04/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Will Republicans Do Without 'War on Terror' Talking Point?

by Taylor Marsh

It began on Fox News Sunday yesterday. He couldn't get a grip. Over and over in the interview between Chris Wallace and Adm. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he just couldn't let go. Where was that old standby "war on terror" talking point? President Obama isn't using it. His aides aren't using it. Wallace could deduce only one thing: If people don't say "war on terror" then the extremists win. It was an exercise in juvenile journalism, but Wallace was determined.

Mike Wallace's little boy sounded like a kid who'd just lost his favorite dump truck:

WALLACE: Having said that, a lot of people have noticed that both the president and top advisers very seldom talk about the war on terror. Why is that?

From your conversations with him, does he see our fight against Islamic radicals differently than President Bush did?

MULLEN: It's very clear in my engagement with him that he is very focused on the terrorist extremist threat, and my guidance is to continue to pursue that in every possible way.

WALLACE: Does -- do you have any explanation as to why he doesn't talk about the war on terror?

MULLEN: No, I don't. I mean, I don't. I just told you what he's told me to do is focus very specifically on this threat, led by Al Qaeda, but certainly it's a top priority to focus on the terrorism and terrorists and the extremists that are out there who would -- who would do us harm.

WALLACE: Last question. As the nation's top military man, do you believe you are still leading a war against terrorism?

MULLEN: There is -- there are an awful lot of elements of terrorists and terrorism which threaten us, and we continue to very clearly pursue them, and we will until they're no longer a threat.

George W. Bush talked about "the war on terror" all the time. Look where that got us.

In the interview Mullen described the priority of focusing on the "terrorist extremist threat." That Obama has been clear that we will pursue them until they are no longer a threat.

That wasn't good enough for Wallace, who was obviously trying to weave a national security thread that presented President Obama and his administration as soft on terrorism.

But Mullen's strong statement used words that actually mean something, including utilizing all the tools we have available, not simply the military ones. For Wallace, that did not compute. Isn't war and military means the only way to win the "war on terror"?

Adm. Mullen was having none of it, as he answered Wallace's questions, a smile crept over his face the more Wallace kept pushing. That's likely because he's hardly the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to think the "war on terror" talking point is actually misleading, unhelpful and counterproductive. In other words, it doesn't work.

"General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the National Press Club on Monday that he had 'objected to the use of the term war on terrorism before, because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution.' He said the threat instead should be defined as violent extremism, with the recognition that 'terror is the method they use.'" (Source: International Herald Tribune - Via Think Progress)

Then again, there have been others like Donald Rumsfeld, who said it in an interview with Townhall:

Rumsfeld: "I don't think I would have called it the war on terror. ... Why do I say that? Because the word 'war' conjures up World War II more than it does the Cold War. It creates a level of expectation of victory and an ending within 30 or 60 minutes of a soap opera. It isn't going to happen that way. Furthermore, it is not a 'war on terror.' Terror is a weapon of choice for extremists who are trying to destabilize regimes and (through) a small group of clerics, impose their dark vision on all the people they can control. So 'war on terror' is a problem for me." (source: Townhall)

Including George W. Bush himself, who gave up on it way back in 2004:

BUSH: "We actually misnamed the war on terror, it ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world." (source: Washington Post)

But count Chris Wallace out. He's evidently got another objective entirely, and without the "war on terror" talking point, which is all it ever was, Republicans will have to go back to the drawing board. Because when it comes to actually fighting the terrorist extremist threat, which we all know is very real, they don't have anything in their playbook but worn out slogans.