Thursday, January 26, 2006

Misusing the War on Terror

On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush spoke to a stunned nation from the Oval Office and reconvened America’s on-again, off-again “war against terrorism.” Beginning in the shock of that moment, and continuing through the elections of 2002 and 2004 and on to today, the administration has conflated the “war on terror” with an existential battle for our survival. This was a change from when Ronald Reagan had talked about the winning “war on terrorism” to the United Nations in 1986 and when Bill Clinton declared “war on terrorism” after the al-Qaeda bombings in Africa. Both men were using a very particular definition of war. Like the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on drugs, and the war on music piracy, they portrayed the war on terrorism as an attempt to mobilize our society’s resources against an intractable problem.

The “war on terror” has remained just this type of rhetorical war, despite the Bush administration’s constant attempts to portray it otherwise. The administration has acknowledged this in their strategy: making incremental enhancements to the safety and security of America, trying to undermine the causes of terrorism in the Middle East, and pursuing America’s long-term economic and strategic interests. This is no “war” as it is commonly understood, but, instead, is a campaign to reduce a threat. This is shown most clearly by Bush’s decision to invade only Iraq rather than to eliminate the entire “axis of evil”. Though North Korea and Iran posed more imminent and more dangerous threats, Iraq was seen as the key to affecting the Middle East tactically, economically, and politically. And so we invaded Iraq and left the rest alone.

World War IV

Many defenders of this administration, though, have called the “war against terrorism” World War IV. They claim that we are in a fighting against evil and for our existence. They speak of this “war” as if it were more like World War II than the War on Drugs; yet despite their attempts, they have no convincing enemy that poses a genuine threat to America itself, only groups of terrorists. Bush himself has often given the impression that the “war against terrorism” is a fight for our survival, rather than a “limited war” for strategic interests. He explained that the terrorists hate our democracy, our freedom, and our liberty insinuating that they seek to destroy these ideals—and this may be so, but they attacked us because of our role in the Middle East, not to stop us from voting.

Why is it that the Bush administration and its supporters continue to insist that this war is an existential one rather than a strategic one? The answer lies in the many political strengths that an existential battle confers on those who wage it, especially in a democracy. In a war for a nation’s survival, democracies confer great power to those who try to protect it; dissent is minimized; the entire country is mobilized for war; and the “rally around the flag” effect solidifies support for the Commander in Chief. By contrast, “limited war” has always been unpopular in democracies and subsequently has been undermined by protests and dissent.

Ambiguities and Mis-Leading

To all those champions of the administration who insist that the “war on terror” is necessary and good, I say: yes, it is a benefit to the world that we are removing the shackles of oppression and allowing democracy to take hold in the Middle East; yes, removing Saddam Hussein was a great good; yes, many of the forces that oppose us know no bounds of human decency and often glory in the nihilism of suicide bombings; yes, there is a significant threat to America’s cities and it’s citizens abroad, and the awful specter of a mushroom cloud over Washington or New York that Vice President Cheney has often invoked must be prevented by any means necessary; yes, yes, yes.

But none of this justifies misleading the public by conflating the idea of an all-out existential war with our attempts to undermine the sources of terrorism and advance our interests. The “war on terror” is being used as a rhetorical excuse to consolidate power domestically and advance America’s strategic interest abroad. There is nothing wrong with the latter. But unless the American public is clear that the steps we are taking and the troops that are dying do so to advance our strategic interests rather than to counter an imminent danger, then democracy is lost. Would the American people accept their sons dying to protect America’s role in the Middle East? Is it worth one American life to ensure our economic primacy in the world? Do our long-term strategic concerns justify the death of a single American? A single Iraqi? These are questions worthy of the oldest surviving democracy in the world. But they are questions that have never been asked.

Next time you hear a politician justify some decision saying: “We are a nation at war…”, think again about what war he is talking about. If we give up our real liberties in the face of phantom threats, if we allow our nation to commit evils in the name of our protection, if we allow our leaders to lie in order to accomplish their goals, no matter how noble, then democracy itself is in peril.

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