Narrowing the war on terror

The White House is making a point of the fact that it is rebranding the war on terror:

Unlike the last Administration . . . we are not at war with a tactic (“terrorism”), we at war with something that is tangible: al Qaeda and its violent extremist allies. And we will prosecute that war as long as the American people are endangered.

It seems like a simple point; the “war on terror” was always a rather odd phrase.  But it turns out that the phrase was the result of careful consideration. As Douglas Feith explained in his book (p. 8-9):

The U.S. government could not simply define the enemy as a set of terrorist organizations together with states that helped them in one war or another. If we did, we could find ourselves declaring war against all countries that gave safe haven, funds, or ideological and other types of support to terrorists — a list that would include Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria. This was clearly an unrealistic idea. It further complicated matters that the United States considered some of these states important friends. Moreover, a formal list of terrorist enemy organizations would require continual revision, reflecting the mergers, acquisitions, splits, and name changes that were common among them. We needed a better way to define the enemy, one that would cover all the relevant bases but preserve our flexibility regarding how, when, and against whom we should act.

We did not solve this puzzle on the aircraft. The President eventually dealt with it by coining the term “war on terror,” declaring, in effect, that the enemy was not a list of organizations and states but certain inherently evil activities that included both terrorism and state support for terrorism. Though the term was imperfect — many commentators have noted the peculiarity of declaring war against a method of attack — I considered it an intelligent and useful stopgap that acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the challenge represented by 9/11. It avoided the problem of lists, gave the President flexibility, and called attention to the differences between us and our enemies on the issue of respect for human life.

In contrast to the considerations that went into “war on terror”, the Obama administration’s decision to discard the term is revealed to be shallow, not thoughtful. It’s not at all clear whether the current administration even wrestled with those issues, but they made a decision (possibly without realizing it) all the same. In essence, President Obama is dealing with the problem of lists by putting exactly one name on the list: al Qaeda.

This important, because — without any announcement — Obama has significantly narrowed the target of our efforts from all practitioners of terrorism down to just one. He has made the war retrospective (targeted at those who hurt us in the past) rather than prospective (targeted at those who would hurt us in the future).

This narrowing is essential, because the left’s opposition to the war in Iraq (which is really the centerpiece of their foreign policy) depends on it. The White House points out that Iraq “had no al Qaeda presence before our invasion.” This may be true (although there are some indications to the contrary), and the left certainly believes it, but what of it? It is undisputed that Saddam’s Iraq offered haven and support to international terrorism, including Ansar al Islam, the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, and Abu Nidal. In order to oppose the liberation of Iraq, the left must narrow the war to exclude all the terrorists that found support in Iraq.

We have already seen pernicious consequences of the war’s rebrand. In a development that would have been unbelievable in the fall of 2001, the administration now finds itself confused whether we even must oppose the Taliban. Last October, while the administration debated sending additional troops to Afghanistan, the White House floated a trial balloon suggesting that the Taliban could be left in power in Afghanistan. It has fortunately backed away from that suggestion, but the very thought that it was contemplated is unnerving.

The bottom line is that our new, retrospective war is not about protecting the United States. To protect the United States requires vigilance — and yes, preemption — against new terrorist threats, and not a simple-minded focus on the one organization that attacked us on 9/11. Instead of protection, our new war, prosecuted by the left, is about retribution.

Al Gore made the goal of vengeance explicit in a speech in 2002 attacking President Bush’s Iraq policy. (I guess it’s not always so horrible for a former VP to criticize the sitting administration’s foreign policy.) He said:

I don’t think we should allow anything to diminish our focus on the necessity for avenging the 3,000 Americans who were murdered and dismantling that network of terrorists that we know were responsible for it. The fact that we don’t know where they are should not cause us to focus instead on some other enemy whose location may be easier to identify.

He states clearly here the view that the Obama administration has come to adopt. Our goal is solely to “avenge” 9/11, and not to deal with any other enemies that might threaten us.

Now, I’m not entirely against retribution. It’s important for us to make clear that no regime can attack us and survive. But such retribution serves a greater purpose, to deter any future attack. Ultimately, the aim must be (or ought to be, at least) to protect our nation.

By narrowing the war on terror, the Obama administration has lost sight of that ultimate aim. I wish that al Qaeda posed the only threat to our nation, but it does not. And our enemies are paying attention.

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