In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, David Beamer, the father of United Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer, called the storming of the cockpit of that flight "our first successful counterattack in our homeland in this new global war--World War III." President Bush told a CNBC interviewer this past Friday that he agrees. "I believe that," he said. "I believe that it was the first counter-attack to World War III."
It wasn't the President's first time to allude to the "global war on terror" in these grandiose terms. Last June, in a speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina defending his administration's handling of the war in Iraq, President Bush said,
Some wonder whether Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. Among the terrorists, there is no debate. Hear the words of Osama Bin Laden: "This Third World War is raging" in Iraq. "The whole world is watching this war." He says it will end in "victory and glory, or misery and humiliation."
One has to wonder about the wisdom of agreeing with Osama bin Laden on this (or any other) point. Bin Laden calls the conflict in Iraq the "Third World War" and President Bush says, in effect, "See? The terrorists are calling this World War III." His endorsement of bin Laden's label comes in the context of a speech designed to bolster support for a war that is not going well. Then, almost eleven months later and still with no end to the war in Iraq in sight, he adopts the "World War III" label as his own. The terrorists' war is our war.
Except it's not.
No state should ever concede to terrorists the right to call their methods warfare. Some who employ terror may, on occasion, have objectives worthy of war, but their methods are crimes, not acts of war. It would have been far better if the "war on terrorism" language had been shelved in favor of a consistent policy of calling terrorists "criminals."
On top of this, there's the additional (and very consequential) fact that rhetorically increasing the stakes by using a label like "World War III" is probably not wise when terrorists can plausibly claim to be holding their own against the world's only remaining superpower.