War on poverty, war on drugs, war on cancer, war on hunger, war on crime, war on obesity, war on illiteracy, even war on guns. Somehow the society likes the metaphor of war despite the fact that it is usually a prelude to failure.

I don't know what President Obama feels about these martial specimens. But we all know that he does not like "the war on terror." He told us that from early on in his campaign. In the spring, there was a rumor around Washington that the White House had even circulated a memo banning the use of the phrase. This was denied, and I believe the denial. Still, the utter elimination of the expression from the discourse of the administration is so stark that it suggests the axiomatic discipline of an executive order. 


Now, the secretary for homeland security, Janet Napolitano, who wouldn't have a job were it not for the war on terror, told the Financial Times Tuesday on a trip to London that the term was inapt because it does not properly describe the terrorist threat to America. My, the lady is finnicky. And so is her boss.


But the defining question is not whether the U.S. wages war on terrorism and terrorists. It is whether the loosely connected but ideologically associated terrorist international is waging war on us. Alas, the decision of whether there is a terrorist war against America is not the secretary's to make. And it is not the president's either. That war started long ago, and it has been declared many times, certainly long before September 11. And after. Lest we forget, moreover, these pronouncements were made and endorsed by Islamic clergy and many none-clerical epigones all over the world. So we know, usurpers though they may be, who they are and where they live. Denying that there is a war going on won't change the realities one bit.  


The FT headline to its article by Edward Luce and Daniel Dombey reads "US shifts its tone on terrorism and discards language of war." Not even Napolitano can believe that this will alter the bloody facts on the ground. And she doesn't really claim that it will. Maybe she and the president are persuaded that this cleaning up of language start a spiritual revolution. I believe that Muslim terrorists here, there and everywhere are laughing at us right now.


Napolitano, who is in charge of the federal department that coalesced 22 formerly stand-alone internal security agencies, made her name in Arizona where, as governor, she systematically subverted the laws about illegal immigration. The fact is that I sympathize with immigrants, illegal and legal, so I can't be sure that I want to criticize her for this, although I suppose I should. But if she doesn't think that there are terrorist warriors out there isn't she likely to be soft on them too?


For all her heaving about the elimination of  "war on terror" language, she ends up taking refuge in a transparent deceit, lecturing us as if she were a school marm with a ruler at her side. It's all a matter of definition: "One of the reasons the nomenclature is not used is that 'war' carries with it a relationship to nation states in conflict with each other and of course terrorism is not necessarily derived from the nation state relationship."  


The fact is that most of the wars fought in the late 20th century and in the near first decade of the 21st have not been fought by nations states, at all. For the most part, true nation states have more or less stopped warring with each other. Even India and Pakistan, which are hardly model nation states, have managed to contain their war-making capacities against each other. Although there are nearly two hundred governments in the United Nations most of them are not nation states. But only someone who doesn't read the papers (or who doesn't grasp what they are saying) would imagine that there is a sudden shortage of war in the current era.


As a matter of fact, wars are being fought now on many fronts, within splintered societies, against ruling tribes and sects by insurgent counter-groups, and by armed gangs who without ideology but with grievance aplenty can mobilize the wish to kill and the willingness to die. This occurs from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Sudan, Somalia and Congo. One such 20 year carnage has just ended in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon and ruled by a thoroughly dogmatic Trotskyite family regime. So it is just nonsense that the absence of nation states from the theatre of war means that war is passe' or even obsolete. On which world does the secretary for homeland security live?


But there is one very serious consequence to the decline of nation states, and it is the growing moral irrelevance of the United Nations which was premised precisely on the the model of such representative polities. Power in the U.N. now, however, is built on shady alliances among mostly illegitimate governments, many of which sit on top of actually warring factions, using the weapons and tactics of terror. So it is not surprising that there is no real power at all in the organization. It is an elaborate and costly charade, and it wouldn't even be a charade if it did not reside in New York.


Still, Susan Rice seems to believe in it. She could be doing greater damage elsewhere.