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September 01, 2004

We can't win the "war on terror" because there's no such thing

The Strawman commenteth:

When asked “Can we win?” the war on terror, Bush said, “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the — those who use terror as a tool are — less acceptable in parts of the world.”

Now, this seems like a reasonable statement; though, imagine if it were Howard Dean or John Kerry who made that statement: The press would eat them alive. Not unlike when, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Dean said that America was not safer. The press had a field day; and, only months later, Najaf, Fullujah, Baghdad and the rest of Iraq lite up in violent anti-occupation clashes. Apparently, it seems, Iraq wasn't safer after Saddam's capture.

So Bush realizes that the War on Terror may be Unwinnable in the near term. Isn't that what everyone else has been saying for the last two years? And were or were they not being labeled unpatriotic for such a statement? Bush shows up to the party late and the media gives him a free ride. Wow.

I'd like to make an even stronger claim. We can't possibly win "the war on terror" because there is no such war. The "war on terror" is less of a war than Nixon's war on cancer or Johnson's war on poverty. The war on terror is warlike in the same sense as the war on drugs. Like the war on drugs, the war on terror is an excuse to start real wars and justify extraordinary new government powers. Like the war on drugs, the war on terror is absolutely unwinnable.

We can't win the war on terrorism because terrorism is a strategy, not an enemy. Philosophers would call terrorism a functional description. The logic of terrorism won't go away. We can't make weak factions forget that they can provoke and intimidate much stronger enemies through unconventional attacks on civilians. Free societies will always be vulnerable to terrorism. For that matter, even totalitarian societies like Russia and Saudi Arabia can't stamp out this scourge.

Obviously, we could be much better off. John Kerry could make inroads against Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic terrorist groups. He could reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attacks by improving civil defense and emergency preparedness. He will do more to track down fissionable materials and defend our critical infrastructure. Maybe a Kerry administration will can grapple with root causes of international terrorism like the Arab/Israeli crisis, and the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a former prosecutor, Kerry understands the importance of cracking down on stem cell bombers and other domestic terrorists.

Some people think winning the war on terror means discrediting Islamic fundamentalism. I agree that over the long term, secular liberal democracy will do well in the marketplace of ideas. I don't know if "winning" is the right metaphor, but we can hold our own and build market share in the years to come.

The war metaphor implies that we must take aggressive action to force the desired outcome Yet I haven't heard very many constructive suggestions for hastening the decline of fundamentalism. Military conquest is right out. Propaganda is slow and unreliable. Covert ops have two black eyes. If we turn out to be on the "winning" side, it will probably have more to do with the intrinsic reasonableness of certain core beliefs than anything we did to win hearts and minds.

Maybe someday the average global citizen will view alll forms of religious fundamentalism in the contempt it deserves. Maybe someday arguments for jihad, culture war, and divine exceptionalism will seem as quaint as the case for dialectical materialism or Socialism in One Country. Yet, even that far fetched outcome wouldn't be tantamount to winning the war on terror.

Honestly, I'm shocked that terrorism is such an important issue in this presidential campaign. It's equally shocking that it's big news when the President fleetingly articulates a trusim. Some of his apologists claim he couldn't possibly have understood what he was saying. If the American public were concerned about terrorism in proportion to the statistical threat, we'd be more concerned about prescription drug coverage than whether it might be possible to eliminate the threat of terrorist attacks.

Paradoxically, the more we work ourselves up about the threat of terrorism, the more attractive terrorism becomes. Our escalating fear increases the asymmetry that motivates asymmetrical warfare. Ironically, the most effective anti-terrorist strategy may be to cultivate pragmatic equanimity.

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Comments

"We can't possibly win "the war on terror" because there is no such war ... excuse to start real wars and justify extraordinary new government powers ... can't make weak factions forget that they can provoke and intimidate much stronger enemies through unconventional attacks ... shocked that terrorism is such an important issue in this presidential campaign" and so forth.

Love it. I agree 100% with this and am consistently disappointed that no one in the media takes this view or even discusses it (correct me if I'm wrong, seriously).

And if 'war-on-terror' were used only as electoral rhetoric that would be bad enough, but as you say "Our escalating fear increases the asymmetry that motivates asymmetrical warfare" rendering American tactics counterproductive. This isn't the worst crime of the Bush administration but it's certainly a crime and it's completely ignored (at least domestically).

One question though:
"Maybe someday arguments for jihad, culture war, and divine exceptionalism will seem as quaint as the case for dialectical materialism or Socialism in One Country."
What are these things and in what sense are they quaint?

Dialectical materialism is the philosophical basis of Marxism. Socialism in One Country was a ideological readjustment within Russian Communist thought to account for how the Russian revolution could work, even though certain historical preconditions hadn't been satisfied.

These ideas have become quaint in the sense that they are extremely influential concepts whose cachet has declined precipitously as part of a more general disaffection with Socialism and Communism. Cold warriors congratulate themselves on the fall of Communism and tell us that market ideology has won and socialism has lost in the battle for hearts and minds (I.e. Arnold at the RNC). I'm going to ignore the merits of any of these ideologies and note that Warriors-on-Terror hope for an analogous global ideological shift towards their brand of democracy.

I'd agree with the comment that, “Warriors-on-Terror hope for an analogous global ideological shift towards their brand of democracy." Though could one call it dialectical immaterialism? It’s evident that the margins articulate their desired world spirit better than moderates, which has made it professional suicide to enter legitimate criticism into the discourse. The parameters have been set between binary choices: Win or Lose the WoT (War on Terror (Tactics)), which side are you on?

When did it become heresy to think through the genesis, political/international considerations, and policy implications of this “WoT”? And, as you pointed out, isn’t the nomenclature incorrect? But, as with rationalization, the rules of the game are determinative of where the system needs to settle—or, more to the point, where the discourse is stunted and shaped. What is gulling is how dismissive the general public is towards questions about the stability of Afghanistan and the timing of the Iraq War. That connection is crucial. And if you really want to make the case for an intelligent prosecution of the “WoT”, Afghanistan is a first term war: I truly believe that if Bush hadn’t pursued the Iraq War when he did, and maintain higher and more thorough military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq would have been a late Second term war for Bush, no doubt—however, the situation in Afghanistan possibly could have devolved into a prohibitive factor in pursuing a later Iraq war.

But there is too much to go into, too many qualification, too many caveats in natural thought that constraints concise articulation. One thing, though, about the irrationality of terror noted above: People don’t generally assess statistic probabilities well. For instance, a women will be more terrified of being attacked by a shark than being murdered by an ex-lover (a rather grim example, I’m sorry) or a person will be more likely to think they’ll be attacked by terrorist than win the lottery twice. It’s absurd, I know. But try and minimize the actual probabilistic threat of terror and your branded a treasonous lout. Thanks to Zell Miller, the new era of irrational suspicion has been inaugurated.

It sucks

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