Britain is rapidly backpedaling on the "war on terror." Not the global effort to subdue jihadists, but the three-word phrase, much used by President Bush, which in the British establishiment now fear is ill-defined, oversimplistic, and excessively martial and Manichaean.
Government ministers were quietly instructed several weeks ago to avoid using the term, but matters were brought into the open Monday when a senior cabinet minister rejected the phrase during a speech in America.
Hilary Benn, the Blair government's international development secretary, told a New York think tank that the concept of a war on terror sends out the wrong message on two levels: It encourages terrorists by dignifying their cause, and it suggests that only military measures could be a useful response.
"In [Britain], we do not use the phrase 'war on terror' because we can't win by military means alone and because this isn't us against one organized enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives," Mr. Benn told a meeting in New York organized by the Center on International Cooperation.
His remarks may hint at a subtle political shift in Britain as it prepares for Prime Minister Tony Blair to hand over the baton some time this summer. Mr. Blair's close alliance with Mr. Bush has been deeply unpopular in the Labour Party, much of which is appalled at the Iraq campaign. When Blair leaves office, Finance minister Gordon Brown is likely to be crowned his successor, but a lively race for party deputy is shaping up. Benn is one of the leading candidates.
"The more dovish people in the cabinet have probably always been uncomfortable with this" phrase, says Michael Moore, a Liberal Democrat MP, who dislikes the "war on terror" tag. "The 'war on terror' signals to the center-left in Britain an American construct which is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as though the more we say it the more we will create these kind of enemies."
He says the phrase does not address the complexities of terrorism. "We need to recognize a broad set of destabilizing factors, mostly driven by extreme poverty and an inequitable share of the world's resources," says Mr. Moore. "For us it's a more complex feature of globalization, but to call it a 'war on terror' is a mistake."
Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism expert and author of "Terrorism versus Democracy: the Liberal State Response," says the catchphrase raises public expectations that there is "a kind of battlefield solution to the problem of terrorism."
The term gives terrorists a boost by making them feel "they are genuinely involved in a war, as they claim, and that they are soldiers, warriors, engaged in some kind of noble cause," Prof. Wilkinson adds. Terrorists can, and indeed have, exploited such linguistic grandstanding.
But some terrorism experts are exasperated at the semantic debate, fretting that officials are fiddling while Rome burns. "It's OK for Mr. Benn to say it's not a war, but that's not how the enemy sees it," says M.J. Gohel, a terrorism expert and director of the international Asia-Pacific Foundation think tank. "The 9/11 attack was a declaration of war on the Western world and on secular democracies, and repeated statements by Al Qaeda and the global jihad movement have indicated clearly that they are at war."
Bob Ayers, a security analyst at London's Chatham House think tank, says Britain shouldn't get hung up on America's proclivity for the word "war." "The US used the term 'war on' in many things – war on poverty, war on terror, war on drugs," he says.
"When you use the word war, it's the term to describe mobilizing the assets of the nation state," Mr. Ayers adds. "It includes military forces, but is not exclusively military. In the Second World War, Britain waged a war against axis powers, but it wasn't just military. It was economic, political, psychological warfare – hearts and minds."
And in any case, he says, what's the alternative?
Nothing quite as snappy is the answer. The European Union, notes Wilkinson, prefers to talk in terms of the "struggle against Al Qaeda," which he says avoids ambiguity by pinpointing the most dangerous network and by indicating that it is not just about war in its traditional sense.
Moore says he would prefer to talk about "confronting international terrorism" and recognizing "the different roots that give rise to that."
Otherwise, he says, he prefers "the so-called war on terror."