What is needed, said Army Col. Gary Cheek, is to recast terrorists as the criminals they are.
"If we can change the name ... and find the right sequence of events that allows us to do that, that changes the dynamic of the conflict," said Cheek at the Defense Forum Washington, sponsored by the Marine Corps Association and the U.S. Naval Institute.
"It makes sense for us to find another name for the GWOT," said Cheek. "It merits rethinking. I know our European allies are more comfortable articulating issues of terrorism as criminal threats, rather than war ... It ought to be our goal to partner better with the European allies so we can migrate this from a war to something other than a war."
The "war" moniker elevates al-Qaida and other transnational terrorists, giving them legitimacy as an opposition force to the United States. It also tends to alienate Muslim populations in other countries, who see the war as a war on Islam, and feel they need to support al-Qaida as a matter of defending their faith.
It also tends to frame the fight as one in which the Defense Department has the primary role, when it is becoming increasingly clear that the "long war" against global terrorism is going to be won on other fronts -- economic, political, diplomatic, financial. Other government agencies and departments must become more engaged; only they have the expertise to help other countries take the actions necessary to defeat terrorists.
Cheek's idea is not a new one, and for all the practical sense it makes to the military, it is being floated at a politically inopportune time. Both the U.S. House and the Senate hang in the balance, with a shift from Republican to Democratic control possible after the midterm elections.
To hang onto power, Republicans are returning to their strongest card: national security. And one of their chief attacks on Democrats is their alleged preference to manage terrorism as a law enforcement problem rather than being serious about defeating them in a war.
It's a tactic borrowed from President George W. Bush himself. Campaigning for his second term in 2004, Bush hit that theme often, attacking Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry for saying the war on terror was "far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law enforcement operation."
Bush responded: "After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. With those attacks, the terrorists and supporters declared war on the United States of America -- and war is what they got."
But a little more than a year later, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers said in a speech at the National Press Club he had objected to the use of the term "war on terrorism" because it causes people to think that the military is the solution.
Within weeks, Bush publicly overruled Myers and Rumsfeld - who had also adopted the more complicated moniker "global struggle against violent extremism" -- by declaring in a speech in Texas in August 2005: "Make no mistake about it, this is a war against people who profess an ideology, and they use terror as a means to achieve their objectives."
Recent weeks have proven, in fact, that terrorism is often fought with law enforcement: British officials have arrested scores of alleged would-be homegrown terrorists plotting to blow up transatlantic flights to the United States.
And according to David Kilcullen, chief strategist in the State Department's office of the coordinator for counter-terrorism, such law enforcement operations may be more effective and more necessary in the months and years to come. The war in Afghanistan effectively disrupted al-Qaida as an "expeditionary" terrorist group that plans and carries out its own operations like the Sept. 11 attacks.
By contrast, the public transportation attacks in London and Madrid were carried out by local cells "grown close to the target."
"They are evolving away from pre-9/11 expeditionary terrorism to the guerrilla model," said Kilcullen, at the Defense Forum.
Al-Qaida has adopted the war in Iraq into its central strategy, portraying it as a war on Islam that it uses to gain recruits, funding, and score propaganda victories. If the United States can recast it in the global public eye as what the Pentagon views it as now -- a struggle for the imposition of law and order and the establishment of a democracy -- al-Qaida can be drained of some of its power.
The way to do that is to diminish the acts of suicide bombings and car bombings to acts of criminals rather than jihadists.
Tactically, the United States and its partners need to separate al-Qaida from the groups that do its bidding in service to their own local agendas, said Kilcullen. Strategically, al-Qaida and its terrorist tactics need to be delegitimized, according to Cheek.
"When we look at it, we want the world to view terrorism the way we view slavery," he said -- with opprobrium, and with broad global agreement to combat it. "I don't know that that's realistic. So the question is, what is realistic?"
"If we can reduce this to a criminal act, the local government has the capability to act," Cheek said. "The real trick is finding the right time to do that."