Dean says there’s no ‘war’ on terror – and he’s right!

By Matthew Miller
Tribune Media Services

Howard Dean’s major contribution to the debate so far isn’t what you think. It isn’t his innovative use of the Internet or his grassroots fund raising; it isn’t even his nimble ability to transform the Democratic base’s outrage over President Bush into his own personal political trampoline.

No, in terms of the issues facing the nation in 2004, Howard Dean’s most unique contribution – the place he departs from every other Democrat and all the major news media – is his correct refusal to accept George Bush and Karl Rove’s language defining the post-9/11 struggle against terrorism as a “war” on terror.

Let me be very clear. Iraq is obviously a war. Afghanistan was a (mercifully brief) war. But the struggle we’ll be in for (who knows?) the next century against terrorists is not a “war.” Framing it as a “war” was a conscious decision made by the president and Karl Rove in the first days after 9/11. In those early, scary days, the truest war we were in may have been the war to frame the debate, because the way debate gets framed goes far in determining its outcome.

The White House won that war hands down. The campaign has been so successful that most of us don’t even notice its pervasive impact. So far as I can tell, every major Democratic candidate (and public official) save Dean uses the phrase “war on terror.” The phrase is ubiquitous in the media. You see it in wall-to-wall graphics on TV news shows and hear it routinely from news anchors and pundits. Even top print outlets have made it their accepted shorthand for the unfolding fight against terror, which will likely now be a perpetual feature of American life.

Howard Dean begs to differ. In his big foreign policy address a few weeks ago, Dean called for a “global alliance to defeat terror;” he spoke of the “struggle,” the “effort,” and our “defense” against terror. He urged us to muster courage for the “fight” ahead.

Dean’s omission of the phrase “war” in this lengthy speech was no more accidental than Karl Rove’s choice of it. If the indefinite struggle against terror is a “war,” it de-legitimizes an entire universe of questions about White House priorities and behavior as petty distractions.

That’s always been the White House plan. Rove’s secret motto since shortly after Sept. 12 has been, “State of war – at least through ’04!” He knows this framing gives Republicans a structural advantage, perhaps in perpetuity. Only Dean seems to grasp that this inaccurate language, and all it implies, could cost his party enough votes to swing elections for years.

Or, to put it more precisely, he’s the only one who gets it and has the guts to challenge it.

Efforts to reframe this debate in the months ahead will be an uphill battle, because the phrase has now seeped into our national psyche without opposition.

My conservative radio colleague David Frum, in an important new book, “An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror” (co-authored with Richard Perle), obviously believes it is a war. He tells me we need to see the fight as our foes do. Radical Islamic terrorists plainly see themselves engaged in a war to destroy western civilization – especially America, its pre-eminent emblem.

I understand his point, but I can’t buy it. I also don’t think most Americans buy it – it’s just that they’ve never heard the “war” idea challenged.

It will take public figures with more military credentials than Howard Dean to help make this case if Dean is the nominee. People like Bob Kerrey and Sam Nunn and even Al Gore come to mind – along with, of course, Wesley Clark. Veterans’ groups offended by the political hijacking of the language of war might take up the public education effort as well.

Much may ride on this education effort. We’ll know where it stands next fall, when Jim Lehrer or another moderator either feels compelled to ask, or does not ask, this question in the presidential debates:

“Is the struggle against terror a ‘war’ – and if so, how do you have a war that doesn’t end? If it’s not a war, what is it exactly – and how does that affect how Americans should think about our national challenges in the years ahead?”

Matthew Miller, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author of “The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love.” Reach him at