War on Terror Over?

>> Friday, January 23, 2009

I have been extremely busy and a little sick so my blogging has been very irregular. However, i have seen something that deserves a post. The issue is whether or not the "War on Terror" is over. I am prompted to explore this based on several pieces, one in the WaPo, one by Yglesias, and one in TAP. These pieces have made several important points about not only an end to the phrase, "War on Terror", but the mindset behind it. If Obama is truly ready to end the mentality it can only be considered a dream come true for non neo-cons everywhere.

The first piece on the demise of the "War on Terror" is in the WaPo. It presents a story where Obama is the man undoing the WoT at the stroke of the pen.

Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military's Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration's lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.

I have issues with the post piece. The first is that they present the WoT era as solely the provenience of George W. Bush. The unifying theme of the piece is that this was Bush's war. While it is true that Bush was definetly a leading figure and fully culpable for the abuses that embodied the WoT the article misrepresents exactly how the WoT played out. The Post conveniently leaves out the idea that people were opposed the WoT. Instead it sounds as if the WoT was afad Bush sold the people on that the eventually tired of. For example,

It was a swift and sudden end to an era that was slowly drawing to a close anyway, as public sentiment grew against perceived abuses of government power. The feisty debate over the tactics employed against al-Qaeda began more than six years ago as whispers among confidants with access to the nation's most tightly held secrets. At the time, there was consensus in Congress and among the public that the United States would be attacked again and that government should do what was necessary to thwart the threat
The published reports in The Post and elsewhere earned the news media sharp recriminations from the administration, the Republican leadership in Congress and the public. Government leak investigations were launched. Bush administration officials argued that such methods and operations were necessary to effectively thwart terrorism, noting to this day that there have been no major attacks since 2001.

If there were dissenters back then, they were largely silent.

While the moves made by Obama do end many of the Bush tactics for battling terrorists the post piece fails to detail any long term actions taken to ensure it never happens again. By presenting the death of WoT as something organic, something that would have died even without Obama, there seems to be no need to make long term changes. This is wrong. The key is to augment the inducement to comply with substantive law. This means Congress needs to act and forbid these practices.

If we take the Post version of the WoT death we will not do enough to prevent future abuses. It was not Bush alone and to portray it that way is dishonest. While the Post counts the WoT as dead Matt Yglesias is more cautious, here and here.

One thing that a number of people have noticed during the transition and the first few days of the Obama administration is that Obama and his appointees don’t, generally speaking, use the phrase “war on terror.” But when pressed, they don’t disavow the term either. They’ve just kind of backed away from it.


Back during the campaign, meanwhile, Obama said he didn't just want to end the war in Iraq, he wanted to "end the mindset that got us into the war in the first place." The idea of a hazily defined "war on terror" would certainly seem to qualify as an important part of that mindset. But thus far, Obama and his team have been mighty ambiguous on the issue. Obama isn't prone to using the phrase himself, but back during the primaries, all the Democratic contenders were given a specific opportunity to disavow it, and only John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich stepped up to the plate. During confirmation hearings neither Attorney - General Eric Holder nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor any of the new Pentagon sub - Cabinet officials spoke of a "war on terror." But on the day of his rollout as Obama's choice to run the CIA, Leon Panetta committed himself "to consulting closely with my former colleagues in the Congress to form the kind of partnership we need if we're to win the war on terror."

Obama himself split the difference in his inaugural address, eschewing the WOT terminology, but arguing that "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."

Yglesias TAP piece does a much better job at addressing the real issues with the WoT. His piece looks at the strategic flaws and failures of the WoT. This contrasts with the Post Piece that looks simply at the demise of the tactics. A tactical change does not herald an end to WoT because that leaves the conceptual framework in tact. Yglesias succinctly illustrates why this should not be labeled a war,

Simply put, terrorists are not warriors. The German soldiers my grandfather fought during World War II killed people, but they weren't murderers; they were soldiers. When captured, they became prisoners of war, not criminals. Some on the Nazi side were, of course, criminals -- war criminals -- and were charged as such. But the typical German soldier was a soldier, entitled to return to his home and family unmolested if he survived the war. Men who blow up nightclubs and train stations and demolish office buildings, by contrast, are murderers. We neither should nor will treat them as soldiers. But insofar as that's the case, we're not at "war" with them any more than we're actually "at war" with the guy who used to sell me pot.

Just as we don't afford terrorists the wartime exemption from prosecution, however, we must observe restraint in going after terrorists. If the FBI has reason to believe a terrorist is holed up in an apartment somewhere in Philadelphia, we don't bomb the building -- we arrest the terrorist. The same thing is generally true abroad -- we need to work with friendly law enforcement to unravel plots against targets in Europe and Canada and other Western nations. But we don't fire mortars or drop bombs in friendly cities -- we seek cooperation with local governments.

Its still too early to tell if the WoT is truly dead as an idea and a mindset. Obama has only been in office for a couple days and the people who supported the policies are not totally gone. The key will be to convert the image of the fight against these subnational groups as a law enforcement issue. Obama has yet to fully transform his rhetoric to reflect this. When he says "we will defeat you" it is not the language of law enforcement.

Instead i would like to see the language and the framing shift to arrest and trial in civilian courts. This is the other key point, the trial of those arrested in civilian, not military, courtrooms. Trials in military courts lend weight to the idea that this is a military action. War criminals are tried in front of the military, criminals are in tried in front of civilians.

Most of what i have said is not particularly new. However it is important to keep the pressure on Obama and on those who backed the WoT in the past. If the coverage from the Post is typical of the coverage on the WoT then Obama is going to get lots of well deserved credit for his initial actions. Without additional pressure Obama will take this credit and move on to the myriad other challenges that we face of a country. By definition a stroke of the pen cannot end the WoT. the WoT is a mind set, a strategy and there is much more to work on before we can truly consider the WoT dead.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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