Barack Obama Foreign Policy National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Why Liberals Must Embrace the Wars Against Terrorism

[digg-reddit-me]Sun Tzu in The Art of War:

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy
and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a
hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy,
for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will
succumb in every battle.

In the past week, the idea that America should “get rid of the ‘War on Terror’ mindset”  has enjoyed a resurgence. With Barack Obama’s rolling back some of the blunders of the Bush administration’s ill-fated War on Terror, liberals who have been bludgeoned with the term, ‘War on Terror’ in election after election want it retired. Surprisingly few voices have called for the Democrats to appropriate the term as a partisan weapon against the Republicans as it was used against them – which indicates the seriousness with which these liberals take retiring the term. For them, ‘War on Terror’ has become associated not only with political attacks on any criticism of the Bush administration but with the bevy of emergency measures taken by the administration in the panicked aftermath of September 11 – and then institutionalized as policy afterward. Many of these measures were ill-considered and counterproductive – and the fight over them has distracted the country from reevaluating our defense posture in light of the threat of strategic terrorism.

From when Sir Michael Howard first made the case to treat terrorism as a law enforcement matter and ditch the war posturing in 2002 in an article for Foreign Affairs magazine to Matt Yglesias’s short sketch in The American Prospect last week, the argument has been substantially the same. It is certainly not weakened by the fact that the main critiques it makes cannot be reasonably disputed.

In summary, the critics of the term ‘War on Terror’ make the point that this war does not fit our traditional definition of war; that because it does not, it makes it seem like the metaphorical wars on drugs or poverty; that it ennobles terrorists as warriors instead of mere murderers and criminals; that declaring war on terror leads us to conflate our enemies and even confuse them – when in fact they have separate and competing agendas; that by using the term war without the prospect of victory, we are setting ourselves up for a failure; that as this war is without a foreseeable end, we risk permanently giving up those liberties that are traditionally infringed upon during war. Already, this War on Terror has lasted longer than any war in American history – and yet victory is nowhere in sight. In related points, critics of the term point out that terrorists have launched attacks on numerous societies in the past – and these societies have been more successful when they responded with law enforcement than with military force, for, as Lawrence Wright explains in The Looming Tower:

The usual object of terror is to draw one’s opponent into repressive blunders…

In the past seven years, we have not avoided the pitfalls that have historically accompanied a state response to terrorism. We have not learned from the history and experience of other nations that informs the views of the liberal critics of the terms.

Yet it should be admitted that the term has been accepted by the greatest majority of Americans – and in the aftermath of September 11, it seemed clear to me – as well as to many others – that this was somehow different. It wasn’t just the scale of the damage that was shocking; it was the deliberation involved in planning the attack. As more information became public – as it became clear that this attack was in development for years, that it had required hundreds of thousands of dollars to organize; that it’s goals were not the mundane extortion of 20th century terrorism (Free this prisoner! Give us our own state!) – but a long-term strategic plan to reorganize the world – as all this became clear, we knew it was something different. Worse – our society is more vulnerable to attack today then it was even a decade ago. Biological technology is advancing rapidly – and soon, if not already, biological weapons will be acquired by terrorists. There is a black market is weapons of mass destruction – including nuclear weaponry thanks to Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan. Large numbers of people travel the world and international borders have become porous. At the same time, our society is becoming more and more concentrated as people pack into already denseley populated cities. The markets that control an ever expanding portion of our society are especially vulnerable to the effects of terrorism – both the fear that it elicits and the government intrusion that comes in reaction.

These vulnerabilities coupled with the opportunities to create havoc which are more democratically available than ever mean that the threat of terrorism truly is a threat to our way of life. At the same time, these terrorists are no mere criminals – whose activities while damaging to society are manageable and who can be deterred with punitive measures. Suicide terrorists seek death – and even are willing to be given capital punishment, considering it martyrdom, as the Khalid Sheikh Muhammad has said.

For the past seven years, we avoided the needed-re-thinking of our approach to terrorism, as under Karl Rove’s guidance, our response to terrorism became yet another front in the culture wars; as under Dick Cheney’s influence with his poisonous One Percent Doctrine, he ensured that our nation stayed the course set in the panic of September 2001, justifying every misstep as an essential part of a ‘strategy’ to combat terrorism that never materialized. ‘We will fight them over there so we do not need to fight them over here,’ it was said – as if our enemy were a fixed group which we could eliminate like our enemies in conflicts past. The Bush administration could never bring itself to acknowledge that Al Qaeda was a stateless organization – and Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush were certain that Iraq must be somehow behind it all. But the threat of September 11 did not emanate from a state although it did have a temporary home in Afghanistan. We conflated and confused our enemies – presuming they formed a united front when in fact they consisted of squabbling groups, or in other cases, mortal enemies – and we did our best to unite them, treating them as one entity.

Although it is not fashionable today to say anything in praise of Donald Rumsfeld given his mismanagement of the Defense Department, by October 2003, he was asking the tough but necessary questions:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions.

Five years later, and we still do not have answers to these questions or a long-range plan for what the military has come to call the Long War. It is left to Obama then to forge a new legal and strategic framework to deal with this threat to our way of life. (Which should be easy as he must also attempt to patch together a new financial and economic world order at the same time.)

In the past seven years, liberals have tended to think of terrorism as an ever-receding threat. Certainly, the fear in the days and months after September 11 have proved to be inflated. And it is clear that Al Qaeda does not pose a threat to our nation in the way that Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did. But Al Qaeda in particular – and strategic terrorism generally – does pose an existential threat to our way of life. By disrupting our markets, by prompting government repression. Our way of life is based on transparency, the rule of law, the free flow of goods, information, and people around the world, and technological advances – all of which are undermined both by terrorism and ordinary counterterrorism and war measures.

Which is why as liberals, we must – both out of political necessity and good sense – embrace some version of a war against terrorism and come to terms with the threat from strategic terrorism, especially when coupled with weapons of mass destruction, to our way of life. We must build a society and a structure of laws that will withstand another attack. Or we will lose.

A law enforcement approach is not sufficient to combat this threat. Nor is the hodge-podge of measures taken by the Bush administration. Nor would a traditional war. What is required is a serious look at who our enemy is and who we are. Without this knowledge, we will lose this war, whether we call it one or not. ((This entire piece is greatly indebted to Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent.))

8 replies on “Why Liberals Must Embrace the Wars Against Terrorism”

This essay raises many well-thought-out questions. Unfortunately, they all relate to a larger framework which is itself much in doubt.

Is it true, for example, that the U.S. was simply a passive victim of an attack on 9/11?
Was Afghanistan the main culprit in this attack? And exactly why is it–as Leo Tolstoy once asked–that small, strategically important nations have this odd habit of attacking far more powerful nations, as if on purpose to get annihilated?

Film maker David Mamet posed a prescient question (back in 1997) with his film Wag the Dog: now that the Soviet Communist threat is gone, what else is going to provide an excuse for the Military-Industrial-National Security State complex, if not Muslims and Islamic terrorists?

Finally, theologian John Millbank (author of Theology and Social Theory), in a recent essay, noted that the ideal patsy, if you wanted to create a terror incident in the US to justify far-going aggressive plans (e.g. such as those charted by the Project for a New American Century, or by Obama’s mentor, Zbig Brzezinski), would be an ideological Islamic group that actually already existed (albeit, in the case of Osama Bin Laden, not without the active support, at early stages at least, of the CIA).

The worst possible mistake American intellectuals could make would be to assume an a priori tendency to truthfulness among U.S. government spokespersons– including those spokesmen that call themselves journalists.

Paul –

A thoughtful response. But a flawed one I think. Putting aside the question of whether or not the military-industrial complex needs an enemy to justify it’s existence for a moment, the threat of terrorism to our way of life is clear – whether it be islamist terrorism or any other sort of strategic terrorism. Our society today is uniquely vulnerable – and given our overwhelming military advantage over every other military force in the world – terrorism is perhaps the only effective militant response. Whether this particular threat is real or projected – and I believe it is real – our society’s vulnerabilities are real and I think undisputed. It is also undisputed (I think) that we have enemies who seek to exploit these vulnerabilities. The question then shifts to whether these enemies are reasonably able to exploit these vulnerabilities – and I think a review of the evidence suggests they are, and that with the democratization of technology and other factors, it is becoming easier.

Of course, if you believe we were not attacked by an outside group on 9/11 (as I think you were suggesting), then the word war is certainly inappropriate for the task at hand. But the vulnerability of our society and the virtual inevitability of an attack suggest we must take measures to protect ourselves and combat those who are seeking to attack us.

You are also mistaken in your suggestion that the CIA actively supported Al Qaeda or even Osama Bin Laden. Indirectly, through the Pakistani ISI we did provide funding and arms to the Afghan fighters and foreign jihadis who aided them. But Bin Laden’s great worth was that he funded his own little army in Afghanistan. Although we supported the general cause in which Bin Laden was fighting, we did not support bin Laden directly from what I know.

I agree that we cannot and should not assume a “tendency to truthfulness” on anyone’s part.

Joe C. ”Our society today is uniquely vulnerable – and given our overwhelming military advantage … terrorism is perhaps the only effective militant response.”

Paul G. — Well, precisely. Given that the US, at least until recently, has overwhelming superiority in any conventional conflict, this means that there is no way to resist the US except by an asymmetrical response which will, of course, be marketed as ‘terrorism’ by the same US state. Why wouldn’t it? Two points, quickly, to flesh out what I mean.

First, given the overwhelming superiority of US firepower (and of its ally, Israel), there is only one ethical way for the US (and Israel) to conduct international relations–namely, by making concern for the well-being of other states as important as the well-being of our own. Otherwise, the overwhelming force of the US and Israel becomes precisely what it so often is in fact: tyranny.

Second, I am not clear what you mean by ‘our way of life.’ There is a huge difference between the liberal state as it was conceived by, say, Locke and his followers among the founding fathers, and modern American corporate capitalism. Prof. Sheldon Wolin coined the phrase ‘inverted totalitarianism’ to suggest the difference. According to Wolin, a state such as the modern US can maintain the outward forms of classical liberalism while losing its content in terms of meaningful popular participation. Wolin believes that a combination of propaganda and pervasive self-censorship has been largely successful in undermining the reality of democracy and in hiding the uglier realities of who we have actually become. One can’t help noting that still today the mass media maintain the myth of US government benevolence of intentions, even when ‘mistakes’ are made. I think the subject of terrorism, especially as it has been exploited in the past 8 years, fits under the general heading of propaganda. This does not at all mean that no threats exist–a point strenuously made by Naomi Wolf in her excellent book The End of America. There is every reason to expect that a way of life characterized by empire and coercion (both monetary and military–see Confessions of an Economic Hit Man) will be occasionally punctuated by terror– from some source or other. I agree that even a more virtuous way of life would not be free from all threats, and on that point, see below.

Joe C. “Whether this particular threat is real or projected – and I believe it is real – our society’s vulnerabilities are real and I think undisputed …”

Paul G. — Clearly terrorists could make use of technology to disturb our ‘way of life,’ and given US policies and actions around the world in recent years, it would hardly be surprising if some blowback should occur, but I am curious to see the details of your evidence that ‘clearly they are .. exploiting these vulnerabilities.’ What are you referring to specifically? I can’t help recalling, in this regard, the anthrax attacks. Scary stuff. Are you convinced that these attacks were perpetrated by someone outside the US government? Do you believe the FBI’s wrap-up of this case with its tale of a lone scientist who then so conveniently (!) committed suicide (end of story, thank you very much, let’s all go home now)?

Also, I wonder whether, immediately post – 9/11, you happened to see any of Wendell Berry’s essays on the decentralized ‘ways of life’ that would answer precisely this question of ‘how to be safe’? The difference here, though, is that Berry doesn’t just ask ‘how to be safe,’ at all costs, come what may, but instead how to preserve democracy, safeguard civil liberties and also be less vulnerable to attacks from terrorists. Framed in this fuller context, the question is of course entirely reasonable and legitimate.

Joe C. ”Of course, if you believe we were not attacked by an outside group on 9/11 (as I think you were suggesting), then the word war is certainly inappropriate … “

Paul G. — I am indeed so suggesting, although, I should add, I came to this conclusion slowly and reluctantly. I had worked as a sort of consultant to Centcom for years prior to 911, and even offered my services to them in Afghanistan in its immediate aftermath. I will not waste time here justifying my position, as lack of information is not the problem. I will simply add that I find more for American citizens to fear from the US government than from any outside group, though of course there are dangers everywhere.

Joe C. “You are also mistaken in your suggestion that the CIA actively supported Al Qaeda or even Osama Bin Laden .. ”

Paul G. — I will readily admit that there are many mysteries surrounding the case of Bin Laden. The links between the ISI and the CIA are, however, quite well-known. The pre-9/11 link between US military intelligence and several of the so-called hijackers was brought up in Congressional hearings until those asking uncomfortable questions were shut up. Are you aware of the press accounts (e.g. The Times of India) stating that a top ISI official wired 100,000 dollars to Mohamed Atta on the eve of 9/11? The 9/11 Commission Report found the money trail issues to be of little importance (9/11 Commission Report, p. 172). Small wonder! After all, the Commission already had the answers before they began asking questions.

Joe C. “I agree that we cannot and should not assume a “tendency to truthfulness” on anyone’s part.”

Paul G.– Indeed. It is hard to find the truth, and it is even harder to want to find it.

I much appreciate your feedback and civility. I hope I have managed to be as civil myself.


Hello, Again:

I repeat that I am not an expert in the Bin Laden story, though I have read enough from a wide variety of sources to make me suspicious. But I couldn’t help being struck by the following statement, coming as it does from England’s former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. This, along with much else of interest, can be found in a site that should be much more widely read and cited–Patriots Question 9-11. The rest of this post is taken directly from that site, which added the following in today’s update:

Robin Cook (1946 – 2005) – Member of British Parliament and Holder of two cabinet posts; Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1997 – 2001 and Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council 2001 – 2003. He resigned the latter post on March 17, 2003 in protest against the invasion of Iraq.

Essay The Guardian 7/8/05 :

“Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.”

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