It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear

Pakistani students gather in front of Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad.
Pakistani students gather in front of Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad.
Getty Images

David Ignatius’ latest column is generating quite a bit of discussion, and for good reason: it highlights materials from Osama bin Laden, obtained after the U.S. strike on his compound last May. Ignatius notes, for example, that the al Qaeda leader intended to assassinate President Obama and Gen. David Petraeus by attacking their airplanes.

While there’s a lot to chew on this column, there was one tidbit that jumped out at me. Osama bin Laden apparently wrote a 48-page directive to his top lieutenant, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, which included some thoughts on, of all things, public relations.

Bin Laden’s biggest concern was al-Qaeda’s media image among Muslims. He worried that it was so tarnished that, in a draft letter probably intended for Atiyah, he argued that the organization should find a new name.

The al-Qaeda brand had become a problem, bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,” and instead promoted a war against al-Qaeda.

At a variety of points in the Obama era, even after the president prioritized bin Laden’s demise and ordered the strike in Abbottabad, conservative critics of the administration’s national security policies have complained bitterly about the president’s choice of words. Rudy Giuliani, the Cheneys, Joe Lieberman, and others insisted counter-terrorism successes were nice, but what really mattered was Obama using the phrases they wanted to hear.

The president, these detractors said, should be talking constantly about the “war on terror,” “violent Islamist extremism,” “Islamic extremists,” etc. The emphasis, conservatives said, should be on religion and terrorism in general.

The Obama administration largely ignored this criticism, and used more constructive language – talking about al Qaeda specifically, not “Islamists” – whether Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman were satisfied or not.

According to none other than Osama bin Laden, the president’s choice of words hurt al Qaeda. I don’t expect Giuliani to admit he was wrong, but I hope someone sends him a copy of Ignatius’ column.