behind the news

Is the US ‘going to war’ against ISIS? The answer matters

A war of words between the Obama administration and the press
September 16, 2014


Capitol Hill Members of the anti-war group CodePink interrupt a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Tuesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The media didn’t buy the terminology President Barack Obama was selling Wednesday night, when he outlined a “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A number of news organizations instead began calling it “war,” a word noticeably absent from the president’s plan.

Administration officials pushed back on that media characterization on Thursday. But by Friday the White House had changed course, with Press Secretary Josh Earnest saying the United States was at war “in the same way we are at war with Al Qaeda and its Al Qaeda affiliates.” Secretary of State John Kerry couldn’t escape the same question of semantics on Face the Nation Sunday morning. “Can I clear up one thing first?” host Bob Schieffer began the interview, mentioning Kerry’s previous opposition to the three-letter label. The anchor continued, “Are we at war?”

“In terms of what we did in Iraq, originally, this is not a war,” Kerry said. “This is not combat troops on the ground. It’s not hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not that kind of mobilization. But, in terms of Al Qaeda, which we have used the word ‘war’ with, yeah.”

The White House’s losing rhetorical battle could determine how this new conflict is perceived by the media and, in turn, by the public. Indeed, as Mother Jones’ David Corn writes, Obama will attempt a seemingly Herculean task in the expanded campaign against ISIS: “waging a nuanced war.” Journalists will be hard-pressed to keep up, as this conflict is unlike nearly all of its predecessors. While the United States is carrying out acts of war against ISIS, it’s not “going to war” in the classic, industrial sense. News organizations’ challenge will be to illustrate the difference. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

ISIS, of course, is a new kind of enemy in the post-9/11 era — more than simply a terrorist organization but less than a recognized state. The fight to destroy the group will not involve hundreds of thousands of American ground troops, but rather an expanded air campaign and increased aid to Syrian opposition fighters and Kurdish and Iraqi security forces. It has no end in sight. And the Obama administration hasn’t bound itself to a specific definition of victory, instead repeating its “broader goal of degrading and ultimately destroying [ISIS].” Such amorphous factors differ greatly from past wars covered by the American press.

The Obama administration surely had legal and political reasons to tiptoe around the word “war,” which evokes a visceral image of comparatively huge — and unpopular — wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president, whose opposition to the former helped him win the White House, has staked part of his legacy on winding down armed conflicts. And a new war against ISIS could be perceived as not only a continuation of the previous operation in Iraq, but also an acknowledgment of its massive failures.

“The cultural history of the Iraq War is [Obama’s] constant rhetorical obstacle,” said Paul Achter, a University of Richmond professor who studies public discourse in wartime. “The speeches all point out that this will not be Iraq. He doesn’t have to say much else because the conventional wisdom is that was a mistake.” 

The term “war,” Achter added, connotes boots on the ground, perhaps even “an archaic notion of violence. ‘Limited air strikes’ is the term they’re using now. And that, to me, is much more accurate. ‘War’ seems to imply something much broader.”

What’s more, calling the operation war would open the administration to legal challenges. “If it’s a ‘war,’ then it has to be declared by Congress, or if we continue to put the Constitution aside, at least authorized by Congress under the War Powers Act,” linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky wrote in an email. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has insisted its legal authority stems from a 2001 Congressional authorization to track down Al Qaeda and its affiliates, hence administration officials’ comparisons of the two counterterrorism operations.

Still, news organizations haven’t shied away from labeling the action as “war.” And rightly so, said Spencer Ackerman, national security editor of The Guardian. “Obama has laid out an ongoing, military-led effort to take territory away from an adversary and ultimately cause its destruction,” he wrote in an email to CJR. “That fits any definition of war, and so that’s what I ought to call it for the sake of my readers’ understanding.”

Many mainstream outlets, including The Guardian, qualified their descriptions of the campaign. The Washington Post and Associated Press called it an “air war” in their analyses of the plan, while The New York Times labeled it “a significantly different kind of war.” But such nuance was harder to find in Web headlines and social media — war is an eye-catching keyword — not to mention partisan outlets criticizing either the campaign itself or Obama’s perceived squeamishness in not calling it what it is.

Such black-white coverage superimposes an outdated concept of war on present-day realities. In the past, nations typically fought wars against other nations or enjoyed peace, providing a dichotomy that was easy for politicians to communicate, the media to relay, and the public to understand. Wars ended and, perhaps as importantly, the concept of victory or defeat was unambiguous. But that era is long over, said Martin J. Medhurst, a Baylor University professor of rhetoric and communication.

“War, in the American experience, has not been a simple question since the end of World War II,” he said. “The whole nature of what is a war, how to conduct warfare, and how to know whether you win or lose has become very murky in the past half century.”

The administration’s capitulation on the word choice is notable, Medhurst added, as it represents a starting point for the evolution of political discourse surrounding the war.

“Once you invoke the term ‘war’ — whether it’s literally, as was the case with Vietnam, or not, as was the case with the War on Poverty — once you invoke that metaphor, you’ve put all of those marbles in the game,” he said. “There’s almost no going back.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.