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Will "war on terror" survive without Bush?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The “decider” is gone. “Axis of evil” is out. Can “war on terror” be far behind?

As U.S. President Barack Obama moves to roll back his predecessor’s rhetoric as well as his policies, the phrase that came to define George W. Bush’s post-September 11 call to arms is losing ground in the war of words.

While the new administration hasn’t dumped “war on terror” from its vocabulary, there are signs that use of the term has been deliberately limited as Obama seeks to repair the United States’ image abroad, especially in the Muslim world.

“It may be only symbolic but it signals that Obama is serious about avoiding the kind of Bush-style foreign policy that proved so divisive,” said historian David Greenberg, an expert on presidential communication at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Bush first spoke of a “war on terror” after the September 11 attacks of 2001, turning it into his administration’s shorthand for what he envisioned as a broad, U.S.-led global fight against al Qaeda and allied Islamist groups.

But the approach soon became controversial because of what international critics saw as an arrogant with-us-or-against-us philosophy overly dependent on military force and what many Muslims decried as an attack on Islam.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the U.S. military detention camp at Guantanamo drew more overseas criticism of Bush’s policies.

Since taking office on January 20, Obama has moved swiftly to reverse some of Bush’s practices, ordering the closing of Guantanamo and an end to harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects and dispatching a peace envoy to the Middle East.

He has also reached out to the Muslim world, seeing toned-down rhetoric as crucial to winning over moderates.


That doesn’t mean “war on terror” has been banned from the new administration’s lexicon. Obama, in fact, has used it once in public since taking office, and his press secretary Robert Gibbs has uttered it several times.

But the strategy is to avoid the Bush administration’s broad-brush rhetoric and focus the tough talk on specific Islamist groups while making Afghanistan, not Iraq, the central battlefront.

“This president is not going to be branding anybody Islamic fascists,” said Martin Medhurst, professor of rhetoric at Baylor University in Texas, referring to Bush’s short-lived 2006 use of a term that deeply offended many Muslims.

Newsweek magazine reported this week that administration officials were brainstorming alternatives to “war on terror.” The White House would not confirm that.

Obama and his aides have made clear, however, he wants to convey a realistic view of a long fight against terrorism and not a war without end.

So far, he has cast the battle in terms such as an “enduring struggle” and taken pains to avoid harsher rhetoric used by his predecessor. Bush, who had famously called himself the “decider,” once dubbed Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” a grouping critics derided and Obama rejects.

Despite that, analysts caution that if Obama stops calling the anti-terrorism fight a war altogether, he will face a conservative backlash accusing him of giving in to America’s foes. “He’s going to have to tread carefully,” Medhurst said.

In keeping with his deliberative style, that’s exactly what Obama has done. Asked about the “war on terror” phrase, Obama told CNN this week: “It is very important for us to recognise that we have a battle or a war against some terrorist organizations. But that those organizations aren’t representative of a broader Arab community, Muslim community.”

“Words matter in this situation because one of the ways we’re going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds,” he added.

And if Obama decides to decommission the phrase, he may find that words -- and acronyms -- also matter in the vast bureaucracy he now commands.

Inside the U.S. government and military, “Global War on Terror” has taken the form not just of a security operation but of a set of initials -- GWOT -- embedded in everything from news releases to internal memos.

Editing by Patricia Wilson