The Obama administration appears to be backing away from the phrase "global war on terror," a signature rhetorical legacy of its predecessor.
In a memo e-mailed this week to Pentagon staff members, the Defense Department's office of security review noted that "this administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror' [GWOT.] Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.' "
The memo said the direction came from the Office of Management and Budget, the executive-branch agency that reviews the public testimony of administration officials before it is delivered.
Not so, said Kenneth Baer, an OMB spokesman.
"There was no memo, no guidance," Baer said yesterday. "This is the opinion of a career civil servant."
Coincidentally or not, senior administration officials had been publicly using the phrase "overseas contingency operations" in a war context for roughly a month before the e-mail was sent.
Peter Orszag, the OMB director, turned to it Feb. 26 when discussing Obama's budget proposal at a news conference: "The budget shows the combined cost of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and any other overseas contingency operations that may be necessary."
And in congressional testimony last week, Craig W. Duehring, assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower, said, "Key battlefield monetary incentives has allowed the Air Force to meet the demands of overseas contingency operations even as requirements continue to grow."
Monday's Pentagon e-mail was prompted by congressional testimony that Lt. Gen. John W. Bergman, head of the Marine Forces Reserve, intends to give today. The memo advised Pentagon personnel to "please pass this onto your speechwriters and try to catch this change before statements make it to OMB."
Baer said, "I have no reason to believe that ['global war on terror'] would be stricken" from future congressional testimony.
The Bush administration adopted the phrase soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to capture the scope of the threat it perceived and the military operations that would be required to confront it.
In an address to Congress nine days after the attacks, President George W. Bush said, "Our war on terror will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."
But critics abroad and at home, including some within the U.S. military, said the terminology mischaracterized the nature of the enemy and its abilities. Some military officers said, for example, that classifying al-Qaeda and other anti-American militant groups as part of a single movement overstated their strength.
Early in Bush's second term, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld promoted a change in wording to "global struggle against violent extremism," or GSAVE. Bush rejected the shift and never softened his position that "global war" accurately describes the conflict that the United States is fighting.
Last month, the International Commission of Jurists urged the Obama administration to drop the phrase "war on terror." The commission said the term had given the Bush administration "spurious justification to a range of human rights and humanitarian law violations," including detention practices and interrogation methods that the International Committee of the Red Cross has described as torture.
John A. Nagl, the former Army officer who helped write the military's latest counterinsurgency field manual, said the phrase "was enormously unfortunate because I think it pulled together disparate organizations and insurgencies."
"Our strategy should be to divide and conquer rather than make of enemies more than they are," said Nagl, now president of the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy think tank in Washington. "We are facing a number of different insurgencies around the globe -- some have local causes, some of them are transnational. Viewing them all through one lens distorts the picture and magnifies the enemy."