Obama's foreign policy: what era is it anyway?

From the "global war on terror" to the "long war" to the "overseas contingency operation," no one can decide what to call the current approach to US foreign policy.

Shortly after the 9/11 attack, the Bush administration began talking of the “global war on terror,” which inevitably became the acronym GWOT. By 2005, the Pentagon had rebranded.

The uneuphonious “gee-whot” became “the Long War.” Which did not win widespread acceptance either. It wasn’t terribly descriptive, for one thing. And as wars go, the four years that followed the World Trade Center attack was not an especially long time. Besides, historians pointed out, there had already been a Long War, fought from 1593 to 1604 between the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire (although, OK, 500 years was probably enough time for naming rights to lapse.)

Last March, seeking to rein in what it considered the overreaching of the Bush years, the Obama administration gave the conflict a new name. White House officials instructed members of the administration to talk of the “Overseas Contingency Operation.” Time will tell whether that term is generally accepted. Its newspeak ambiguity doesn’t seem promising. If mid-level officials start salting “the Obama oh-co” into their conversations, its shelf life will surely be short.

Launching a meme for the age can be satisfying, but it is hard to pull off. It helps if the meme-maker is in a position of power. When the big guy turns the phrase, the phrase has a decent chance of getting parroted back, although that doesn’t mean it will reproduce in the wild.

In the 1950s, when my dad was an Air Force officer stationed in Japan, he was irked that a commanding officer had concocted a name for that era and was pushing it in conversations and memos. It was clear that underlings were expected to use the word. The word was a kludgy combination of “jet” and “atomic,” two terms that defined the hot technologies of the time as much as “digital” and “nano” do today. Slammed together, the ’50s were the “Jetomic Age.”

If you Google the term, you’ll actually see a few (very few) references to it associated with the Air Force and the ’50s, along with some telltale kanji characters. For all I know, jetomic’s limited spread was attributable to my dad and fellow officers propagating it through clenched teeth while a few Japanese allies listened attentively.

Even a successful era label can get misappropriated or hijacked. In the late 1980s, with the cold war (hat tip to presidential adviser Bernard Baruch for the term, with an assist by columnist Walter Lippmann) coming to a close, President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, began talking of the “New World Order.” Goodbye to the long, twilight struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, capitalism and communism.

Something new was dawning. New World Order sounded innocent enough, but it became a sinister acronym to people worried about “world government,” “the “gnomes of Zurich,” and a dozen other global conspiracies. By the mid-1990s, amid ethnic cleansing and collapsed states, NWO was mostly used with air quotes. The New York Times ran a “name that era” contest in 1995. There were hundreds of suggestions, but none that took off.

Does it matter what the present moment is called? It does if the term resonates with the public – and especially if there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy involved. GWOT did describe a time of daring special ops from Africa to East Asia, extraordinary renditions, and “thunder runs” from Kandahar to Baghdad. By now, too, the conflict can legitimately be considered a long war. President Obama’s intention to extricate the US from its big overseas military operations, if successful, would validate the word “contingency.”

If a meme can predict the times, I’d like to propose the one that described the period between 1817 and 1825. Never mind the particulars, the term is available. Why not a new "Era of Good Feelings?"

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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