Why Liberals Must Embrace the Wars Against Terrorism


By Joe Campbell
January 26th, 2009

[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.1

  1. This entire piece is greatly indebted to Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent. []