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Why Are We Suddenly At War With "Islamic Fascists"? A Neologism that Signals a Change in Strategy As Elections Near


Friday, Sep. 08, 2006

The latest orchestrated war-speak from Bush Administration officials, as they ramp up their oratory for the mid-term election, has recast Islamic militants and terrorists as "Islamic fascists." Thus, as we approach the five-year mark since terrorists attacked Americans on our own soil, the Administration is redefining the enemy - once again.

We have gone from the non sequitur of the "war on terrorism" (A war on "the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce for political purposes"?) to the neologism of the "war on Islamic fascists." Or, depending on the speaker, on "Islamofascism." Why the new rhetoric?

The answer is simple: Pure politics. Republicans, for good reason, are worried about losing control of Congress. (For less than rational reasons, many Americans believe Republicans are more effective than Democrats in fighting terrorists.) Should Republicans lose control of Congress, or either chamber, of course, it will mean the effective end of the Bush/Cheney presidency -- with the remaining two years of the presidency likely to be consumed by investigations into the activities of the prior six.

For these reasons, the Administration needs to create a more fearsome enemy. That new enemy is Islamofascists - whoever these people may be, they sound more frightening and important than the previously-named enemy. The Administration is aware that Americans are not sufficiently afraid, and that clear thinking will be its demise.

Clearly, Americans Are Less Frightened, And Even Questioning Terrorism's Threat

As the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, a New York Times poll shows that while a high percentage (69%) of New York City residents remain very concerned about another terror attack, elsewhere in the nation, the overwhelming majority (78%) of Americans are not worried about another terror attack. This is not good news for Republicans, who have been winning elections because of their tough talk about fighting terrorists.

In addition, more and more studies are showing that when reality and reason are employed to assess the dangers from terrorists (that is, when fear and emotions are set aside), the likelihood of any given American being killed (or injured) by a terrorist, or in a terror attack, is nominal. The risk of death from an act of a terror is at the bottom of any realistic risk assessment list.

For example, John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, asserts in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that "the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000 - about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor."

When answering the question "Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?," Professor Mueller concludes that, "Although it remains heretical to say so, the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist -- reminiscent of those inspired by images of the 20-foot-tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the 20-foot-tall Communists at various points in the Cold War (particularly after Sputnik) -- may have been overblown, the threat presented within the United States by al Qaeda is greatly exaggerated. The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists."

This is not the kind of analysis that enhances the credibility of Republican candidates. To counter the growing questions about the threat of terrorism, if not Americans' new ability to live with the reality of this risk, the Bush Administration is once again playing the name game, and engaging in rhetorical politics. No president has been better at fear-mongering than Mr. Bush. (In fact, no American president has ever worked so hard to exploit the fears of American voters.)

Bush's White House Is Unsure About What to Call the Enemy

Just as the enemy the Bush Administration is fighting has changed often, so too have the reasons for going to war in Iraq -- from phantom weapons of mass destruction, to implanting democracy that will flower in the Middle East, to the conflation of the war on terror with the occupation of Iraq, and now, to the need to keep fighting in Iraq so that terrorists won't follow American troops home.

The Administration, meanwhile, has been equally confused when it comes to identifying the enemy. Once it was Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. But as bin Laden remained at large, it became embarrassing to identify him as the enemy. Then it was simply "terrorists," but, as Newsweek explains, that label did not work because the White House wanted "a single clean phrase that could both define the foe and reassure Americans who were confused by a conflict that had grown much bigger than Osama bin Laden." For a while the Administration tried "Islamism," but that struck many as a war on another religion. They rejected "jihadism," because the term does not always mean bloodshed.

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior adviser to Bill Clinton, and now a regular columnist for the Guardian of London, understands the workings of the White House. His recently published book, How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime, collects his columns from November 2003 to April 2006, and they provide week-by-week freeze-frames of an array of significant events over the past three years. (They are, in fact, wonderfully insightful probes by a seasoned journalist with insider experience who knows exactly where to look.)

About a year ago, Blumenthal reported on how the Bush Administration was "stuffing old [war on terror] slogans down the memory hole," looking for something new. Earlier, the war on terror had morphed into the "global war on terror." In fact, Blumenthal reports, they had been so pleased with the "Global War on Terror," they had medals struck with these words to award to brave U.S. soldiers.

Yet by the summer of 2005, they had decided again that the phrase "global war on terror" was not sufficiently descriptive, because they were dealing with more than "terror." Blumenthal suggests that the White House had finally figured out that "war on terror" described a never-ending battle against a tactic, which is a no-win war.

"It's broader than that," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said at the time. Rather than merely declaring war on the tactic of terrorism, he claimed, the Administration had launched "a global struggle against extremism." Hadley wanted to drop "the gloomy vision" of a no-win war, and "offer a positive alternative." So until recently the Administration called it "a global struggle against violent extremism" - with the implied alternative being peaceable moderation.

As the polls show, most Americans are adjusting to this war; they are far less fearful, and thus, fear is less likely to drive them to the polls or affect their votes when they get there. So the White House has now adopted the favorite buzzword of the hard right wingers: Islamic fascists, or Islamofascists. While it is less than clear who Islamic fascists are, there is no question that the term is pejorative.

Who Are the Islamic fascists?

Bill Maher, who always cuts to the core, believes that one of the reasons the news media buy the Bush Administration's stories about Iraq and the Middle East is that "because like everybody else, even the U.S. military, the [media] don't know whom we're fighting" - but only that "we're fighting bad people."

Calling the enemy "Islamic fascists" provides no help.

Katha Pollitt in explaining why the term is only going to create more enemies for America in the Islamic world, traced its use back to 1990, "when the writer and historian Malise Ruthven used 'Islamo-fascism' in the London Independent to describe the authoritarian governments of the Muslim world." She notes that, after 9/11, the term was picked up by neocons and pro-war pundits "to describe a broad swath of Muslim bad guys from Osama to the mullahs of Iran."

The term appears "analytic," Pollitt explains, "but really it's an emotional one, intended to get us to think less and fear more. It presents the bewildering politics of the Muslim world as a simple matter of Us versus Them." That, of course, is why it is being employed, although Pollitt does not think it "will win back the socially liberal 'security moms' who voted for Bush in 2004 but have recently been moving toward the Democrats." Nonetheless, "the word is already getting a big reaction in the Muslim world." Muslims of all persuasions are offended by it, including our friends and allies.

Pat Buchanan, who addresses the term from the opposite end of the political spectrum, notes that "there is no consensus as to what 'fascism' even means," and observes that Arnold Beichman of the Hoover Institution asserts that "fascism ... has no intellectual basis; its founders did not even pretend to have any."

Buchanan says that using this term "represents the same lazy, shallow thinking that got us into Iraq, where Americans were persuaded that by dumping over Saddam, we were avenging 9/11." Buchanan believes that unless the Bush folks actually want a war of civilizations, he should drop this term, because it is deeply offensive to peaceful Muslims.

In short, adoption of this latest description of the enemy represents more fuzzy thinking; it is another effort to employ fear for political purposes; and it is an action inherent with potential unintended consequences. This, of course, has been the norm for Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy. Word games, from "bring 'em on," to "shock and awe," to "mission accomplished" have been employed to effect a continuing distortion of reality.

The Consequences of Using Word Games In War

Blumenthal -- who draws deeply from history to make his points, when writing about Bush's name games -- quotes Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War: "The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man."

Thucydides, considered the first coldly objective historian, was referring to the conduct of the Athenians. The words, though, have a distinctly modern ring.

In short, there is nothing new in Bush's term-twisting. But it should also be noted that the Athenians lost the war, just as have other war leaders who distorted language to fool their people, from Napoleon to Hitler and Stalin. Our own leaders who have distorted the truth have failed as well -- as the fates of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon made perfectly clear. And public candor serves both leaders and nations well, as Winston Churchill and Harry Truman proved.

It is, however, too soon to know if the Bush Administration can again play the American voters for fools, and deceive just enough of them to squeak out another victory at the polls. That answer will have to await the results of November 7's voting.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the President.

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