Press Box

Danger! Cliché Ahead!

The war on terror enters the most dangerous phase—again.

The war against terrorism has gone through at least three distinct phases, if you believe what you read in the nation’s top dailies. First there was a dangerous phase, and then a dangerous phase, and just yesterday, a dangerous phase.

The New York Times editorial page first scented dangerousness on Oct. 8,when it noted that the American air campaign against al-Qaida and the Taliban marked “a new and more dangerous phase” in the war. On Oct. 20, just after U.S. commandos hit the ground in Kandahar, Times editorialistswere still stuck in their Oct. 8 danger groove, calling it a “new and more dangerous phase.” The Times news pages agreed the next day, Oct. 21, reporting that the attack “signaled a new and dangerous phase in America’s war on terrorism.”

Not until Nov. 26 did the press give the war a phase-upgrade (though not a phase shift). The pursuit of top al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, the Wall Street Journal reported, was “the most dangerous phase of the war in Afghanistan.” A day later, Nov. 27,as the Los Angeles Times reported the bloody news from the Mazar-i-Sharif uprising, it proclaimed that the United States was moving “into a new, potentially more dangerous phase.” On Nov. 29, after 1,000 U.S. Marines landed at an airstrip in Kandahar, USA Today paraphrased officials who warned “that the war has entered a more dangerous phase.” Also that day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon believed that the first U.S. combat death indicated that the war was entering a “dangerous phase for soldiers and civilians.”

On Dec. 5,the New York Times came away from a briefing with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to report Rummy’s sentiment that the war “was entering a complicated and dangerous phase.” On Dec. 10,the Wall Street Journal surmised that finding Bin Laden and al-Qaida in the Tora Bora’s cavern/fortresses “could prove to be the most difficult and dangerous phase of the Afghan war.”

By Dec. 18, when many had concluded that the war on terror was over, at least in Afghanistan, the Washington Post found experts who maintained that no! no! no!, now we had finally entered the “most dangerous phase” of the war. U.S. servicemen were certain to trip over more land mines. Al-Qaida forces were still at large, along with Osama Bin Laden and thousands of armed Taliban soldiers. “Kidnappings and snipings and attacks on U.S. personnel, and on U.S. relief workers, are more likely to occur in Pakistan, especially in the tribal areas, than in Afghanistan,” said Alexander Thier, former head of the U.N. humanitarian office in Kabul.

“This isn’t the beginning of the end,” said Harlan Ullman, a think tank analyst. “It’s the end of the beginning.” Whether he was talking about the war or the dangerous phase cliché, nobody is really sure.