In today's Guardian David Miliband takes his distance from the phrase 'war on terror'. While conceding that it had some merit, he now thinks that 'the notion is misleading and mistaken'. Reporting on his piece elsewhere in the paper Julian Borger calls it a 'comprehensive critique'. If 'comprehensive' just means that the foreign secretary has assembled a few arguments against the phrase 'war on terror', then OK. But the trouble is, his arguments aren't compelling.
The first of them is that talking about a war on terror gives a spurious unity to a number of disparate groups and thereby helps the efforts of those intent on unifying them. The only unity the phrase implies is the one that in fact justifies it: namely, that the groups concerned are terrorist groups, that they have adopted terror as a political method. Otherwise they can be as disparate as you want. The same reasoning as David uses here could have been used to discourage anyone talking about fascism (I mean real fascism) between the wars. Apart from this, there is a certain other unity behind much recent terrorism - Islamist politics. That doesn't mean a total sameness, but it's a feature hard to overlook.
Second, David says that the offending phrase 'implied that the correct response was primarily military'. No, it didn't. (a) If this were so, you'd have to believe that a war on drugs, or on crime, or on corruption, was primarily military - which people usually don't believe. (b) Even if we take something closer to war in the standard sense, it doesn't follow that non-military means of fighting it aren't important. Wars of liberation from tyranny, for example - they could not be won without social and political measures, campaigns, forms of cooperation and persuasion.
Third, David writes:
We must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it, for it is the cornerstone of the democratic society. We must uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties at home and abroad.
Indeed. But it is no part of the logic of the phrase 'war on terror' that we should compromise these values and practices. The war on terror can be fought while upholding them. And it is being fought on behalf of them.