Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Has everyone signed on to GSAVE? 

Slate's Fred Kaplan notes a NYT story that the Bush administration has decided to change the name of its counterterrorist campaign from "the global war on terror"(GWOT) to "the global struggle against violent extremism" (GSAVE) He asks
. . . Are these guys really this clueless? First, this is the administration's solution to the spike in terrorist incidents, the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan, and the politico-military deterioration in Iraq - to retool the slogan? Second, the White House and the Pentagon are just now coming around to the idea that the struggle is as much ideological as military? This wasn't obvious, say, three or four years ago? . . . It took four years for the president of the United States to realize that fighting terrorism has a political component? It took six months for his senior advisers to retool a slogan? We are witnessing that rare occasion when the phrase "I don't know whether to laugh or cry" can be uttered without lapsing into cliché.
But the shallowness gets deeper still. The Times story doesn't notice what appears to be the driving force behind the new slogan—a desire for a happier acronym. Look at the first letters of Global War on Terrorism. GWOT. What does that mean; how is it pronounced? Gwot? Too frivolously rowdy, like a fight scene in a Marvel comic book (Bam! Pfooff! Gwot!). Gee-wot? Sounds like a garbled question (Gee what?). Then look at Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism. Its acronym is GSAVE—i.e., gee-save. We're out to save the world, see, not wage war on it. Or, as national security adviser Stephen Hadley puts it in the Times piece, "We need to dispute both the gloomy vision and offer a positive alternative." Does Hadley, and do all our other top officials, really believe this nonsense? Are they so enraptured with PR that they think a slogan and a strategy are the same thing and that retooling the one will transform the other? Have we lapsed into the banality of the mid-'70s, when President Gerald Ford tried to beat back 20-percent price hikes by urging Americans to wear gigantic lapel pins that read "WIN"—for Whip Inflation Now? The Times notes, midway into the story, that the "language shifts" come at a time when Karen Hughes, one of President Bush's most trusted advisers, is about to take over the State Department's office of "public diplomacy." If changing GWOT to GSAVE is a sign of campaigns to come, we are in sorrier shape than anyone might previously have imagined.

Three aspects Kaplan doesn't mention. First, as a number of bloggers have pointed out, Kerry said in October that the US should develop a criminal focus rather than a military forus to the GWOT, and the Republicans said this was ridiculous -- now, they also seem to be taking a criminal justice approach.
Second, this appears to be a change they are desperate to make quickly, so the Bush administration is rolling it out in mid-summer, instead of waiting until their preferred product-launch period in the fall.
And third, call me paranoid, but the Bush administration may see more substance to the change than just sloganeering.
"Terror" is rarer and more serious than "violent extremism". Terror is violence focused on civilians and innocent people which is designed to overthrow a government, while violent extremism can target infrastructure or economy or a specific cause. The goal of violent extremism can be much less radical, such as causing economic damage to an industry or challenging a country's justice system, or changing a particular law or policy. Acts of 'violent extremism' could include a large number of acts now seen as criminal, such as setting loose a computer virus or selling drugs to finance the purchase of weapons or being arrested for vandalism during a demonstration.
For example, one would not likely describe PETA as a terrorist group, though they are certainly violent extremists. Likewise one could define criminal organizations like the Mafia or the Hells Angels as violent extremists. Ultimately, the terminology could even apply to peace activists and groups. This NYT story from a week ago says "The Federal Bureau of Investigation has collected at least 3,500 pages of internal documents in the last several years on a handful of civil rights and antiwar protest groups . . . [and have said that] any intelligence-gathering activities related to political protests are intended to prevent disruptive and criminal activity at demonstrations . . ."
Expanding the terminology means all of these groups can be more easily targetted, monitored and proscuted though the Patriot Act, which allows all manner of warrentless searches and secret wiretaps.
Under the new terminology, the definition of what constitutes 'peace' becomes a meaningless concept. While wars have a beginning and an end, struggles can go on forever.
So while the range of action has widened, the focus of action has softened, making a situation where a much larger number of groups can be targetted for a much broader number of crimes for a much longer time. No wonder Bush wants the Patriot Act to be permanent.
After 9/11, there was a great rush of support for the US and their Global War on Terror as nations responded seriously to the Bush call for support. I wonder how many other countries will sign on to the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, especially as we come to understand its political and personal ramifications.
I wonder even how many Americans would sign on to this?

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