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War on terror: Obama softened the language, but hardened Muslim hearts

The Obama administration’s shift in counterterrorism language sought to bridge the divide with the Muslim world and soften Americans’ fear of Islam. But the new rhetoric hasn't matched policy, and the unintended costs at home and abroad have been high.

By Stuart Gottlieb / October 14, 2010

New Haven, Conn.

One of the most defining aspects of the Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy has been its effort to change America's rhetorical approach to the threat of terrorism, particularly Islamic terrorism. "The language we use matters," President Obama told the Arabic satellite television station Al Arabiya in an interview during his first week in office. Scrubbed were George W. Bush-era terms like "war on terrorism," "radical Islam," and "jihadist." The White House's 2010 National Security Strategy formally replaced the term "Islamic terrorism" with "violent extremism."

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The purpose of the shift in semantics was two-fold.

First, it aimed to repackage the fight against terrorism as a specific fight against Al Qaeda, not against Islamic extremism, which Mr. Obama believes contributed to a post-9/11 perception that America was "at war with Islam." Indeed, the new rhetoric has gone hand in hand with Obama's outreach to the Muslim world to build "a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest."

Second, it was part of a broader effort to soften Americans' fear of Islamic terrorism, which Obama officials believe plays directly into the hands of extremists.

Language change ineffective

Now it is fair to ask whether Obama's use of language regarding terrorism has proven effective. Startling new polls suggest it hasn't. The first, by the Brookings Institution in Washington, shows that between May 2009 and May 2010 the number of Middle Eastern Arabs expressing optimism in Obama's approach toward their region dropped from 51 percent to just 16 percent, with those describing themselves as "discouraged" by the Obama presidency rising from 15 percent to 63 percent.

The second, by the Pew Research Center, shows that in August 2010 fewer Americans held a favorable view of Islam (30 percent) than five years earlier during the Bush administration (41 percent), with more Americans (35 percent) saying Islam encourages violence more than other religions (in 2002, it was 25 percent).

These starkly negative trend lines suggest the limited utility of language in fighting terrorism. Yes, terrorism is a propaganda-fueled activity – an ongoing battle to win hearts and minds and attract new recruits to fight for the cause. And of course the language used in combating terrorism is vital – the counterproductive "smoke 'em out" rhetoric of the Bush administration is a case in point.

But if rhetoric does not match policy, or appears to discount or play down threats, the credibility – and thus effectiveness – of the overall counterterrorism strategy may be undermined. It appears the Obama administration has dug itself into just such a hole.


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