| ||The Words Have Changed, but Have the Policies?|
The New York Times
By Peter Baker
WASHINGTON — When President Obama briefed Congressional leaders at the White House last week on his plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, Senator Harry Reid offered some advice: Whatever you do, he told the president, don’t call it a “surge.”
Not to worry. Mr. Obama didn’t and wouldn’t. The exchange, confirmed by people briefed on the discussion, underscored the sensitivity about language in the new era. Mr. Obama and his team are busily scrubbing President George W. Bush’s national security lexicon, if not necessarily all of his policies.
They may be sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, much as Mr. Bush did to Iraq, but it is not a “surge.” They may still be holding people captured on the battlefield at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but they are no longer “enemy combatants.” They may be carrying the fight to Al Qaeda as their predecessors did, but they are no longer waging a “war on terror.”
So if not a war on terror, what then? “Overseas contingency operations.”
And terrorist attacks themselves? “Man-caused disasters.”
Every White House picks its words carefully, using poll-tested, focus-grouped language to frame issues and ideas to advance its goals. Mr. Bush’s team did that assertively. The initial legislation expanding government power after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was the “U.S.A. Patriot Act.” The warrantless eavesdropping that became so controversial was rebranded the “Terrorist Surveillance Program.” The enemy was, for a time, dubbed “Islamofascism,” until that was deemed insensitive to Muslims.
Now Mr. Obama is coming into office determined to sweep all that rhetoric away, even if he is keeping much of the policy that underlies it. Aides argue that they are not trying to spin their priorities through words, only to excise the spin applied relentlessly by the Bush administration. But they are also trying to send a clear and unmistakable message that the old order is gone.
“You have to tell the American public and the world that there’s a new sheriff in town without opening up the jail and letting all the prisoners out,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a moderate Democratic advocacy group. “The changing of the way they talk is a low-risk way of purging some of the Bush-era stuff without doing any damage.”
Indeed, for all the shifting words, Mr. Obama has left the bulk of Mr. Bush’s national security architecture intact so far. He has made no move to revise the Patriot Act or the eavesdropping program. He has ordered Guantánamo to be closed in a year but has not turned loose all the prisoners. The troop buildup in Afghanistan resembles the one Mr. Bush ordered in Iraq two years ago.
In cautioning against the “surge” label, Mr. Reid clearly wanted to avoid associating the Obama strategy in Afghanistan with the Bush strategy in Iraq, a strategy that both he and the president opposed at the time. The two have never repudiated their opposition to the Iraq buildup, even though many now credit it with helping to stabilize the country. And any language suggesting parallels between the two approaches could aggravate the party’s liberal base, much of which is already suspicious of committing more forces to Afghanistan.
Gordon Johndroe, the last National Security Council spokesman for Mr. Bush, said he detected a great degree of overlap in actual policy between the two presidents that is not masked by different words. “A change in rhetoric is fine as long as they don’t lead people to believe the threat from violent extremists is over,” Mr. Johndroe said.
Obama advisers said they were not trying to de-emphasize the danger of extremism but to take the politics out of it. Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, used the term “man-caused disasters” instead of “terrorism” during Congressional testimony and later said that was a deliberate attempt to change the tone.
“That is perhaps only a nuance,” she told Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, “but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”
But the risk, in the minds of some critics, is looking like the government no longer takes the dangers of the world seriously. “They seem more interested in the war on the English language than in what might be thought of as more pressing national security matters,” said Shannen W. Coffin, who served as counsel to former Vice President Dick Cheney. “An Orwellian euphemism or two will not change the fact that bad people want to kill us and destroy us as a free people.”
The White House dismisses such criticism, saying the president is not focused on wordsmithing national policy. “He’s far less concerned with” language, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters last week, “and much more concerned with steps that he’s taken and that we need to take as a country to protect our citizens and to keep our homeland safe. And I think that’s what he’s focused on.”
Still, the degree to which the Obama team seems intent on distancing itself from any language associated with Mr. Bush has drawn ridicule even from the left. On “The Daily Show” on Tuesday night, Jon Stewart vigorously mocked the Obama administration after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said “the administration has stopped using the phrase” war on terror.
Mr. Stewart showed repeated clips of Mr. Obama’s budget director, Peter R. Orszag, referring instead to “overseas contingency operations.”
“Yeah, that’ll catch on like Crystal Pepsi,” Mr. Stewart joked.
Summoning one of the most memorable moments of the Bush presidency, Mr. Stewart then showed a mocked up photograph of Mr. Obama in a pilot’s flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier under a banner proclaiming, “Redefinition Accomplished.”
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