Words Matter: Obama Shelves Use of Bush's 'War on Terror'

A mere 10 weeks into the Obama presidency, the "war on terror" is over. And the nation is rid of "enemy combatants."

As President Obama said during the campaign, words matter.

Although the White House is downplaying the changes, the rhetorical shifts stem from a broader effort by the Obama administration to signal a clean break with the Bush administration -- a theme of Obama's first major foreign trip, which begins today in Great Britain.

Phrases like "war on terror" and "enemy combatants" became stand-ins for some of the least popular elements of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Shelving such phrases makes sense for a president who is trying to set a new tone on the world stage, said Matthew Dowd, a former Bush strategist.

"This is a way for the Obama administration to turn the page on Bush, even though some of the policies for many folks seem very much the same," said Dowd, who is now an ABC News contributor. "It's not going to be completely different than Bush, but changing the words has enabled them to turn the page and say, 'We're not Bush.' "

The clarity with which the language has changed hasn't been fully reflected in the policies the president has pursued. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the president is formulating policies that some of his liberal critics say could have been promulgated by his predecessor.

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters matter-of-factly this week that the term "war on terror" isn't being used by the Obama administration, the president has yet to find an easy replacement.

In addition, the death of the term "enemy combatants" was announced in a legal filing earlier this month that nonetheless upheld the administration's right to detain those suspected of assisting al Qaeda.

"They're still operating within the 'war on terror' framework, and we think that's a problem," said Tom Parker, Amnesty International's policy director for terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights. "We don't at this point know who the real Obama is."

Obama Administration Shifts Rhetoric

The administration's new language to describe "enemy combatants" in legal filings -- "Individuals who provide substantial support to al Qaeda forces in other parts of the world" -- is not only short of catchy but could mean just what "enemy combatants" did in practice, Parker said.

"There's symbolism in changing the language, and this is an administration that understands symbolism more than most," Parker told ABCNews.com. "But this was an omission, it wasn't a refutation. And if you look at the substance of what they've done, it has essentially been, with a few exceptions, stay the course. ... There hasn't been what I would call a radical break with the past."

Parker lauded the president for announcing his intention to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also applauded Obama for unequivocally renouncing torture and dropping Bush-era phrases such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "alternative procedures" to describe tactics than some called torture.

Such policy and linguistic changes have drawn the ire of, among others, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who stated in a recent interview that Obama's policies are making the nation less safe.

But others contend that, words aside, Obama isn't following a radically new direction in combating terrorism.

"A lot of this is the rhetoric of change," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council. "At the end of the day, the policies are much more important [than the words]. And as long as the Obama administration continues to go after terrorists wherever they may be, then that's the most important thing."

Rhetoric Changes Are Discreet

The administration has hardly sought to advertise the changes in language. When an internal memo surfaced stating that the administration preferred the term "Overseas Contingency Operation" to "Global War on Terror," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said he "never received such a directive."

"Perhaps somebody within [the Office of Management and Budget] may have been a little over-exuberant," he said.

But Clinton went a bit further this week in explaining the administration's thinking.

"I haven't gotten any directive about using it or not using it. It's just not being used," Clinton said during a briefing with reporters aboard her plane to the Hague to attend an international conference on Afghanistan.

"The administration has stopped using the phrase, and I think that speaks for itself," she said at a different point during her trip. "Obviously."

Some observers are interested to see what term replaces "war on terror."

"There's a reason we called it 'war on terror,'" Mark McKinnon, who served as a media adviser to Bush, told ABCNews.com. "I think people notice a difference, not so much the specifics. But ... they sense the optics of difference, which is particularly important, especially since many of the policies, like Afghanistan, are not significantly different than [Bush's]."

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow with the Brookings Institution, said the term "war on terror" had lost much of its utility even before Obama took office. Now, he said, the catchall phrase is less useful because the public is accustomed to referring to individual operations, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the efforts to help Pakistan root out terrorists.

He said it makes sense for Obama to drop Bush-era language, given how unpopular Bush's policies were in the world. But he added that eliminating phrases or changing them won't matter in the long run.

"It makes sense for a new president to try to change some of the semantics. You might as well take the low-hanging fruit where you can reach it," O'Hanlon said. "But either you need a better term, or you need for the whole concept to be less important and relevant, in which case you can't take too much credit for [changing the terms]."

Words may matter, but as always, it will be the president's the actions that count.

Said Johndroe, the former NSC spokesman: "In fact, it's everybody's war. It's not Obama's war, it's not America's war, it's the entire civilized world against extremists. And that's why if the rhetoric change helps bring everyone along to counter extremism, then that's OK."