At the heart of President Bush's war on terrorism lies a
deepening contradiction that, unless resolved, will undermine the legitimacy of
the entire war effort. The contradiction is embedded in the narrative of why we
are at war and what it will take to win.
On the one hand, the White House describes the war as one without obvious
end. Administration officials say repeatedly that victory is elusive and may last
decades or more. Indeed, we're told, the fight has barely begun. "Afghanistan is
just the beginning of the war against terror," the president said recently.
"There are other terrorists who threaten America and our friends, and there are
other nations willing to sponsor them."
America's goal is breathtaking in scope; it is also vague. The administration
has committed itself to no less a task than rooting out global terrorism. "We
will not be secure as a nation until all of these threats are defeated," Bush
said. "Across the world and across the years, we will fight these evil ones, and
we will win." The White House is now laying the groundwork for taking the war to
Iraq. Rather than limiting the goal to stopping Saddam Hussein's aggression, as
we did in Kuwait, or forcing Hussein to re-admit inspectors looking for
biological or nuclear weapons, the administration is about to fold Iraq's
dictator into the wider cause. Bush warns that any nation caught building weapons
of mass destruction "that will be used to terrorize nations" will suffer the same
consequences as terrorists and the countries that harbor them. This is, in short,
a permanent war.
On the other hand, the war is also described as a national emergency. And in
such times, everyone--especially the media and those who do not belong to the
incumbent political party--is expected to suspend criticism of a sitting
president. No one dares question Bush's competence, motives, or tactics. To do so
would be unpatriotic.
It is also understood that a wartime emergency may require extraordinary
measures, including some abridgment of freedom at home. "The option to use a
military tribunal in the time of war makes a lot of sense," the president said
recently, adding, "I need to have that extraordinary option at my fingertips."
There is ample historic precedent. That's why there hasn't been more outcry
against the measures that are being taken within our borders--not just using
military tribunals but imprisoning thousands of people without formally charging
them, interrogating thousands of others largely because they come from the Middle
East, allowing the FBI to eavesdrop on conversations between lawyers and their
clients, jailing noncitizens even after an immigration judge has ordered them
freed, and deporting perfectly legal noncitizens if the attorney general believes
that they endanger the nation's security.
Additional "extraordinary" measures are forthcoming: Attorney
General John Ashcroft is considering a plan to allow the FBI to spy on political
and religious organizations in the United States--returning us to the secret
practices of J. Edgar Hoover. The Pentagon is planning to put a senior military
official in charge of the internal defense of the nation.
But emergencies are temporary; extraordinary measures are not ordinary.
Banana republics routinely declare "emergencies" that end up being permanent, but
American democracy doesn't work that way. Regardless of how popular a war might
be initially, a state of emergency cannot continue forever.
At some point, our war aims will have to be specified with greater clarity,
and emergency measures will need to be delimited. The White House will have to
provide us with criteria for how we will know when we have won the war and how we
can gauge progress along the way. Indeed, the longer and more ambitious the war,
the more important is such clarity. For four and one-half decades, the United
States fought the Cold War with the Soviet Union, usually with the strong support
of the American public. The aim of that war was indubitable: to contain Soviet
communism. When the means became so far removed from that end that success was
impossible to assess--as in Vietnam--public support evaporated.
Conditions justifying emergency actions at home will have to be reassessed at
regular intervals, in order to assure Americans that the steps are still
required. "Sunset" provisions will need to be incorporated into all orders and
directives. Congress will have to be more directly involved in oversight.
Once the administration clarifies our war aims and implements an ongoing
evaluation of our progress in achieving them (and of the "emergency" measures
employed), the media and the Democrats will have to be willing to take on the
president. Even in an open-ended war--even in a far-reaching emergency--this is,
after all, a democracy.