Our stunted discourse

OUR STUNTED DISCOURSE…. For over a week now, the right has been working aggressively to go after President Obama over national security policy. But since the failed Christmas-day plot, conservatives haven’t quite come up with a coherent line of attack. Indeed, nine days later, I’m still not quite sure what it is the right is complaining about. I’ve spent the last week feeling a bit like Brick Tamland saying, “I don’t know what we’re yelling about.”

Right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer seems to think the problem has little to do with substantive disputes, and more to do with semantic differences.

[J]ust to make sure even the dimmest understand, Obama banishes the term “war on terror.” It’s over — that is, if it ever existed.

Obama may have declared the war over. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda has not. Which gives new meaning to the term “asymmetric warfare.”

It’s hard to overstate who strikingly dumb this is. President Obama has stressed repeatedly over the last year, using plain and unambiguous language that even Charles Krauthammer can understand, that he believes the nation is at “war” with al Qaeda and other terrorist networks who seek to commit acts of violence against the United States and its allies. The president never “declared” any war “over.” Krauthammer either hasn’t been paying attention, or he’s blatantly lying, hoping his readers aren’t quite sharp enough to know the difference.

But at its core, Krauthammer’s argument has all the sophistication and maturity of a bumper sticker — those who use the phrase “war on terror” are strong and sensible; those who don’t are weak and misguided. It’s the premise that’s underpinned practically all of the far-right rhetoric since Christmas. Conservatives aren’t complaining about the administration’s efforts; they’re complaining about the administration’s word choice.

Can we try being adults about this? The Obama administration agreed early on that the “war on terror” phrase was lacking. That was hardly shocking; one can’t wage a “war” against a tactic. 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.'”

And as Matt Yglesias noted yesterday, none other than Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who’s tried to get out in front of the confused lynch mob since Christmas, said as recently as 2008 that the phrase “war on terror” is the “dumbest term … you could use”.

If our discourse could rise above a junior-high level, “even the dimmest” would understand that the key to national security 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 even killing terrorists. If Krauthammer is unsatisfied with this, he’ll have to do a far better job of explaining why.