The Rhetorical Shift

Ken AshfordIraqLeave a Comment

They’re not al Qaeda, but the news calls them that anyway:

As E&P has noted in the past week, the U.S. military has increasingly referred to insurgents in Iraq as "al-Qaeda fighters" or "Qaeda militants." When and why this is happening is not certain, although linking the insurgents to those who attacked us on 9/11 would appear to have certain benefits in the court of public opinion.

In the past, however, both military and outside observers have long stated that so-called "foreign fighters" or members of the group Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia have made up only a tiny fraction of those who are actively battling the U.S. occupation.

Blogging at Salon.com this weekend, Glenn Greenwald has a lengthy take on this issue. "What makes this practice all the more disturbing is how quickly and obediently the media has adopted the change in terms consciously issued by the Bush administration and their military officials responsible for presenting the Bush view of the war to the press," he concludes.

On Sunday, however, Mike Drummond from the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy, observes, "U.S. forces continue to battle Shiite militia in the south as well as Shiite militia and Sunni insurgents in Baghdad. Yet America‚Äôs most wanted enemy at the moment is Sunni al Qaida in Iraq. The Bush administration’s recent shift toward calling the enemy in Iraq ‘al Qaida’ rather than an insurgency may reflect the difficulty in maintaining support for the war at home more than it does the nature of the enemy in Iraq.

Greenwald:

What is so amazing about this new rhetorical development — not only from our military, but also from our "journalists" — is that, for years, it was too shameless and false even for the Bush administration to use. Even at the height of their propaganda offensives about the war, the furthest Bush officials were willing to go was to use the generic term "terrorists" for everyone we are fighting in Iraq, as in: "we cannot surrender to the terrorists by withdrawing" and "we must stay on the offensive against terrorists."

But after his 2004 re-election was secure, even the President acknowledged that "Al Qaeda" was the smallest component of the "enemies" we are fighting in Iraq:

A clear strategy begins with a clear understanding of the enemy we face. The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists. The rejectionists are by far the largest group. These are ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, who miss the privileged status they had under the regime of Saddam Hussein — and they reject an Iraq in which they are no longer the dominant group. . . .

The second group that makes up the enemy in Iraq is smaller, but more determined. It contains former regime loyalists who held positions of power under Saddam Hussein — people who still harbor dreams of returning to power. These hard-core Saddamists are trying to foment anti-democratic sentiment amongst the larger Sunni community. . . .

The third group is the smallest, but the most lethal: the terrorists affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda.

And note that even for the "smallest" group among those we are fighting in Iraq, the president described them not as "Al Qaeda," but as those "affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda." Claiming that our enemy in Iraq was comprised primarily or largely of "Al Qaeda" was too patently false even for the President to invoke in defense of his war.

But now, support for the war is at an all-time low and war supporters are truly desperate to find a way to stay in Iraq. So the administration has thrown any remnants of rhetorical caution to the wind, overtly calling everyone we are fighting "Al Qaeda."