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Opening Arguments

War of words

President Obama wants to win the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims by not using a familiar catch phrase:

When talking about terrorism — words matter, President Barack Obama said Tuesday.

Asked in a television interview why he hasn't used the oft-repeated "war on terror" phrase coined by the Bush administration, Obama said he believes the U.S. can win over moderate Muslims if he chooses his words carefully.

"Words matter in this situation because one of the ways we're going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds," Obama said in an interview with CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360."

Actually, Obama isn't the first president to want to abandon that term, as we see from this 2005 dispatch:

The Bush administration is retooling its slogan for the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, pushing the idea that the long-term struggle is as much an ideological battle as a military mission, according to senior administration and military officials.

In recent speeches and news conferences, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the country's top military officer have spoken of "a global struggle against violent extremism" rather than "the global war on terror," which had been the catchphrase of choice.

Administration officials say the earlier phrase may have outlived its usefulness, because it focused attention solely, and incorrectly, on the military campaign.

For some reason, "global struggle against violent extremism" never did catch on. The "war on terror" has remained a part of the lexicon, perhaps because it has become so familiar, perhaps because the Bush administration wasn't really serious about getting rid of it.

Words do matter, but actions do more. I don't think many serious people ever doubted that the war was one of ideas as well as bullets and bombs, and using a long, awkward name wouldn't likely increase their ranks. And, contrary to what Obama seems to imply, I don't think most serious people ever tried to lump "moderate Muslims" and militant jihadists together, either, and ending the use of "war on terror" isn't likely to create any more moderate Muslims who like us.

The biggest objection to "war on terror" is that, like the "war on drugs" and "war on poverty," it implies a long, endless and unwinnable struggle (or at least with no end point we can identify as victory) against a concept. (Or against a tactic, as Ron Paul has suggested). I don't know if there is any way around this dilemma, either, at least nothing as simple as changing what we call this violent clash of tribalism and modernity. It is a different kind of war that's hard to