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Obama and the “War on Terror”

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"Obama and the “War on Terror”"

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I think Barack Obama and his campaign have a lot of promise to do some of the things I argue are necessary in Heads in the Sand in terms of mounting a meaningful challenge to the big ideas that have dominated policymaking in the United States since 9/11. And beyond showing promise, he’s taken a number of very worthwhile concrete steps. But there have also been disappointments. Michael Hirsch, for example, has a good column about how Obama ought to ditch the “war on terror.” The argument that this conceptual framework needs to be done away with has been made very persuasively by my colleague James Fallows before his exile to China, among others. And as Hirsch says at this point it’s Obama or nobody:

It is a debate that only Obama can start. McCain won’t bring it up. Nor will Hillary Clinton. Apart from being on the verge of oblivion politically, she is too fully vested in the war on terror, having voted in 2002 to authorize the war in Iraq as part of it. And if that debate doesn’t start, we as a country will be effectively doomed to a “war” that has no prospect of ending. Bush has gradually expanded his definition of the war on terror to include all Islamic “extremists”—among them Hezbollah, Hamas, and other radical political groups that have no ties to Al Qaeda, ideological or otherwise. In doing so the president has plainly condemned us to a permanent war, for the simple reason that we will never be rid of all the terrorists. It is also a war that we will wage by ourselves, since no other nation agrees on such a broadly defined enemy. As Princeton scholar G. John Ikenberry has written, “It is perhaps a paradox—and one that is fitting for the strangeness of our current age—that we will need to end the war against terrorism because we cannot end terrorism.”

The trouble is that months ago, all the Democratic candidates were given an opportunity to launch this debate and only John Edwards was willing to “go there.” If Obama didn’t want to do it when facing pressure from his left, it’s hard to imagine him doing it now.

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