As you have probably already seen/heard unfold over the day, the Administration has decided not to argue terms-of-reference related to its current and anticipated action against the so-called Islamic State.
Here’s how the Daily News framed the fast-moving rhetorical controversy:
The U.S. is at war with ISIS, the White House and Pentagon said Friday, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry stubbornly declined to use the ‘W’ word.
“In the same way that we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, we are at war with ISIL,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, using another acronym for ISIS, also known as the Islamic State.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby offered a similar reaction Friday.
“Make no mistake, we know we are at war with ISIL in the same way we’re at war and continue to be at al Qaeda and its affiliates,” Kirby said.
In a Thursday evening (US time) interview with CNN the Secretary of State said: “We’re engaged in a counterterrorism operation of a significant order. I think ‘war’ is the wrong reference term with respect to that, but obviously it involves kinetic military action.”
Secretary Kerry could have more effectively advanced understanding of CT by being just a bit more diplomatic. But his fussy language does reflect consistent Administration policy.
If I was in the West Wing I too would have sacrificed the high ground of maintaining the meaningful distinction. It was high ground totally exposed to the worst sort of ideological artillery. Given today’s reality the hill would have been over-run no matter what was done to defend it.
But the distinction is meaningful. Since the mid-Nineteenth Century Americans have come to expect wars to end in victory and the unconditional surrender of our enemies. This has not always been the case, but our expectations persist.
This expectation is wildly inappropriate — entirely unrealistic — regarding the sort of adversary that has emerged (again) along the Euphrates. We can degrade it. We can even, in many meanings of the word, destroy it. We will not receive a surrender. We would be foolish to declare victory.
Americans would benefit from better understanding the difference between “war” as we typically choose to understand it and the counterterrorism operations we are actually executing. Two very different activities. Confusion regarding them may generate all sorts of mischief.