Is the War on Terror a War?
As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The linguistic inverse of this, applying it to the topic of today and every day, is that if you see and call a problem a criminal one, you will tend to prefer tools appropriate to solving crimes. If you see the problem as being a military problem, you will tend to prefer military tools. Unfortunately, George Bush et al have decided to characterize terrorists as making war on us and that the appropriate response would be to make war on them. So, Bush declared a war on terrorism.
The word "war" is as misused as any in the English language. We have declared wars on drugs, wars on poverty, wars on child abuse, and wars on various diseases such as wars on cancer, wars on diabetes, etc. And, of course, now we have Bush's declaration of a war on terrorism.
I know how much declaring a war on drugs, poverty, violence against and women and children have gone. In word, they have gone nowhere. How declaring wars on diseases helps out in conquering these things I cannot say but since all of us suffer diseases or know those who have, this, at least, impacts all of us. Bush has tried to terrify the American people into personalizing terrorism -- characterizing terrorist attacks as something that can happen to you and me. That, of course, is so much statistical nonsense. The odds that any one of us will be the victim of a terrorist attack is surely less than the odds that any one of us will be the victim of a violent crime. Bush wants us to be afraid because that lets him exploit the old Republican saw that Democrats are "soft on X" where "X" is the current enemy. As I pointed out in another blog, Democrats have started most of our big wars, which is a fact which is fatal to the theory that Democrats are soft on the enemies of the United States. What they are not is soft-headed enough to buy Bush's war rhetoric.
What I am concerned about is how conceiving of our engagement with terrorists as a "war" may affect the success of our efforts to suppress terrorism because it can matter what we call things. Language does not determine thought but it influences it and calling this engagement a war will heighten the public's fears, as I noted, which has a dual political effect. One effect is that it makes the public more receptive to our taking overt military action because war quintessentially involves military action. Another effect is that it helps out the political fortunes of those in power. It is no accident that Bush is littering the country with sound waves trumpeting his leadership in the war on terror during the run up to the November election.
The Allied attack on Afghanistan was a military attack and seems to have been very effective in destroying the Al Queda training centers, in killing or capturing large numbers of Al Queda members, in taking power out of the hands of the Taliban, and in disrupting the activities of Al Queda's leadership. This victory may turn out to be a hollow one. For one thing, the war in Afghanistan is hotting up with the Taliban making a bit of a come back. And, of course, no one we know seems to know where Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are. Moreover, Muslim terrorists have no lack of leaders. We kill one. Another pops up. The really unfortunate thing is that when we use military tools in fighting terrorists there is normally a lot of collateral damage, namely the killing of noncombatants. Nothing could be better calculated to cause the family and friends of those killed to want some revenge. Not all will join up with the terrorists, but some clearly do since the supply of terrorists seems inexhaustible. According to my morning Paper, President Musharraf of Pakistan says that is what is going on thanks to our war in Iraq. Whether it is the war itself or Bush's inept prosecution of the war, specifically in the area of post-war planning, I can't say. But there are lots of terrorist groups fighting in Iraq against us and the government we created. Check out this Wikipedia entry on insurgency groups and an IndyMedia UK link from that page, which also provides an inventory of insurgency groups operating in Iraq. I am very concerned about the fate of the men and women Bush has put in the way of danger there.
Which brings me to the issue at hand. When the Bush Administration decided to go to war with Iraq, one of its many fabricated arguments to the American people was that tossing Saddam out and installing a democratic government was part of the war on terror. Whether Bush himself was stupid enough to believe this I don't know but he is smart enough to know that he could count on the American people being gullible enough to buy it, at least initially. I don't mean to put down the people -- Bush and his friends were fear mongering us into accepting all sorts of things including the Patriot Act.
There is another way to view our engagement with terrorists and this is to see it as a crime problem. We saw the bombing of the Murray Federal Building a crime problem and it was solved using conventional methods for solving crimes. The first attack on the WTC was similarly viewed and was also solved. And, through the use of normal police tools apparently -- the use of informants, surveillance, wire-tapping, etc. -- the British police managed to nab a number of alleged terrorists and abort a potentially quite serious terrorist attack, this time involving a large number of planes that would have been blown up over the Atlantic thereby giving authorities little or no physical evidence to work with in ferreting out the culprits.
Our response to the destruction of the WTC and some adjacent buildings was seen as presenting a problem wanting a military solution. So Dubya invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq. In fact, the destruction of the WTC was not in principle any different from the apparent planned attack that the Brits seem to have foiled. It makes little difference whether hijacked planes fly into buildings or the buildings are bombed from below or planes are bombed and fall into the Atlantic. They are the same kind of crime -- mass murder accomplished through massive vandalistic attacks.
Had we seen the engagement with terrorists as a crime problem from the beginning, we would likely have operated in a very different way. What we did was start two wars and we are now propping up two governments, neither of which has any chance of surviving once we leave. Arguably the instruments of war were required to deal with the Taliban and Al Queda in Afghanistan for they had bombable training camps there and were located there. Don't think that destroying the training camps and storage facilities Al Queda had in Afghanistan means the end to such things. There are a lot of Muslim countries where such facilities can be placed.
Apparently, the use of military tools in Afghanistan crippled both the Taliban and Al Queda with the result that the Mullah Omar and Ossama Bin Laden were forced to go into hiding. Since then, terrorist attacks have been performed by locals against local targets. This was true in London and Madrid, as well as in Bali. In any event, I would argue that we are much better off now to define our engagement with terrorists as a crime problem not a military problem though occasional special forces type attacks may be needed to wipe out new training centers or kill specific bad guys located in foreign countries. But, it is very important that when we kill bad guys we minimize the killing of noncombatants. Right now we are killing too many in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Iraq.