Last fall White House aides were grappling with a seemingly simple question that had eluded them for years: what should the president, in his many speeches on the war on terror, call the enemy? They were searching for a single clean phrase that could both define the foe and reassure Americans who were confused by a conflict that had grown much bigger than Osama bin Laden. But the answer was anything but simple. Some academics preferred the term "Islamism," but the aides thought that sounded too much as if America were fighting the entire religion. Another option: jihadism. But to many Muslims, it's a positive word that doesn't necessarily evoke bloodshed. Some preferred the conservative buzzword "Islamofascism," which was catchy and tied neatly into Bush's historical view of the struggle.
But when national-security adviser Steve Hadley called the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department, the experts nixed the idea of a single phrase for a war that was so complex. "There was a conscious desire not to use just one definitive word, because there wasn't a perfect word," recalls Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter at the time (and now a NEWSWEEK contributor). The result was a rhetorical mishmash. "Some call this evil Islamic radicalism," Bush explained, "others, militant jihadism; still others, Islamofascism. Whatever it's called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam."
Five years after 9/11, and more than three years after invading Iraq, President Bush is still searching for the perfect phrase to define the enemy in the war on terror--and reassure Americans who will soon head to the polls. Other Republicans--including Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is in a tough re-election race--have adopted "Islamofascism" as shorthand for terrorists. The term gained currency in the early '90s in reference to radical Muslim clerics, and was popularized after 9/11 by neocons.
Bush has used the term "Islamic fascists" sporadically, most recently to describe the alleged London bomb plotters last month. But the phrase was noticeably absent from his latest major speech on the war last week--which was part of a procession of campaign-style addresses by the administration's biggest names. This time he called the bad guys "a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology." It was hardly the kind of pithy slogan GOP activists could slap on a bumper sticker.
With the elections just two months away, the White House is turning once again to a strategy that has worked so well in the past: evoke 9/11, raise the specter of Al Qaeda and accuse the Democrats of fatal weakness in the face of the enemy. But 2006 is not 2004, when the administration found it easier to tie bin Laden's loyalists in with the insurgents in Iraq. One of Bush's strengths has been his ability to make the complex seem simple. But the war on terror's many fronts--British airline plots, Lebanese militias, Iranian nukes, brewing civil war in Iraq--defy any simple political packaging. (Some foreign-policy analysts question whether Bush may be unwittingly helping the jihadists by lumping together disparate groups, instead of exploiting the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and non-Arabs.)
Voters--including many Republicans--are openly doubting the president's ability to make the country more secure. Polls show that voters narrowly side with Republicans on terrorism, but they now prefer Democrats on Iraq. The White House believes the numbers are driven by the continuing bloodshed (the latest Pentagon report shows a 50 percent increase in Iraqi casualties this summer, citing a rise in sectarian violence and a still-powerful Sunni insurgency). For an administration that has built its entire political strategy around simplifying the complexities of national security, the widening war--and the softening ground at home--are sources of great frustration. "It can be hard to really explain who we are fighting and what we are up against in a way that isn't confusing," said one senior Bush aide, who declined to be named while speaking about strategy.
The uncertainty over how best to sell the war may help explain last week's speeches by the administration's biggest guns--Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice. The media played them as a concerted effort to put Democrats on the defensive and win back the trust of disillusioned Republicans. But the speeches also underscored something else: how disjointed the once disciplined administration has become when talking about the war. Cheney, usually the most aggressive member of Team Bush, was notably less strident about the war's critics; his assertion that they suffer from "self-defeating pessimism" was a step back from earlier complaints that they had lost "their memory, or their backbone." Bush described the doubters as "sincere" and "patriotic"--but wrong. But Rumsfeld apparently didn't get the memo. In one of his more extreme rhetorical forays, the Defense secretary likened critics of the war to the appeasers of Nazi Germany in prewar Europe. Rice, meanwhile, chose an altogether different historical analogy. The fight against terrorists, she suggested, was akin to the long struggle of the cold war.
GOP strategists are working to get their own message under control, and to unify a disparate party. According to one internal party memo, Bush's position on national security is the best way to motivate Republicans to go to the polls in November. Longtime pollster Fred Steeper, a former adviser to Bush 41, wrote that "large majorities" supported Bush's commitment to defeating terrorists in Iraq and around the world.
Any sign of disarray was out of sight as Bush landed in Utah, one of the reddest states in the Union, last week. A hastily arranged crowd of more than 3,000 supporters gathered late on Wednesday to greet him at Salt Lake City airport. Bush bounded off his plane to the soundtrack of the movie "Air Force One" as rock-concert lights spun and twirled in the night sky. "You're the man, George!" screamed one fan. The president might not know what to call the enemy, but he knows where to find his friends.