In war, the first battle is to define the conflict; the second is to control the narrative.
President Obama won the first battle when he defined the ensuing conflict as a “sustained counterterrorism operation,” but experienced a Waterloo moment when his administration surrendered that narrative in the days after. Secretary of State John Kerry, in particular, delivered mixed messages. From “war is the wrong terminology,” to “yes, we are at war with ISIL,” and finally arriving at, “I think it's a waste of time to focus on [what terminology is used],” Kerry covered the spectrum of available responses.
Nevertheless, the most unsettling answer that Kerry gave was that semantics are “a waste of time.” He could not be more incorrect.
Controlling the narrative of this conflict is paramount, especially in regards to how it impacts the international community’s perception of the Islamic State. With that considered, Obama should use a tactic from one of his own, self-professed heroes—President Abraham Lincoln.
When the southern states seceded from the Union, their first goal was to attract and define a sense of legitimacy for their new, self-declared nation. Lincoln recognized this, and the implications of semantics going forward. Lincoln not only refused to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate nation-state, he even refused to recognize the conflict itself as a lawful secession. Lincoln repeatedly referred to the southern cause as nothing more than a “rebellion.” In a July 1861 Special Message to Congress, Lincoln explained that, “It might seem at first thought to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called ‘secession’ or ‘rebellion.’ The movers, however, well understand the difference.” In other words, Lincoln meant to convey that by defining the conflict as a “rebellion,” it robbed the Confederacy the legitimacy of being a nation-state. In this sense, Lincoln’s first priority was to define the conflict and control the narrative on the Union’s terms.
Similarly, the Islamic State is wasting no time in defining the narrative. Following Obama’s primetime announcement, the Islamic State released a video entitled “Flames of War: Fighting has just begun,” with all the trappings of a movie trailer. The video is a strong indication that the Islamic State wants the ensuing conflict portrayed as “The United States vs. the Islamic State.” Obama should not grant them this sense of legitimacy. Instead, the Obama administration should stick to its original narrative—that the conflict with the Islamic State is not a separate war of one nation-state against another. Rather, the conflict is another component of the U.S.’s larger campaign against international, Islamic terrorism.
None of this is to say that the U.S. should take the threat any more lightly. The end-game remains the Islamic State’s destruction. Again, while Lincoln relegated the southern cause to a mere rebellion, it did not stop him from waging total war on the southern states to achieve victory. Likewise, though the U.S. is engaged in a “sustained counterterrorism operation” rather than a full-blown “war,” it does not mean the U.S. is not focused on wiping the Islamic State from the face of the earth.
The Islamic State’s primary purpose is to establish itself as a functioning, self-declared nation-state. It is clear that the Islamic State’s strategic goals span beyond the functions of a conventional terrorist organization. Its establishment of an Islamic neo-caliphate makes that abundantly clear. Consequently, if Obama wishes to engage the Islamic State, he should define it on the U.S.’s terms. To Kerry and others, this may appear to be “a waste of time,” or a meaningless game of words. To the “movers,” however, it is not.