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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Mere semantics or subtle pragmatics....

Commenting on a speech at NYU by aspiring UK foreign minister Hilary Benn, British MP Kahlid Mahmood said Benn (who currently holds the International Development portfolio in the Cabinet) was merely "playing with semantics" when he suggested that the US and UK abandon the phrase "war on terror" and instead pursue an approach based on "soft power" politics for dealing with extremists (see here for NYT report on NYU speech).

I think Benn is on the right track, although the proposal is nothing new and comes a bit late in the game to make a significant difference in how we talk about -- and think about -- the "war". In that regard, semantics do make a difference when it comes to politics and how states initially deal with the problems of terrorism. President Bush's impromptu decision to engage us in a war was unique in US history (see here) -- the first time such an action was undertaken in a political and intellectual vacuum; a truly "thoughtless" action in the Arendtian sense (see here).

In that sense, Benn is on target.

But we are also firmly implanted in a quagmire of our own making no less tragic than Vietnam or Korea -- two cases where the term "war" was never quite formalized until the decision to memorialize those who served and died. Mahmood is correct in noting that it is now a matter of mere semantics, especially in Iraq but increasingly worldwide.

What Benn is proposing is relevant to how we reflect back on what transpired since 9/11, but by itself the proposal does not have more than symbolic value in terms of how we move forward. Suggesting we shift to soft power tactics does little or nothing to alter the commitment to the so-called "war".

More relevant might be the approach articulated by Thomas Friedman in last Sunday's NYT Magazine. Friedman's credibility as observer and
Lippmann-like advice giver is somewhat tarnished in light of his "liberal hawk" record supporting the invasion of Iraq, but his idea that the US can reestablish itself on the international scene by pursuing a "green" agenda is attractive -- and it is a path already being used by the UK PM-in-waiting, Gordon Brown, who has embraced and even led international efforts in both environmental and anti-poverty areas.

That is perhaps the key to understanding what is behind Benn's speech, for the meaningful audience for his talk in New York are the folks in 11 Downing Street who are preparing for a transition away from Blairish policies now in place at No. 10. What MP Mahmood does not appreciate is that while engaging in semantics may not seem useful in and for itself itself, it does make sense when put in the context of a broader "pragmatics"....


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