President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University last week represented the latest and probably most significant rhetorical shift away from the “war on terror” since he took office in January 2009. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said in one of the speech’s key passages. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
“Core al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self,” the president said. “Groups like AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that label themselves al-Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”
Time will tell whether Obama puts real weight behind some of the changes articulated in the speech. There’s no question that it marked another important turn toward a more nuanced assessment of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism. But like kids who have just had their favorite toy taken away, conservative hawks are freaking out.
Responding at a press conference immediately afterward (as if waiting for the Sunday talk shows would allow the president’s words to hang in the air too long), four of the Senate’s most ardent hawks—John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss, and Kelly Ayotte—reacted to the prospective loss of such an important toy.
“I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al-Qaeda. To somehow argue that al-Qaeda is ‘on the run’ comes from a degree of unreality that, to me, is really incredible,” McCain said. “[Al-Qaeda] is expanding all over the Middle East from Mali to Yemen and all places in between, and to somehow think that we can bring the authorization of the use of military force to a complete closure contradicts the reality of the facts on the ground. Al-Qaeda will be with us for a long time.”
“The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” Chambliss said.
“I’ve never been more worried about our national security than I am right now,” Graham later told Fox’s Chris Wallace. “This speech did not help.”
Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union, Newt Gingrich played his preferred role of the only man willing to tell the hard truths. “No one wants to talk honestly about the fact that there is a radical Islamism on offense,” Gingrich said. “It is on offense across the planet. ... No one wants to talk honestly about how big the threat is, how widespread it is, how fanatic it is, and about how in its own mind it’s totally legitimate.”
This is precisely how Republicans have wanted to talk about terrorism almost every day for the last decade: as an existential threat that must frame all of our political debates.
The intention to use the war on terror as a political trump card became clear early on. In January 2002, just over four months after the September 11 attacks, Republican strategist Karl Rove told the Republican National Committee in Austin, Texas, that Republican candidates would be running on the war on terror. As The Washington Post reported at the time, “Rove explained that by stressing the war on terrorism during the 2002 campaigns, GOP candidates ... will be able to capitalize on what he said is the Republican advantage on homeland security issues.”
“We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," Rove told the gathering, effectively declaring an end to the bipartisan truce obtained in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in American history.
Later that year, a computer disk was found in Lafayette Park across from the White House containing a PowerPoint presentation written by Rove, stressing the war on terror as a campaign issue and directing Republican candidates to “focus on war.”
That sums up the story of the Republican Party's key strategy during the Bush years: Run on the war. Even after Obama won the presidency in 2008, groups like Keep America Safe were created to continue to drive home this message. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the sharp reaction to Obama’s shift away from a “global war” framing has more to do with fear of the loss of advantageous rhetorical ground than it does with any genuine, substantive difference in threat analysis.
There’s no doubt that al-Qaeda, in its various permutations, as well as the broader phenomenon of violent Islamic terrorism remains a threat (though not one remotely on the scale of past threats like the Soviets or Nazis, despite persistent effort to represent it as such) to Americans and our allies. But there should also be no doubt that treating the threat as a vast, civilizational struggle requiring large-scale military interventions and occupations was a disastrous approach, one that played into al-Qaeda's strategy of draining the United States of resources while elevating its own status. From a policy perspective, it’s simply staggering that conservative hawks should want to keep at it. From a political perspective, it makes some sense.
Elsewhere in his speech last week, President Obama declared a renewed effort to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center, claiming that “there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.”
There’s also no justification beyond politics for continuing to insist that we’re at war just because a collection of thugs insists we are. We will continue to debate the legality and effectiveness of various policies used to protect the country. But our enemies have told us that they would like nothing more than to draw us into a sustained, civilizational conflict. We shouldn't accommodate them.