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To Bush's GWOT, RIP
President Barack Obama has come under some criticism for slowing his promised withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and for beefing up U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but his 70-day-old administration at least has dumped one part of George W. Bush's bellicose foreign policy: the phrase "global war on terror."
Burying the "GWOT," as it was known in Washington jargon, also is not just a semantic shift or a meaningless word game. Bush's post-9/11 concept of eliminating "every terrorist group of global reach" created the framework for an endless war covering the entire planet, including U.S. territory. The GWOT was to be everywhere and never ending.
It became the justification in 2002 for Bush administration lawyers to craft legal opinions that asserted that the President, as Commander in Chief, possessed "plenary" or total power, thus transforming the American Republic into a new-age national security state with all constitutional and legal rights left to the discretion of George W. Bush.
Justice Department lawyers like John Yoo tossed away U.S. constitutional rights almost casually. The "global war on terror" meant scrapping habeas corpus, the ancient right to challenge arbitrary arrests. Out, too, went the First, the Fourth, the Fifth, the Sixth and the Eighth Amendments. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com's "How Close the Bush Bullet."]
The GWOT overrode U.S. treaty and other commitments, opening the door to the torture of detainees in U.S. custody. It permitted the President to dispatch military units and CIA operatives to kidnap or kill suspected terrorists around the world.
Most Americans might have associated the GWOT with the fight against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. But the "war" actually was much broader, covering any irregular fighting force "with global reach," which apparently was defined as any group that could pool its resources to buy an airplane ticket, whether they were holed up on an island in the Philippines, in the mountains of Central Asia, in a desert in the Middle East or in the jungles of Colombia.
Beyond intervening in guerrilla conflicts around the world, Bush's GWOT could seek "regime change" against established national governments - in Iraq, Iran and North Korea - the nations he famously labeled the "axis of evil." They were part of the GWOT, though they were not implicated in the 9/11 attacks.
Initially, Iran even joined the coalition against the Taliban as Bush moved to oust the Afghan government which had provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, Iran was still lumped into the GWOT. Some Bush administration officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, also raised 9/11 suspicions about Iraq, though the allegations turned out to be false.
Bush's GWOT became especially unpopular in the Muslim world, which saw the U.S.-led campaign as directed primarily against Islamic militants.
A Gallup poll in early 2002 found strong anti-American sentiment in U.S. allies and adversaries alike. The countries surveyed included Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The lowest scores came from Pakistan, a principal U.S. ally in the Afghan war. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, only five percent of the respondents had a favorable opinion of the United States, making any counterinsurgency cooperation with Washington problematic for Islamabad politicians.
Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport said Muslims described the United States as "ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked, biased." Newport added that "the people of Islamic countries have significant grievances with the West in general and with the United States in particular."
How Bush framed the terrorism issue also bred resentment and confusion inside the United States. In answering "why do they hate us?" Bush offered the sophomoric notion that Islamic extremists "hated our freedoms" and wanted to destroy the American Way of Life.
"They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government," Bush said in his Sept. 20, 2001, address to Congress. "They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."
Though playing well domestically, this self-serving explanation fell flat with many Middle East experts who recognized that bin Laden's goals were focused much more on Middle East politics and had little to do with American freedoms.
Bin Laden's principal grievance was with the government of his native land, Saudi Arabia, which he viewed as corrupt. Toward this end, he sought to drive U.S. military forces from the Persian Gulf and especially from Saudi Arabia, home of the holiest sites in Islam.
Many Middle Easterners also considered Bush's "hate our freedom" comments ignorant and insulting because it failed to recognize their legitimate concerns about U.S. policies.
In the seven years since Bush launched the GWOT, Muslims have found many more reasons to resent the United States - the bloody invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, Washington's neglect of the Palestinian problem, and Bush's hypocritical rhetoric about democracy and freedom while favoring many Middle Eastern despots and locking prisoners up indefinitely at Guantanamo.
So, in inheriting Bush's many messes, President Obama doesn't only face the problem of two ongoing wars - in Iraq and Afghanistan - but he also must cope with political instability in Pakistan, a strategic challenge from Iran, simmering anger among Arabs over Israel's recent war in Gaza, and a rise in regional militancy.
In that sense, a small but not insignificant step was taken by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday when she announced that "the administration has stopped using the [‘war on terror'] phrase, and I think that speaks for itself."
But an RIP for the GWOT is not just a nod to the sensibilities of the Muslim world. Scrapping the phrase further indicates that Obama is abandoning Bush's rationale for an imperial presidency, even if the new President hasn't dropped all his predecessor's policies.