Americans have always been rather good at real wars, from the one that birthed our nation to the 20th-century world wars, because everyone sacrificed in pursuit of understood national goals. So several post-World War II political leaders tried to redirect that dedication and energy into declared “wars” on crime, on poverty, on drugs, on cancer and almost any other troubling challenge.
But the war metaphor – deceptive, intellectually dishonest and dangerous – reached its most harmful iteration in the “war on terror.” Or was it “war on terrorism”? Or “war on terrorists”? (The language is crucial because it focuses our thoughts and action.)
Last week, President Obama formally abandoned the war metaphor that limited the understanding – ours and the world’s – of the long struggle we face and, thereby, restricted the possibility of sustainable national security.
“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.… Force alone cannot make us safe,” he said. “We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root and … perpetual war … will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”
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While he had never adopted the previous administration’s war metaphor, he waited far too long to replace it.
As I wrote in a 2007 commentary, dropping the war metaphor “cannot come fast enough, because framing our effort against terrorists in mostly military terms has locked us into old patterns of thought and reflex that imply we need only win a couple of decisive battles or eliminate a certain hierarchy of terrorist leaders to achieve ‘victory.’”
Changing the label and approach matters domestically, of course, but even more overseas. Days after Sept. 11, President Bush, in an astonishing burst of insensitivity, talked about “this crusade,” carelessly invoking centuries of Western exploitation of the Middle East. From that moment, the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims could understandably believe that the most powerful nation in the world had once again declared war on them.
Obama’s redefinition, as my 2007 commentary said, “does not imply that we can talk hard-line jihadists into being nice, or that the military will not be involved. But it does imply an understanding that the great majority of Muslim people are not terrorists and might well be helpful in tamping down the hotheads and zealots within their community if we would only stop threatening them with guns and bombs.”
When the Bush administration used the “war on terror” cover to invade Iraq, the message was obvious and ominous to a historically unstable part of the world which, after World War I, the Western powers artificially divided into “nations” without regard to tribal, ethnic or religious traditions. Arab resentment, endemic since the real Crusades, was reinforced by that ultimate and arrogant act of colonialism.
The shift in policy does not imply that there will be no military role, no drone strikes, no CIA skulking and no killing. And it cannot ensure that Americans will not be victims of bombings and other horrendous acts. But it does make clear that the U.S. is not “at war” with any nation, religion or ethnic group. Instead, it seeks to identify and ruthlessly eliminate criminals who themselves employ the rhetoric of war to justify their psychopathic urgings. As with crime and drugs and poverty, there can be no endgame. But there can be real progress.