Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

Well it’s official.  Earlier last week AP reported comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the government is no longer using the phrase “global war on terror” (GWOT):

The administration has stopped using the phrase and I think that speaks for itself.

Indeed.  It says that you can’t go to war with a noun, that the conflict with terrorist groups involves no territory or front line, there will be no surrender or decisive victory, and that it will not be followed by a signing ceremony on a battleship floating just off the coast.

The problem is:  What are they going to call this enterprise instead? Apparently, it’s “overseas contingency operation.”  Though there have been denials that this new phrase is the result of an edict, I’m not buying it.  The phrase was clearly rolled-out this week in multiple appearances by administration officials.

I am baffled by the Obama administration’s choice of such a lame phrase.  It obfuscates what is still an organized offensive effort against an organized adversary.  President Obama reiterated this in his just-announced “AfPak” policy in which he said he is aiming to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda.  That doesn’t sound like a contingency to me.

Given a focused, collective effort, its framing is important because that is what allows people to understand the effort and how they should fit into it.  Describing the importance of framing, Howard-Grenville and Hoffman point out:

Social initiatives become successful when they are aligned with an organization’s core culture because culture guides both what issues get attended to and how the get acted upon.  While successful implementation of social initatives involves moving the organization beyond its current practices, it also must tap into accepted ways of representing problems and enacting solutions.

The GWOT framing clearly accomplished this.  The what of the GWOT was al Qaeda and affiliated organizations, and the how was the traditional military and political/economic means that would be used to attack such adversaries.

In mid 2005, not long after GWOT was established,  the Bush administration realized the limitations of the GWOT framing and launched an effort to re-label the enterprise as the “global struggle against violent extremism.”  The objective was to reframe the conflict as being as much about ideology as it was about armed struggle, something the U.S. government was coming to grips with at the time.

Yet GSAVE never managed to displace GWOT.  Maybe the corny acronym had something to do with this.  But the more likely problem was that the GWOT framing tapped into “accepted ways of representing problems” in a way that GSAVE did not.

“Overseas contingency operation” will fare even worse.  One meaning of contingent is neither true nor false.  Is the Obama administration trying to inject even more Orwellian ambiguity and relativism into this enterprise?  I though they were supposed to change things.  Or perhaps they are using contingency in the sense of overseas operations that depend on or happen because of something else.  But what?

On the Daily Show last week  John Stewart predicted that the new phrase “will catch on like Crystal Pepsi.”  You could hardly ask for a better illustration of this than watching the end of the aforementioned episode (about 20:30).  The clip showed Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell struggling to remember the term, frantically flipping through his briefing book trying to find it.

Morrell couldn’t remember the phrase because it’s meaning-free.  It has neither a what nor a how.  It doesn’t tap into any accepted ways of representing problems.  It’s a lousy framing device.

As my colleagues suggested in a white paper two years ago, the language of criminal law would provide a better alternative.  As with “war” framing, people in this country are accustomed to representing problems in terms of crime and responses to them in terms of law enforcement.  The language of crime is also less political.  International cooperation is routinely built around law enforcement efforts, and criminals are shunned in practically all cultures.  Such framing would also bring us into closer alignment with the framing used by our European friends for the terrorism problem.

The Obama administration is to be congratulated for moving to put the GWOT to rest.  But it won’t go quietly.  The Bush administration failed to displace it with GSAVE because that alternative framing wasn’t meaningful enough.  “Overseas Contingency Operation” is downright vacuuous.  The language of international law enforcement provides a good alternative that is meaningful to people in this country and abroad.  Something like  “International Terrorism Interdiction Campaign” would make a much better alternative framing for the new anti-terrorist efforts of the Obama administration.