Commentary Magazine


The Failed War on the 'War on Terror'

In May, President Barack Obama responded to critics of his counterterrorism policies by declaring that he was ready to work with Congress “to refine, and ultimately repeal” the authorization for the use of military force that served as the legal foundation and operational genesis of the war on terror. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” he said. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

The muted and skeptical reaction to the president’s speech cast doubt on the implication that this war is, in any crucial way, “like all wars.” The next day, Time asked, “Can Obama End the War on Terror?” CBS News headlined its story “Should President Obama end the war on terror?” The questions lingered and piled up; a week after the speech, the Nation chimed in: “Will Obama End the Long War on Terror?” Can? Should? Will? Suddenly, the president who claims to have been “elected to end wars, not start them” appeared powerless to do anything but perpetuate this one.

What explains the resilience and persistence of this particular war? It isn’t lack of a suitably peace-minded commander in chief, for Obama is a wartime president who longs to be a peacetime president. It isn’t bureaucratic inertia or a recalcitrant Congress, for they didn’t stop the president’s quest to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it isn’t lack of a scandal sparking public outrage, for the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s prying have left Americans wondering if the government is reading their emails.

That the war on terror has been criticized from a variety of political angles obscures its key fact: Through its success and the underappreciated conceptual wisdom of its design, the war on terror has quietly forged a coalition that spans the ideological spectrum. In the end, this elastic term that Western politicians have time and again resolved to stop using has become the durable bipartisan consensus underpinning security in the 21st century.

How did this happen? If we are to understand this, we must discard the conventional narratives and examine the surprising political and intellectual alliance that has sustained the fight against terrorism, just as that alliance faces a newly energized coalition against it.

I.

The War on the Term ‘War on Terror’

A ubiquitous complaint about the war on terror from the beginning has been its name. The common refrain, employed by those on the right as well as the left, is that terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. Obama himself has said this. After his victory in the 2004 Senate election in Illinois, Obama responded to a question about terrorism by saying: “Ultimately, terrorism is a tactic. It’s not—we’re not fighting terrorists; we’re fighting people who engage in terrorism.”

While it’s certainly true that terrorism is a tactic, Obama’s statement seemed to deny the existence of the entire category of “terrorist” in favor of “people who engage in terrorism.” If that seems confused, it’s nothing compared with trying to build national policy around such word games, as Obama discovered when he became president. In 2010, the president sent top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (now director of the CIA) to give a speech on the eve of the White House’s unveiling of its National Security Strategy. It turned out there were several terms the president wanted deleted from the political lexicon. Brennan said:

The president’s strategy is absolutely clear about the threat we face. Our enemy is not “terrorism” because terrorism is but a tactic. Our enemy is not “terror” because terror is a state of mind and as Americans we refuse to live in fear. Nor do we describe our enemy as “jihadists” or “Islamists” because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women, and children….

Instead, the president’s strategy is clear and precise. Our enemy is al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates. For it was al-Qaeda who attacked us so viciously on 9/11 and whose desire to attack the United States, our allies, and our partners remains undiminished. And…it is its affiliates who have taken up al-Qaeda’s call to arms against the United States in other parts of the world.

The knock on “war on terror” is that it is too broad. But Brennan’s garbled address is a perfect example of what can happen when the attempt is made to narrow the target. It is logical to object that terrorism is “just” a tactic. It’s also correct for Brennan to say that “terror” is a state of mind, and the commander in chief cannot plausibly order the armed forces to pursue and rid the world of a state of mind. So who or what, then, is the enemy?

Contra Senator-elect Obama circa 2004, Brennan identifies the enemy as terrorists—but not all terrorists, just those affiliated with al-Qaeda. He is opposed to the terms “terrorism” and “terror.” But by drawing a distinction between al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists and other terrorists, the administration can’t call it the “war on terrorists” either—even though it is including “terrorists” as a subcategory of the enemy. If they are not “terrorists,” what are they? They are certainly jihadists and usually Islamists. But Brennan objects to both those terms as well.

So Brennan, here speaking as the administration’s chief adviser on the subject, wants to remove all mention of the enemy’s actions (“terrorism”), motivations (“jihad”), and ideology (“Islamism”). This is an absurd approach to national security, and yet it emerged as the official strategy of the American government because, following the old adage, the administration could neither live with the “war on terror” nor without it.

To criticize Brennan for an unwillingness to use certain words, however, is not to suggest that substituting those words for “terrorism” would solve the problem. If the United States were to launch a “war on jihad,” that would be no less broad—and no more edifying—than a “war on terror.” Similarly, there is no strategic clarity to be gained in going to war against Islamism. Not all Islamists are terrorists, and such a posture would put us at war with Islamist states or states run by Islamist ruling parties. A “war on Islamism” would, in addition, be unjustifiably close to a “war on Islam,” something the administration of George W. Bush went to great pains to avoid (and rightly so).

But some critics of the war on terror think Bush was wrong to make that distinction. This is where right and left diverge in their critiques of the war, each in their own destructive way.

 II.

The Rightist War on the ‘War on Terror’

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, two events that seemed terrifying and inevitable didn’t materialize. The first was a follow-up mass-casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland. The second was an extensive and violent backlash against America’s sizable Muslim population in a fit of misdirected rage. It was reassuring that such a backlash didn’t happen, but the misdirected rage was there nonetheless.

The 9/11 attacks posed a discomfiting challenge to the tolerance on which liberal democracies pride themselves. The motive and justification for the attacks, and the new age of atrocity they ushered in, rested on a violent, and far too widely accepted, interpretation of Islamic law. And so some sought to inculcate a general suspicion of Islam, and thus of Muslims, in the public consciousness. They were aided in their quest by the undeniable tendency of Muslim extremists to use the institution of the local mosque as an organizational structure to spread their violent ideology.

President Bush anticipated and attempted to counteract this by visiting mosques in the aftermath of the attacks and speaking of Islam as a religion of peace. Bush understood that if the West was going to be at war with devout and stateless Muslims, it must be at pains not to be at war with Islam itself. Some on the right took the other tack, hoping for widespread Islamic reform from within. “I am at war with Islam,” the former Muslim dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali told an interviewer in 2007, “but I am not at war with Muslims.”

Others, however, wanted to be at war with both, and continue to want this. In June 2012, a handful of congressional Republicans led by Representative Michele Bachmann sent a letter of inquiry to the office of the State Department inspector general. As far as they were concerned, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been too friendly to the transnational Islamist group known as the Muslim Brotherhood, a high-ranking member of which was poised to win the presidency of Egypt. (The figure, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in a military coup a year later.)

The letter requested an investigation into the reason for the leniency with which the State Department apparently viewed the Brotherhood. But Bachmann’s group had a theory. According to a briefing book published by the Center for Security Policy, the letter alleged, “the Department’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin, has three family members—her late father, her mother, and her brother—connected to Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organizations.” Abedin is a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton and is married to former congressman Anthony Weiner. The unstated accusation was that Abedin was acting as a sleeper agent for the Muslim Brotherhood.

This guilt-by-family-association campaign against Abedin was an extreme case, but it was and is not an isolated phenomenon. Also troubling are the attempts to pass so-called anti-Sharia legislation aimed at curbing the application of Islamic law in American legal disputes. The courts should not, of course, substitute narrow religious doctrine for traditional jurisprudence. Nor are they in danger of doing so. Additionally, accommodating religious concerns without undermining the rule of law should be embraced, not discouraged.

Nor can it be claimed that the anti-Sharia legislation was not intended to infringe on the traditional sphere of private worship. One prominent anti-Sharia organization, the Society of Americans for National Existence, put together model draft legislation to guide state legislators in banning Sharia. One such draft stated that “it shall be a felony punishable by 20 years in prison to knowingly act in furtherance of, or to support, the adherence to Sharia” and that “the president of the United States of America shall immediately declare that all non-US citizen Sharia-adherents are Alien Enemies under Chapter 3 of Title 50 of the US Code and shall be subject to immediate deportation.”

Such is the reasoning of those who think “the war on terror” a weasel term—and think that the right war, “the war on Islam,” permits the effective outlawing of a faith.

  III.

The Leftist War on the ‘War on Terror’

While extreme voices on the right wanted those who simply shared the faith of Islamist terrorists to be treated like criminals, the mainstream left wanted those who prosecuted the war against terrorists to be treated like criminals.

“The thing to do,” posited liberal writer Matthew Yglesias in 2007, then writing for the Atlantic, “is to impeach Bush and Cheney on a dual docket.” Yglesias’s tone was cheerful and nonchalant. He was offering this advice because, he said, the question of whether to impeach George W. Bush “needs to enter the mainstream conversation.”

What did Bush do to earn a purge of the executive branch? A better question is: In the minds of Democrats, what didn’t Bush do? The political scribe Ben Smith noted in 2011 that “more than half of Democrats, according to a neutral survey, said they believed Bush was complicit in the 9/11 terror attacks.” The accusations hurled at Bush while he was in office descended into irrationality and lost their power to shock. But what was surprising was the degree to which the questions and accusations persisted well after Bush left office. In March of this year, CNN ran a segment with the tagline, “Legacy of Iraq War: Should Bush officials be tried for war crimes?”

Far more troubling was the Obama administration’s attitude that it had a responsibility to make that determination. And it would be a mistake to suggest that the purge of the Bush administration would have stopped at the president and vice president. During the Bush administration, career prosecutors at the Justice Department were tapped to investigate cases of possible misconduct at the CIA, which used some of the more controversial methods of interrogation of detainees, such as waterboarding. The attorneys found that one prosecution was warranted and it went forward; they determined that the other prosecutions should not be pursued.

But the Obama team, which strode into office denouncing the moral turpitude of its predecessor, wasn’t so sure. In an unprecedented move, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the cases reopened in search of a sacrificial lamb—the sort of hyperpartisan prosecutorial stunt that is blessedly rare in healthy democracies. No prosecutions were filed in the end, but the cases took three years before Holder put the issue to rest.

The detention center at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay provided another opportunity to make an example out of somebody from the Bush administration. In her book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor describes a meeting Obama held early in his first term with leading civil-liberties advocates in the hope that a private meeting with the president would placate them enough to not criticize him publicly, as they (and he) did to Bush. According to Kantor, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero pushed the president to prosecute somebody—anybody—from the previous White House for the stories of abuse coming out of Gitmo. “Hunt one head and hunt it famously and bring it down to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again,” he pleaded.

But the new president couldn’t even guarantee closing or emptying the prison. Aside from having to overcome public and congressional opposition, there was the issue of its plain wisdom. According to Kantor, Obama worried that releasing the wrong detainee could result in a terrorist attack against America. “When I was a senator running for office, I talked very firmly about what I thought was right based on the information I had,” Obama was quoted as saying in that meeting. “Now I’m the president of all the people, and the decisions I make have to be from that perspective based on the information I now have.”

This phenomenon, in which the president suddenly embraced the logic of his predecessor’s policies, soon became the norm.

  IV.

The War on the ‘War on Terror’
Inside Iraq and Afghanistan

Public appetite for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have plummeted, and a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 28 percent of Americans think the Afghanistan war was worth fighting. Politically, however, the two wars have been treated in vastly different ways. Barack Obama built his career in part by denouncing the Iraq war as a “dumb war” cooked up by Bush administration advisers intent on distracting the American public from their domestic policies. The war in Afghanistan, however, was a different story. In 2009, Obama said the Afghanistan campaign “is not a war of choice” but “a war of necessity,” adding: “This is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

Afghanistan was “the good war,” as this mind-set became known. Even über-libertarian Congressman Justin Amash defended the decision to invade Afghanistan. Making sense of this disparity was easy: Those responsible for 9/11 were based in Afghanistan and shielded by the country’s governing Taliban regime. Diverting resources to deposing Saddam Hussein and rebuilding Iraq was effortlessly demagogued as a foolish distraction. The full picture is more complicated.

The common picture of the Iraq war divides the conflict into a conventional ground war between America and Iraq’s armed forces, which ended with the toppling of Saddam’s regime and his army’s swift defeat, and the nation-building era that followed it as the country fell into sectarian civil war fed by the opportunism and terror-tourism of al-Qaeda. In reality, however, the campaign in Iraq was a combination of a conventional ground war—which included the war’s aftermath and occupation—and the war on terror, with both taking place simultaneously.

After the initial military victory over the Iraqi armed forces, the task of rebuilding Iraq was directed on the ground by the Coalition Provisional Authority, led for the first year by L. Paul Bremer III. Bremer took over in May 2003, and within weeks made two significant decisions. His first CPA order initiated the so-called de-Baathification process, in which tens of thousands of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party were removed from their positions throughout Iraq’s fragile civil-society institutions. The second order disbanded the Iraqi army. Iraq’s state institutions were thrown into chaos, and the recently routed soldiers were now unemployed and with a chip on their shoulder, free to settle scores and join the insurgency. This vacuum of power, combined with the thousands of weapons caches hidden around the country, created a security nightmare for coalition forces.

That security nightmare hit its stride when al-Qaeda joined the fight. Led initially by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq became the focal point for the American war on terror in Iraq. The American invasion did not bring Zarqawi to Iraq; by all accounts he was already there, first in Iraqi Kurdistan as early as 2002 and then involved in establishing terrorist cells in and around Baghdad early the following year. He officially pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden in 2004. Zarqawi became obsessed with triggering a full-blown civil war between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, an effort that reached its pinnacle with the 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the most important holy sites to Shia Muslims.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was a foreign body, hostile to Iraq’s native Shiite majority while directed operationally by the Jordanian Zarqawi, loyal to the Saudi Bin Laden, and led spiritually by a Palestinian cleric. It was also, as the prolific author on al-Qaeda Peter Bergen has noted, “made up largely of foreigners at its inception,” before recruiting sympathetic Iraqis to its cause. This came into stark relief in 2006 when the Iraqi body politic began expelling the al-Qaeda infection. Fed up with al-Qaeda’s brutal rule over Iraq’s Anbar province, tribal sheikhs were ready to fight back. American forces gave them the protection, firepower, and cooperation essential to turn the tide. The Anbar “Awakening,” as the sheikhs termed it, served as a model for counterinsurgency throughout Iraq after George W. Bush’s troop surge put enough boots on the ground to export the Awakening to other troubled provinces. The clinching factor in restoring order to Iraq was the effort to reform the coalition’s counterinsurgency doctrine led by General David Petraeus, who would later take top command of the theater and implement the successful strategy.

That success had to be carried out against the headwinds of protest from congressional Democrats, notably Barack Obama, and some Republicans, such as current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, at the time a Republican senator from Nebraska. But if war critics were mistaken to see perpetual violence as the new natural order in Iraq, supporters of the war effort made the reverse error. They thought victory over Iraqi insurgents and especially al-Qaeda vindicated the Iraq war as an advantageous front on which to fight the war on terror. The criticism that the Iraq war was a reckless distraction from the more noble and just war in Afghanistan isn’t quite right; it would be more accurate to say that many supporters of the Iraq war learned the wrong lesson from the American successes in Afghanistan.

A common defense of the Iraq war is that even when al-Qaeda in Iraq was at its strongest, the group was really laying the ground for its own demise by falling prey to the “flypaper” trap. There is truth to this: As previously noted, AQI was a foreign entity that ramped up its terrorist activity and recruitment in Iraq after the invasion. Killing terrorists in Iraq (and elsewhere) was preferable to playing defense and waiting for them to organize attacks on American soil. However, far more preferable than creating a terrorist “flypaper” is keeping them on the run. That’s because flypaper itself can also serve as a recruitment center. To understand why this is so, it’s instructive to look at what the U.S. accomplished in Afghanistan.

The rise of disconnected and decentralized jihadist operations is a new and troubling threat, but it’s one born of necessity, even desperation, on the part of anti-American holy warriors. As Bergen writes in The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda (Free Press, 486 pages):

After the fall of the Taliban, al-Qaeda of necessity had to adopt a flatter structure because the group had been flattened by the American assault on Afghanistan and it would subsequently never resurrect its network of Afghan-era, large-scale training camps that had churned out thousands of graduates every year. But al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups continued to try to build organizational structures from Iraq to Pakistan, as it was those structures that gave them the ability to carry out large-scale operations.

The reason is simple: The Internet can spread hate (and even provide crude bomb-making recipes), and local Islamist organizations can galvanize recruits, but complex terrorist capabilities require comprehensive training. Dispersal is preferable because even for potential suicide bombers, there is strength in numbers. For this reason, the flypaper analogy is, at best, a way of making lemonade out of lemons. In addition, those who warned that nation-building in Iraq would be much more difficult than in past experiences were right—but not because of an Arab distaste for democracy. Rather, the war on terror persists because the modern era of transnational terrorism fundamentally alters the character of projects such as nation-building.

Consider the Arab Spring. During the Cold War, part of the reason for the West’s confidence was the presence of myriad inspirational opposition figures threatening authoritarian regimes from within. Long before the Soviet Union had a figure like Mikhail Gorbachev reforming the empire from the top down, it had dissidents working from the ground up, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union, Andrei Sakharov and his wife Yelena Bonner, refuseniks such as Natan Sharansky, and dissidents from the world of the arts like famed soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.

Whether or not the Arab Spring has turned to an Arab Winter, as many claim, it’s far from clear the forces of democracy and liberty have any true champion on either side of several of the Middle East’s civil wars. In conflict after conflict, aging and teetering dictators have warned the West with some variation of après moi, le déluge—a sentiment that would have been dismissed as ridiculous on its face coming from, say, Leonid Brezhnev but with which the White House now seems to more or less agree, having promised to arm Syrian rebels attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and then gotten cold feet when officials looked at who might receive those weapons.

And it’s not just the possibility of empowering local terrorists in Syria that has the West sweating out this round of popular rebellion. In February, British Foreign Secretary William Hague went public with concerns that some foreign jihadists joining the Syrian rebellion carried European passports, and if they survived they could return to Europe battle-hardened, trained for holy war, and running with some pretty bad company. By late September, Reuters was reporting that foreign fighters were so plentiful that there were entirely non-Syrian brigades. Where once jihadists flocked to Afghanistan and to Chechnya, they are now, reportedly, flocking from those locales to Syria.

Some of these groups are working with al-Qaeda affiliates and some aren’t. How does that fit into the administration’s paradigm that our “enemy is al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates,” strictly speaking? Does the administration mean to say that jihadists coming from Afghanistan—where we are still fighting the “good war”—and joining in alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria, but not joining al-Qaeda de jure, are not our enemy?

Administration officials might respond that there is near unanimity among analysts that the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, is the most effective armed group and the clear leader of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s forces. This shows, they might argue, that defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliates should be the defined goal of this war.

The problem with this line of reasoning is not only the inexactness and inherent elasticity of the term “affiliate” but also the inconvenient fact that on the other side of the Syrian civil war is another terrorist group that has joined in battle against American troops in a war zone and that is arguably more dangerous than al-Qaeda: Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Hezbollah was created in the early 1980s in Lebanon in an Iranian attempt to unify Shiite resistance groups. In its early years, it fought the Israeli army’s anti-terror efforts in south Lebanon, and the terrorist group was also behind the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American service members. The Iranian government’s role in creating, funding, and directing Hezbollah has been key to the group’s resilience, though it has been aided greatly by its location: Lebanon is a weakly governed state manifestly incapable of reining in Hezbollah that borders on Hezbollah’s other major state ally, Syria.

Hezbollah has much more recent American blood on its hands, however. As terrorism expert Matthew Levitt documents in his authoritative and immensely important new book Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 426 pages), the group was involved in lethal attacks on Americans in Iraq as well as training and recruiting anti-coalition forces there. While Hezbollah has not carried out an attack on American soil, the group has, Levitt details, organized and directed extensive criminal activities to fundraise for Hezbollah in America. So, the inevitable question: Are we at war with Hezbollah?

V.

The Illogic of the War on the ‘War on Terror’

As the ground underneath the president’s feet has shifted, the conventional wisdom has shifted with it. In May, after Obama delivered his speech calling for an end to the war on terror, the Economist—that bastion of conventional thinking and twice an endorser of Barack Obama—nodded approvingly, noting the president’s “solemnity” and dismissing Republican criticism as inspired not by principle or genuine concern for the world’s security but simply because Republicans were “bent on finding ways to attack a president who they despise.”

Yet on September 28, the Economist was singing a different tune. “The West thought it was winning the battle against jihadist terrorism,” it intoned ominously. “It should think again.” After reviewing the recent gains of terrorist groups, it handed down its judgment: “How much should Western complacency be blamed for this stunning revival? Quite a bit.”

The magazine was startled out of its own complacency by the terror-filled weekend of September 21–22, which perfectly illustrated the imprudence of the high-minded alternatives to the war on terror. On September 21, gunmen from the al-Shabab terror group stormed an Israeli-owned mall in Kenya and killed more than 60 people. That same day more than 100 were killed in suicide attacks in Iraq, most of them attendees at a funeral. The following day, the Pakistani Taliban bombed a Peshawar church killing 85 in the worst attack on Christians in Pakistan’s history.

Some attacks can be tied to al-Qaeda affiliates. Others cannot. Yet it’s worth pointing out that while the Obama administration makes semantic distinctions between terrorists of various stripes (while preferring not to call them terrorists, if possible), the administration’s anti-terror policies make no such distinction. Barack Obama’s war on al-Qaeda necessitates an intelligence and homeland-security structure that attempts to discriminate between terrorists and civilians but cannot afford—and in most cases, simply isn’t able—to discriminate between al-Qaeda-based threats and others.

So the war on terror persists, even with a Nobel peace laureate in the White House who has been eager to end the country’s military commitments. It does so because the war on terror defies its caricature as an ideologically narrow, hawkish neoconservative project.

President Obama is celebrated as a realist; indeed, when the president decided to modestly increase aid to the Syrian rebels that seemed intended to help level the playing field but not tip the scales of the civil war, Tufts University professor and Foreign Policy blogger Daniel Drezner called it “brutally realpolitik” fully in line with the administration’s “pretty realist policy towards Syria.”

The realists’ fondness for Obama is requited. Yet it should not surprise anyone that a realist approach to managing the war on terror so closely resembles its neoconservative variant. To take the definition offered by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, realism stresses the “competitive and conflictual side” of international politics, and realists “consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power.” If realism is primarily concerned with order and stability among nation-states, the war on terror, in which states often at odds with one another cooperate to prevent the spread of destabilizing violence, is a logical approach to security policy.

It is for the same reason that multilateralists can’t quite quit the war on terror. In Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer writes of the efforts to stop transnational terrorism: “Persuading states around the world to share the costs and burdens that come with a uniform screening standard for people and packages that travel by air or sea has never been more important, but when it’s every nation for itself, this will be more difficult than ever to accomplish.” Stewart M. Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations lamented in 2011 that the war on terror has been “caricatured” as a unilateral adventure. “But a more positive, if unsung aspect of this struggle has been its multilateral ethos,” Patrick wrote. “In the decade since 9/11, the international community has shown remarkable cohesiveness and solidarity in its effort to protect innocent people from terrorist attacks, despite significant challenges that remain. Much of this cooperation has occurred under the radar, through quiet, everyday multilateral and bilateral cooperation among law enforcement agencies, intelligence services, and militaries.”

Liberal interventionists may be an endangered species in Washington these days, but those who remain seem all to be working for the Obama administration. Samantha Power, one of the leading proponents of humanitarian intervention based on the international community’s “responsibility to protect” at-risk populations, is now the administration’s ambassador to the United Nations—a Cabinet-level position. Another such interventionist, Susan Rice, is the president’s national-security adviser. Both have framed military action in the Middle East as extensions of the president’s anti-terror policies and essential actions to shore up international law.

Advocates of the rule of law here at home are also defenders of the war on terror. Arguing against ending the war on terror at a debate in New York City 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, former CIA director Michael Hayden made the case that not only is the war on terror necessary and lawful, but it can actually protect Americans’ civil liberties. He reviewed the incident on Christmas Day 2009 in which a Nigerian national named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka the “underwear bomber,” tried to set off a bomb on a plane headed to Detroit. He was arrested and interrogated briefly before being told he had the right to remain silent. Which he did. This act of Mirandizing the underwear bomber was, Hayden declared, understood to have been a dreadful mistake. As a result of that, Attorney General Eric Holder was among those floating the idea of passing legislation to make the rules governing interrogation of Mirandized suspects more “malleable.”

Hayden’s response was blunt: “I don’t want to make Miranda more malleable. Miranda defends me. Defends you. Defends your rights. And we’re forced to contort the law enforcement approach when we attempt to make it answer and deal with questions it was never designed to deal with.”

In late June of last year, the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals released a decision written by Judge Edward C. Prado. The court had before it a rather weighty question, which it dispatched without fanfare: The judges ruled that the Iraq war was not over yet.

The defendant was a lieutenant colonel charged in 2010 with abusing his authority running an Iraqi base in Anbar province in 2003 and 2004. Under the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act, the clock on the statute of limitations would not begin ticking while the country was still at war. The defendant argued that the war ended when President Bush announced the end of major combat operations in 2003, in which case the statute of limitations had run out on his case. The court did not buy it.

That the end of the Iraq war—a fairly conventional land war—can be disputed is an indication of just how open-ended the war on terror appears to be by comparison. It’s easy to understand why President Obama would be tempted to narrow the war’s aim retroactively in the face of public exhaustion and with the successful elimination of the enemy’s avatar, Osama bin Laden. In Iraq, David Petraeus famously told a reporter: “Tell me how this ends.” The variation for the war on terror might be, “Tell me when this ends.”

While rallying the public to this new war barely a week after the September 11, 2001 attacks, George W. Bush was clear: By definition, it can end only when we win. “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” the president said. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Bush warned that this would be a war unlike other wars, both in duration and form. In doing so, he touched on the most important reason the war on terror is different from other conflicts. For most of this country’s history, Americans had an advantage over the rest of the Western world: They stood remote from enemies and rivals and were able to make policy in an unprecedented geopolitical vacuum.

Even when the U.S. rose to superpower status, the conflicts it engaged in were far from home. The age of transnational Islamist terrorism changed all that. It ushered Americans into a new era and shut the door behind them. The war on terror was an attempt to confront this new reality. It remains just, if imperfect, and superior to its alternatives. And despite the rhetorical and political assaults upon it from the right and the left and the center, the war on terror is likely to remain the policy the United States continues to pursue until the combatants on the other side are brought to heel—or give up the fight.

About the Author

Seth Mandel is assistant editor at Commentary.




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