The United States will never win the “war on terror,” in part, because George W. Bush keeps applying elastic definitions to the enemy, most recently expanding the conflict into a war against Muslim “radicals and extremists.”

With almost no notice in Official Washington, Bush has inserted this new standard for judging who’s an enemy as he lays the groundwork for a wider conflict in the Middle East and a potentially endless world war against many of the planet’s one billion adherents to Islam.

Indeed, it could be argued that the “war on terror” has now morphed into the “war on radicals,” allowing Bush to add the likes of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the leaders of Syria and Iran to his lengthening international enemies list.

Bush’s twists and turns in defining the enemy in the “war on terror” started more than five years ago, in the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Amid the nation’s anguish, Bush spoke in grandiloquent and quasi-religious terms, vowing to “rid the world of evil,” a patently absurd task that never received the ridicule it deserved.

But Bush then settled on a more practical aim, defeating “terrorist groups of global reach.” Though that formulation still presented some problems of definition – what does “global reach” exactly mean? – at least it offered measurable terms.

A “terrorist,” by definition, is someone who commits violent acts against civilians to achieve a political goal. “Global reach” narrowed the enemy even more by excluding local forces that attacked civilians from the same country or a nearby region.

These parameters made sense because they spared the U.S. military from intervening in every local struggle where some rebel or paramilitary force may have committed an atrocity, but one that didn’t threaten U.S. national interests. The United States also was freed from having to pick sides in conflicts where both sides accuse the other of “terrorism.”

In other words, Bush’s early goal of defeating “terrorist groups of global reach” was narrow enough to be achievable.

The war, in effect, targeted al-Qaeda and similar organizations that not only embraced terrorism as a tactic but had the capability to reach across international boundaries to inflict civilian casualties, like the 9/11 attacks. Bush also added to his hit list governments, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, that harbored these terrorist groups.

However, after the quick U.S. victory over the Taliban in winter 2001-02, Bush shifted the war’s focus in two important ways:

First, the war against “terrorist groups of global reach” transformed into the “global war on terrorism,” an important distinction.

Suddenly, U.S. Special Forces were not responsible for just defeating al-Qaeda and a few other groups with global ambitions but were instead waging a global war against a variety of terrorist groups that presented threats mostly to local authorities. Some were “home-grown terrorists” with no links to al-Qaeda or other international organizations.

Second, Bush decided to settle some old scores with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was despised by Bush’s neoconservative advisers who dreamt of remaking the Middle East into a land of passive Arabs who would take direction from Washington and accept peace terms from Tel Aviv. So Arabs wouldn't think this was all about them, Bush coined the phrase "axis of evil" that lumped together Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

To further meld Bush’s “war on terror” with the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration also hyped and fabricated evidence to link the secular Hussein to Islamic terrorists allied with al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, though in reality the two were bitter enemies. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Neocon Favorites Duped U.S.”]

Insurgency or Terror?

Since 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Hussein and an Iraqi insurgency emerged to fight the occupying army, the U.S. news media has lent a hand in blurring the American public’s distinctions between the Iraq War and the “war on terror.”

Iraqi insurgent attacks on U.S. soldiers, especially the deadly roadside bombs, often were described as “terrorist” incidents by the American news media, though the attacks didn’t fit the classic definition of “terrorism.”

Just recently, as I was listening to my car radio, a CNN newscast came on to report that an American soldier had been killed in Iraq by a “terrorist sniper.” By definition, however, the shooting of a soldier occupying a foreign country – though horrible on a human level – is not an act of “terrorism,” since no civilians are involved.

Yet, in the sloppy vernacular of the U.S. press corps, the word “terrorism” came to mean any violent act that officials in Washington didn’t like, a kind of geopolitical curse word. CNN and other U.S. news outlets apparently understood they would pay no price for pandering to what they took to be the “pro-American” attitude.

By waving the loaded word “terrorism” around, however, the U.S. news media helped the Bush administration misrepresent the threat facing U.S. troops in Iraq and elsewhere.

Now, Bush is broadening the war’s parameters yet again, depicting the goal of his Middle East policy as defeating “radicals and extremists,” categories that are even more elastic than the word “terrorist.”

At a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Dec. 7, Bush said, “I believe we’re in an ideological struggle between forces that are reasonable and want to live in peace, and radicals and extremists.”

Bush has repeated this formulation in other recent public appearances, including at his news conference of Dec. 20 when he portrayed the fight against “radicals and extremists” as a long-term test of American manhood. He vowed to show them “they can’t run us out of the Middle East, that they can’t intimidate America.”

In other words, the war against “terrorist groups of global reach,” which became the “global war on terrorism,” now has morphed into what might be called the “global war on radicals and extremists,” a dramatic escalation of the war’s ambitions with nary a comment from the U.S. news media.

So, under Bush’s new war framework, the enemy doesn’t necessarily have to commit or plot acts of international terrorism or even local acts of terrorism. It only matters that Bush judges the person to be a “radical” or an “extremist.”

While the word “terrorism” is open to abuse – under the old adage “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” – the definition of “radical” or “extremist” is even looser. It all depends on your point of view.

Bush the ‘Extremist’

Indeed, many people around the world consider Bush – if not a “terrorist” – at least a “radical” and an “extremist,” representing not traditional conservative American principles but rather a radical and extremist view of presidential power that includes his presumed right to invade any country he wishes around the world.

Bush’s decision to set wider parameters for this global war also represents a grave threat to the American Republic because Bush has asserted that he, as Commander in Chief, must hold “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as long as the conflict continues.

In effect, Bush’s theories of unlimited presidential power obviate the rule of law, congressional checks and balances, and the “unalienable rights” – such as habeas corpus guarantees to a fair trial – built into the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

By stretching the definition of the “war on terror” into something so elastic that it has no discernable shape and no determinable end, Bush and his successors will get to set aside the Constitution indefinitely, essentially creating an American autocratic system for the foreseeable future.

So, this “new kind of war” – as Bush’s supporters call it – will require not only the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers but will deform the U.S. government beyond recognition, ultimately making it an international pariah state disgraced by having forsaken its own ideals of justice and tolerance.

In the end, Bush’s vision of the future also means the United States must turn its back on the Founding Fathers, who were considered “radicals” and “extremists” in their own age because they rejected the “divine right of kings” and insisted that all people are created equal and are endowed with “unalienable rights.”

Ironically, as President Bush asserts his “plenary” powers and sweeps away America’s founding principles, he will do so in waging his own “war on radicals and extremists.”

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.

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