WASHINGTON — Deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, some of the country's finest military minds met recently, synthesizing ideas, debating proposals and trading strategies.
Their goal — a rebranding for the history books.
When they emerged, they had completed their semantic sleight-of-hand.
The War on Terror brand had gone sour ... (So) you find a new bumper sticker.
American University political communication expert
They had simply changed wars, consigning the "War on Terror" to the recycling bin and launching "The Long War."
In a George W. Bush White House well-schooled in the art of propaganda, an administration re-elected for its steely determination to stay on message, renaming a war is a new triumph of marketing.
"The War on Terror brand had gone sour," says Christopher Simpson, an expert on political communications at Washington's American University.
"It connoted abuse of power, an indiscriminate use of violence as much by the U.S. as its opponents; it barely had the support of 50 per cent of Americans and was opposed by a large percentage of the international population.
"So you rebrand. You rename to try to get rid of the past perceptions. You find a new bumper sticker."
U.S. analysts and government officials this week point to the rebranding as another attempt to gird a skeptical public for an ongoing, generational commitment of troops at war, a bid to try to revive and augment international co-operation with Washington and a way of justifying ever-expanding presidential powers under Bush.
They believe it is an attempt by a self-described wartime president to entrench his cherished wartime powers, helping him fend off attacks on an electronic surveillance program some say is illegal.
Or, some say, it could be a return to a tried-and-true tactic from this White House, the use of fear.
By speaking of a war for a generation, they say, the Bush administration is trying to keep the population fearful for a generation, mainly fearful of electing "soft-on-security Democrats." It has worked before, when the administration spoke of "mushroom clouds" in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, or faced accusations of raising terror levels at home during turbulent political times.
Just as the new name was being slapped on an old war, Bush was filling in details of a thwarted 2002 terrorist plot in which Al Qaeda sought to blow up the largest building in Los Angeles.
New York Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton said the Republican game plan is all about getting America scared again.
"Contrary to Franklin Roosevelt, (who said) we have nothing to fear but fear itself, this crowd is: `All we've got is fear, and we're going to keep playing the fear card,'" she said.
John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.Org, suggests, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that the Pentagon should call it The Forever War.
"We're in the 17th year of The Long War," he says, arguing the U.S. has been in perpetual combat since it intervened in Panama to remove Manuel Noriega from power in 1989.
"Since then, we have been blowing somebody up, or getting ready to blow somebody up or coming back from blowing somebody up," he says. "It is so normal, people don't even notice any more."
But he doesn't believe the rebranding is about fear as much as it is about the Bush administration trying to consolidate its so-called "war powers."
"It's not about bin Laden any more," he says. "People aren't scared of him any more.
"My fear is that it is really the inauguration of the second Republic here because if you look closely at where this president is claiming his legal powers, it completely redefines the powers of the American government."
"This provides a rationale for the expansion of presidential power in wartime," he says.
"Many people question the rationale, but the argument is that these powers are needed because we are at war.
"If it is a Long War, it means that they will be needed not just this year, but next year and for decades. This is a fundamental change in U.S. policy."
Although the first use of the term "Long War" is credited in 2004 to Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. Central Command chief, it really had its public coming-out Jan. 31 in the U.S. president's State of the Union address.
"Our own generation is in a long war against a determined enemy," Bush said.
Then, in the Pentagon's Quadrennial Policy Review, the equivalent of a Canadian defence paper, the term was put into official use as a new name for a war that demanded a new strategy.
"This war, like the Cold War before it, will be a struggle against a hateful ideology that has attempted to hijack Islam for its nefarious purposes," U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.
"Just as the West prevailed in the long twilight struggle of the Cold War, free nations will prevail in the long war against violent extremism."
The Pentagon says it chose the name to indicate the generational nature of the battle against Islamist extremists and the need for the American population to show patience and maintain resolve.
"It will be a long war," said U.S. Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker. "We are now in the business of ... learning and adapting to the world we are entering.
"It's going to require a whole different set of dance steps to be able to operate in a way that we will need to."
James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, can also lay claim to helping coin the phrase, using it in the title of a book he co-wrote last year, Winning The Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom.
"I don't think the War on Terror meant anything to anybody any more," he says.
"This is easier for people to wrap their heads around. It's not dumbing it down necessarily, but it gets to the essence of what we're talking about."
In fact, Carafano says, Pentagon officials toyed with the idea of renaming their struggle The Protracted War.
"`Protracted' is a five-dollar word," he says. "`Long' is a 25-cent word. So they went with that."
One thing all questioned agreed upon is that wars need names, even if they are not named until after they are over.
"The names define what they are all about," Pike says.
No one, to be sure, dubbed it The Hundred Years War at the outset and the Thirty Years War was a series of wars, not three decades of unbroken hostilities.
To this day, there is debate over who coined the phrase Cold War, with credit sometimes given to author George Orwell, journalist Walter Lippmann and British prime minister Winston Churchill.
There was even debate in Washington over what to call World War II. The moniker was officially accepted Sept. 11, 1945, by U.S. president Harry Truman. But in Russia, World War II is known as the Great Patriotic War. In Japan, it's the Great Pacific War.
Closer to home, Pike says, the U.S. Civil War is known as such in the northern states, but in his home of Alabama, it is often called The War of Northern Aggression.
The Long War has also been applied to the 16th century struggle between the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire.
"I believe they don't want this to be defined as a conventional war where the entire burden will fall on the military and they will be expected to win quickly, which is impossible," says Max Boot, a senior analyst in national security studies at the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations.
Indeed, gone is any of the talk of quick victory that preceded the Iraqi invasion. Almost three years later, the war has taken nearly 2,300 American lives and 136,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. Although there is every expectation of a drawdown to about 100,000 troops this year, an American presence is anticipated in the country for perhaps a decade.
Now, the talk is about long struggles against the "isms." Just as previous wars fought communism and fascism, this war is all about combating radical Islamism, Rumsfeld says.
This year's $550 billion (U.S.) military budget proposed by Bush does try to re-emphasize quick strike forces, unmanned intelligence drones and more "psychological operations" troops, the "hearts and minds" personnel.
But the quadrennial defence plan has been widely criticized for too much spending on high-tech military toys and not enough on personnel.
In fact, as Boot says, the U.S. active army would shrink over five years under the plan, bringing the total to 482,400 by 2011 — down from 710,000 in 1991.
"Why is the Pentagon still throwing money into high-tech gadgets of dubious utility while ignoring the glaring imperative for more boots on the ground?" he asks. "Part of the answer may be politics — big-ticket weapons have more champions on Capitol Hill than do ordinary grunts."
It all adds up to a strategic miscalculation if the Pentagon is intent on fighting, not merely naming, a long war, he says.
Copyright 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited