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Barack Obama History Law Liberalism National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Why It Should Be A ‘War’ Against Terrorism

[digg-reddit-me]One of the big issues many kossacks had in responding to my post was that they objected to the term, “war” being used in describing efforts to combat terrorism.

Peter Feaver over at Foreign Policy nicely parries at least one of the points made – what he labels the “specious claims like the idea that calling it a war narrow options down to only military tools.” Feaver’s response:

On the contrary, of course, calling it a war actually has the opposite effect of expanding options: It admits the use of military and other war-like tools, but it also encompasses the rest of the non military tools in the toolbox, as I’ve argued here. Those who want to label it as something other than a war are the ones who want to limit the tools available.

What Feaver seems to support is what he calls a popular straddle that unites the semantic warriors:

Obama intends to say that we are really at war, but we will voluntarily not use all of the tools of war because we do not need to.

Although at the present, this is fine – it seems to offer the worst of all worlds should another attack occur. Politically, Obama will have boxed himself in by admitting that we are at war and at the same time, by saying that we do not need to use every tool at our disposal to win that war, a kind of anti-Powell doctrine.

The approach that I think bears the most promise – both as a solid grounding for understanding the struggle against terrorism and for creating a politically defensible position – is what I’m calling the Philip Bobitt approach. More on that in a moment.

I think it’s obvious to see why the Feaver approach1 would probably cause political damage to any candidate that embraced it if there is another attack. (Think of the mothers of the victims of an attack saying, ‘You said we didn’t need to do this, but my son died!’) At the same time, the policy of holding back would be discredited by a spectacular attack – or perhaps even a minor one. There would be a backlash. The delicate balance that would need to be struck between the war we are fighting and what we are holding back “because it is unnecessary” would necessarily come undone at the first loss of life.

Alternately, some claim we are not at war and that the struggle against terrorism is a law enforcement matter, and that politicians should embrace this view publicly. If there are no future attacks, then this position will work out fine. If there are only a small number of minor attacks, this also might work out fine. If there are a series of minor attacks, it’s possible that this position might get us through – both politically and substantially. But this doesn’t seem a smart bet to me. I’m not sure that anyone would deny that our society is vulnerable to catastrophic attacks – and that with technological improvements, increased travel, the increasing density of our urban areas, the spread of information, the worldwide and instantaneous nature of the media, and the growing importance and fluidity of markets – non-state actors are more empowered today, to do good or harm, that at any time in the history of the world. I’m not sure anyone would deny that there are significant numbers of individuals who seriously wish harm to America. Terrorism then – terrorism more serious than before – is inevitable.

Ron Suskind, whose critical books on the Bush administration earned him the ire of the former president, reported that an Al Qaeda agent accomplished a technological breakthrough and was prepared to launch a chemical attack on the New York subway system several years ago. The operation was within 45 days of being launched when it was called off by Ayman Zawahiri. Although we have no definite intelligence as to why this attack was called off, the most plausible explanation based on other statements Bin Laden and Zawihiri have made is that Bin Laden feared this attack would not surpass September 11. Societies throughout history have shown that they can acclimate themselves to a constant low-level of violence – even terrorist-created violence. Which is perhaps why Al Qaeda seeks spectacular attacks on their primary target, or none at all – because a spectacular attack is more likely to generate an overreaction.

If history is to be a guide, we can bet that if a terrorist group does enough damage, people will care little for triviliaties such as freedom – such is the effect of the fear of death. (At the same time, history must also inform us that a society’s fear of death can be manipulated by the state as well as by the terrorists.) It seems to me that the law enforcement approach is not especially suited to combatting the terrorism we now face because:

  • the consequences of letting an ordinary criminal go are far less serious than letting a terrorist go;
  • punitive measures that are supposed to deter crime don’t work regarding strategic terrorism (The death penalty, for example, doesn’t deter someone who wants to be a martyr like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.);
  • law enforcement focuses on prosecution and punishment rather than prevention, when counterterrorism measures must do the reverse;
  • military engagement may at times be called for – as it was in Afghanistan after September 11;

The efforts to combat terrorism then don’t seem to fit into our traditional ideas of law enforcement. Neither of course, do they fit into our modern definition of war – as a military engagement between states (or within states) that ends with a treaty. The efforts to combat terrorism don’t fit into any of these preexisting categories neatly. We could invent a new term – but if we did, that would suggest that if this threat escalates, then war would be the next step. In other words, I don’t see any approach to terrorism short of “war” to be sustainable – because I believe it is likely that regardless of what steps we will not be able to prevent another attack.

So I suggest we adopt the term “war” and couple it with the main aim of this war – a preclusive victory against strategic terrorism. This victory would be the protection of the ability of citizens to consent freely to their government.2 Any time the government violated the rule of law, it would be violating the war aim – it would be, as I described it in a post long ago, a “preemptive surrender of American values.”

This seems to me to be a sturdier construction for the protection of American values than either the law enforcement approach, the Feaver approach, or (and especially) the Bush approach.

  1. It’s unfair to label it the Feaver approach as he actually attributes it to Obama, but for the moment, this is the least confusing way to go about explaining. []
  2. I believe we must aim as a society for more than mere consent to government action – to actively shape it, etcetera – but that’s not the goal of this war. []

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