Rudy Giuliani called on the Obama administration to start using the words “war” and “terror” in the same sentence again.

First, he repeatedly praised Attorney General Eric Holder for his repeated use of the word “war” in his opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, where he’s being grilled over his decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a New York court.

But then he charged that Holder’s description of our standoff with global terrorism as a “war” wasn’t good enough, and claimed that the administration’s abandonment of the specific phrase “war on terror” was directly linked to the decision on where to try KSM and his co-conspirators.

Keep in mind, Giuliani, who has a child-like understanding of national security, isn’t making a policy argument, per se. For the former mayor, the key here is rhetoric — unless administration officials use the precise three-word phrase that Giuliani prefers, then the White House must necessarily be wrong.

“I do think that terminology is important,” Giuliani said.

Apparently, so. The Attorney General told lawmakers this morning about the “war” the U.S. is fighting “against terrorism” and “a vicious enemy.” According to the former mayor, Eric Holder’s choice of words is inadequate, which leads the Justice Department to make bad decisions, which leads the Obama administration to undermine U.S. national security interests.

I know a wide variety of people, including most of the media establishment, take Giuliani seriously. I just don’t understand why.

For what’s it’s worth, the Obama administration agreed early on that the “war on terror” phrase was lacking. That made sense; one can’t wage a “war” against a tactic anyway. It also made strategic sense — Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained the “war on terror” has “became associated in the minds of many people outside the Unites States and particularly in places where the countries are largely Islamic and Arab, as being anti-Islam and anti-Arab.”

By moving away from the phrase, the president and his team came into line with the thinking of Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who banned the use of the phrase “Global War on Terror” back in 2007. Even Donald Rumsfeld rejected the phrase back in 2006: “[I]t is not a ‘war on terror.'” Did Giuliani host RNC conference calls to condemn Mullen’s and Rumsfeld’s choice of phrases?

It should be obvious, but the key here is the efficacy of the policy, not the semantics. And when it comes to counter-terrorism, Obama and his team have proven themselves quite effective at capturing, detaining, and occasionally killing terrorists. If Giuliani is unsatisfied with this, he’ll have to do a far better job of explaining why.