Getting Rid of the "War on Terror" Mindset

The notion of a "war on terror" is a controversial one—British Foreign Secretary David Miliband recently critiqued it for giving the impression of a "unified, transnational enemy." Will Obama discard the phrase?

The inauguration of Barack Obama clearly augurs the beginning of the end of America's disastrous war in Iraq. Less clear is what it means for the larger conceptual framework in which the war is embedded, the so-called "war on terror" of which the Iraq war, in the Bush administration's formulation, is but one "battle." The phrase has long been a controversial one in foreign-policy precincts, and momentum for its abolition is clearly building, as reflected in the Jan. 15 proclamation by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband that it should never have been adopted since it "gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda" when "the reality is that the motivations and identities of terrorist groups are disparate."

Miliband is exactly right. And the United Kingdom is far and away the United States' closest ally on so-called "hard" security issues, raising serious questions about the continued viability of the concept when the entire rest of the world seems to have moved on.

Back during the campaign, meanwhile, Obama said he didn't just want to end the war in Iraq, he wanted to "end the mindset that got us into the war in the first place." The idea of a hazily defined "war on terror" would certainly seem to qualify as an important part of that mindset. But thus far, Obama and his team have been mighty ambiguous on the issue. Obama isn't prone to using the phrase himself, but back during the primaries, all the Democratic contenders were given a specific opportunity to disavow it, and only John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich stepped up to the plate. During confirmation hearings neither Attorney -General Eric Holder nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor any of the new Pentagon sub-Ccabinet officials spoke of a "war on terror." But on the day of his rollout as Obama's choice to run the CIA, Leon Panetta committed himself "to consulting closely with my former colleagues in the Congress to form the kind of partnership we need if we're to win the war on terror."

Obama himself split the difference in his inaugural address, eschewing the WOT terminology, but arguing that "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."

The shift is nice but, ultimately, not nearly enough. Obama would do well to take Miliband's advice and really and truly cashier not just the specific phrase by the larger concept of which the idea of a war against a "far-reaching network" is clearly a sub-species. For one thing, at this point, the war mindset has become both a symbol and a cause of America's isolation from the European democracies with whom we share formal military alliances, economic ties, and common values. But even were the term popular around the world, it still represents an intellectual muddle that impedes clear thinking about national-security priorities.

From the beginning, the idea of a "war on terror" was fatally compromised by the obvious analogy to purely metaphorical wars such as the war on drugs or the war on poverty. Our acclimatization to such metaphorical wars lets the use of the term slip past our censors without real scrutiny of the implications. But efforts against terrorism have, unlike anti-poverty policy, real resemblance to wars. Meaning that the "war on terror" isn't a metaphorical war at all; it’s a real one. Yet at the same time, not a real one against a defined enemy and featuring defined objectives. And therein lies the problem.

One dimension of this is what Miliband observed, the lack of clarity as to who the opponent is in this war. This is an issue made by Obama's edit of the phrase, as he changed it to something less inane and Bush-sounding but even less precise. But the larger problem is the way the "war" mentality unduly ennobles terrorists abroad and undermines the rule of law at home.

Simply put, terrorists are not warriors. The German soldiers my grandfather fought during World War II killed people, but they weren't murderers; they were soldiers. When captured, they became prisoners of war, not criminals. Some on the Nazi side were, of course, criminals -- war criminals -- and were charged as such. But the typical German soldier was a soldier, entitled to return to his home and family unmolested if he survived the war. Men who blow up nightclubs and train stations and demolish office buildings, by contrast, are murderers. We neither should nor will treat them as soldiers. But insofar as that's the case, we're not at "war" with them any more than we're actually "at war" with the guy who used to sell me pot.

Just as we don't afford terrorists the wartime exemption from prosecution, however, we must observe restraint in going after terrorists. If the FBI has reason to believe a terrorist is holed up in an apartment somewhere in Philadelphia, we don't bomb the building -- we arrest the terrorist. The same thing is generally true abroad -- we need to work with friendly law enforcement to unravel plots against targets in Europe and Canada and other Western nations. But we don't fire mortars or drop bombs in friendly cities -- we seek cooperation with local governments.

This returns us to a real war initiated after September 11 -- the war against the Taliban. Unlike a "war on terror" this war made perfect sense. The Taliban was not a friendly government. It refused, both before and after 9-11, to cooperate with legitimate American requests to crack down on Osama bin Laden, on al-Qaeda, and on terrorist training facilities. After 9-11 we threatened them with war if they would not cooperate. They refused, and so to war we went. That was the right thing to do, and it's conceivable that it will need to be done again in some form in some other place. This is the correct ordering of priorities. Combating al-Qaeda is not a war, but it is important. And we have had to fight a war in Afghanistan in order to do it. But this is a different matter than a war on an emotion or on a "far-reaching network."

Obama's statement on Guantanamo Bay and other legal issues as well as his appointments to the Justice Department bespeak a desire to return counterterrorism policy to the rule of law. This is the right thing to do, but it's not something that can be supported from within the conceptual framework of war. A shift away from war terminology, by contrast, not only supports Obama's policies on that front but can help provide strategic guidance as we try to make difficult decisions with regard to Afghanistan. It's important to recall why we went to war there -- to eliminate a safe haven for al-Qaeda -- in order to make sure our forward-looking policy is focused on key priorities rather than merely sustaining Hamid Karzai and/or the foreign military presence.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's key players are clearly uncomfortable with the phrase, which makes it useless for the one thing it was ever really good for -- as a political bludgeon against domestic adversaries. It's time to turn the page not just on the Bush administration but on its key misguided concept.

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