The Forever War, Still Forever

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File

Today, President Barack Obama gives what has been billed as a major address on the status of the "war on terror," a term that the Obama administration doesn't use but that is still how we refer to the efforts the United States takes around the world fighting al-Qaeda, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, those who might be affiliated with someone who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and pretty much any nongovernmental entity that looks at us funny.

Whatever you call it, the war on terror is our endless war, just as George W. Bush set it out to be. With a Congress and most of a public willing to let him do almost anything he wanted, Bush and his administration told us all those years ago that we were fighting not al-Qaeda nor even terrorism but "terror" itself. In other words, our war would be not against a group of people or even a tactic that anyone can use but against our own fear. And that's a war we can never win.

Nevertheless, when Obama was running for president, you might have thought that five years into his presidency there wouldn't be much of a war on terror left. Most visibly, he wanted to get us out of Iraq, then wrap up Afghanistan. Mission, well, sort of maybe eventually accomplished. But the war on terror lives on, at our airports, in government budgets, and in our laws. Al-Qaeda may be a shadow of its former self, but the extraordinary changes we made after September 11 remain in place, and no one seriously believes they'll be scaled back any time soon. As Spencer Ackerman reminds us, we gave the government all kinds of "emergency" powers after the attacks—to track our phone calls, to monitor our e-mail, to see what books we've taken out of the library—and despite the fact that by any rational measure the "emergency" is over, the powers remain.

Totaling up the cost of the war on terror isn't easy, because there are so many costs spread across so many places.1To take just one example, after September 11 many utilities spent millions to beef up security at their facilities. These costs were naturally passed on to consumers. But let's look at two pieces of the war on terror: the Afghanistan War and the amount we spend in various agencies on homeland security (figures on Afghanistan are from the Congressional Research Service; homeland security figures are from the National Priorities Project).

That's well over a trillion dollars spent over ten years. Those figures don't include the Iraq War, despite the Bush administration's declaration that Iraq was part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), nor do they include anti-terrorism spending by the CIA, whose budget is secret. Along with all those billions spent, we created a gigantic surveillance apparatus, memorably described in Dana Priest and William Arkin's 2010 series "Top Secret America." 

"Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States," they wrote. Despite their extensive efforts to document this colossus, "the top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work."

And there is little sign that President Obama has the inclination or the ability to rein in this leviathan. In today's speech, he'll reiterate his desire to close down the prison at Guantanamo and announce that he's shifting responsibility for drone strikes in Pakistan from the CIA to the Pentagon. In other words, there are some minor management changes regarding the war on terror's execution he wants us to be aware of.

But what would be truly dramatic is for him to tell Americans the fundamental truth about terrorism. Imagine if he said this: Yes, we face threats from those who would use terrorism to harm Americans, but these threats are extremely limited and quite manageable. They pale next to the threat of guns or car accidents (about 30,000 yearly American deaths each) or tainted food (3,000 deaths a year) or medical errors (perhaps 200,000 deaths per year) or any of a hundred other things that can hurt us.

Handling the threat of terrorism didn't require the surveillance state we created or the dramatic expansion of powers we granted the president. The "terror" we set out to fight was within us, and we made a choice to feed it and let it control us. The choices we made over the last 12 years were not the inevitable response to outside events, they were just that—choices—and if we chose to, we could undo as many of them as we like.

It would be quite something if Barack Obama said that. But he won't.

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