Not long after President Obama took office, he unofficially put an end to a favorite phrase of his predecessor: the "global war on terror." True, George W. Bush used it so much that GWOT, as it became known in Washington, had largely lost its impact. But it got the job done—and Obama had yet to find a tough, pithy replacement. Until now.
In a speech today before a conference on post-9/11 intelligence-reform efforts, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair didn't once utter the words "global war on terror." But at least twice he talked about the administration's efforts at "countering violent extremism."
Blair's aides had no immediate comment on how the intel czar came to use the catchphrase. Two officials of another government department involved in counterterrorism efforts, who asked for anonymity when discussing internal administration discussions, said that use of the new buzzwords "evolved" from discussions among counterterrorism officials. (The discussions apparently evolved enough that, in typical Washington fashion, insiders have already granted the phrase its own abbreviation: CVE.)
CVE has been slowly catching on among the Obama crowd. Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's top counterterrorism adviser, used it in testimony he gave to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. As Benjamin explained it, "The primary goal of countering violent extremism is to stop those most at risk of radicalization from becoming terrorists. Its tools are noncoercive and include social programs, counter-ideology initiatives, and working with civil society to delegitimize the Al Qaeda narrative and, where possible, provide positive alternative narratives." He added, "We are working hard to develop a variety of CVE programs."
Last August, John Brennan, the former CIA officer who serves as the top counterterrorism adviser in the Obama White House, gave a speech in which he explained that the president had made a conscious effort to move away from using the GWOT catchphrase. "The president does not describe this as a 'war on terrorism,' " Brennan said. "That is because 'terrorism' is but a tactic . . . [and] by focusing on the tactic, we risk floundering among the terrorist trees while missing the growth of the extremist forest . . . Likewise, the president does not describe this as a 'global war.' Yes, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups operate in many corners of the world and continue to launch attacks in different nations, as we saw most recently in Jakarta. And yes, the United States will confront Al Qaeda aggressively wherever it exists so that it enjoys no safe haven. But describing our efforts as a 'global war' only plays into the warped narrative that Al Qaeda propagates."
Two U.S. intelligence officials, who also asked for anonymity, said that in practice, "countering violent extremism" refers to a desire by the Obama administration to use "public diplomacy" and "strategic communications" as one part of its effort to thwart emerging threats. CVE is a "soft power" approach intended to win the support of moderate Muslims at home and abroad. This involves efforts by police and other government representatives to develop closer relations with local Muslim communities and to support anti-extremist elements in Muslim communities overseas. However, the officials noted, "strategic communications" can also include clandestine "information operations" intended to disrupt terror groups. And the Obama administration has not shied away from using "hard power" where soft power fails. In his first year in office, the president authorized an intensive campaign of drone-missile attacks on terror suspects.