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Criticism National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The War on Terrorism

It Is a “War”

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve tried to make this point before – and have gotten constantly sniped at as I’m presented with supposed tautologies of ideologically certain “reasoning” – which are really mere collections of catchphrases –  by those to my “left”. But I’m trying again because I think this is important.

This is one of those times where I almost wish I had the support and/or insights of the JournoList

First, a political argument. If a liberal president declares an end to the War on Terrorism – and says we need to take a law enforcement approach – he or she would be setting themself up for a hard fall if a major terrorist attack did occur. Dick Cheney already seems to be trying to set up this dynamic, even with the modest and cautious steps that Obama has taken. But it’s not clear to me that Cheney’s critique will have enough to latch onto: unless a prisoner released to the Bahamas smuggles a nuclear weapon into the United States or a lead generated by torture is not followed up because of the “poison tree” doctrine – Obama would be in command of events enough to ensure that his policies aren’t blamed. And given the massive blowback that will certainly accrue if a politician is seen to be using a national tragedy as a political weapon, it’s possible that a move by Cheney under the circumstances would backfire.1

I don’t think there are many out there who disagree that Cheney has set up this poisonous trap – allowing him and other Bush administration apologists to blame Obama for the attack they all were sure was coming from September 12 until the day they left office – and which they are now sure is going to occur under Obama. Though I think many on the left and right pessimisticly disagree with my belief that Cheney’s plan will backfire.

Even so, any responsible politician must try to mitigate the damage that would be done to them under these circumstances. By declaring we are no longer at “war,” Obama would be instead increasing the damage done to him in the event of an attack. And indeed, Obama would be setting up his less extreme approach to be discredited if he describe as  a step down from Bush’s war approach.

If nothing else, Obama, in maintaining that we are still at war, but changing how the government is waging that war is hedging against an attack.

Second, on policy grounds. After September 11, there was a widespread shock at the scope of the attack. There was a realization that several factors had made our society more vulnerable to terrorism than at previous points in history: the empowering of individuals in a globalized, technological world, as made especially evident by weapons of mass destruction; the insulating effects of the combination of global communication, reactionary religion, and the internet; the ubiquity of media delivery and production.

This situation has created unprecedented vulnerabilities – vulnerabilities which previously could only be exploited by nation-states. This leaves us – as a society – now always vulnerable in a way we have previously only been in time of war.

Whether we call this state of readiness, of awareness that our society is in jeopardy, “war” or “peace” the reality is the same. But the truest – and most politically useful – way to understand this state is as a war of our entire society (rather than our government) to protect the American way of life. While the words here may be similar to those that Bush used, this is not a reason to do away with them. Rather, instead of using words as mere political weapons we should take them seriously. We must determine what it is that makes our society what it is – free, dynamic, fun, individualistic – and strive to protect these values even in a state of war.

I think the problem is that many liberals, progressives, and others on the left – and libertarians on the right – have convinced themselves that terrorism is not a serious threat. (Maybe I’m wrong – but bear with me for a moment.) Certainly these groups often make the argument that terrorism is not as serious of a threat as it is made out to be – and they make many good points on this front. Yet, despite this, they have made relatively little headway.

The reason these arguments aren’t taking hold is the same reason Iran will never be the same now that the people have proven their power by taking to the streets in defiance of the Supreme Leader – because now that people know it is possible, it will be done again. Through a combination of luck, hard work, distraction, and military action, our military, our intelligence services, and the Bush and Obama administrations have prevented another attack on American soil. And God willing, this will continue. But I cannot help but believe that at some point someone will try and succeed in another spectacular attack. More important, given the power non-governmental organizations now have in our society with technology such as it is, and given the power of America in maintaining the status quo around the world, some group will declare war and more successfully wage a war of terrorism on America – whether this group be Al Qaeda or another.

Why do I believe this? Because the technology is there. Because the will is there. Because the social dynamics are there. And because a group such as this now has an example to follow.

We need to prepare for this as a society – or we could easily be destroyed as a society – not likely by the weapons of such terrorists but by our unconsidered reaction. Just as September 11 demonstrated to some terrorist group in the future what a success might look like, so the Bush administration’s reaction – to a great degree – demonstrated how a poorly thought out response could undermine our liberties at home and our power and interests abroad.

Liberals and progressives have tended not to discuss policy with the thought in their minds: “What then, after another attack?” Avoiding this line of thought is a bad habit formed after years of Bush constantly invoking it – and using it as an implicit and explicit political weapon. It is necessary to think past that step – and to create policies that will survive another attack.

  1. Progressives and liberals of all stripes here must be ready to shriek – but Bush did use 9/11 as a political weapon! And he got away with it! He did – and I’ve referenced this many times on this blog. But though he got away with it in 2002 and 2004 – by 2006, the public had become more cynical – and began to see Rove’s game for what it was. Many people didn’t want to believe that this is what Bush was doing – and lived in denial. Now, with a greater suspicion of Bush administration officials and Obama officials and pundits having pointed out the game Cheney is playing with national security issues, I think the public is politically oriented towards blowback if Cheney were to try to capitalize on an attack too eagerly. []