The White House finally admitted Friday what was abundantly clear to everyone: The United States is at war again.
But in the view of the administration, the "war" against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that President Obama described in his primetime address on Wednesday night is not a continuation of the conflict in Iraq, which he ended in 2011. It's actually the next front of the original Global War on Terror that President George W. Bush launched in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
"The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way that we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates around the world," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Friday, referring to the acronym the administration uses to describe the Islamic State.
Both the declaration and the distinction are key for a couple of reasons.
For one, the White House effectively overruled the semantic dance that Secretary of State John Kerry engaged in on Thursday, when he refused to say the U.S. was at war – as opposed to merely a "very significant counterterrorism operation" – in an interview on CNN.
What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation. It's going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it's a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts."
Earnest dispensed with the "counterterrorism operation" line Friday, repeatedly invoking the W-word during his daily press briefing. What he and the president want a war-weary public to understand is that this is a more surgical war than the full-scale invasion of Iraq. Obama has sworn up and down that he won't send U.S. ground combat troops to the Middle East again, and he has instead compared his strategy against ISIS to counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Yemen, which the public largely ignored.