Zbigniew Brzezinski attacks the phrase. Increasingly, I’m inclined to agree that it’s a problem. Peter Beinart, for example, has a very good column in the current Time that winds up striking a false note at one point. “While Nixon promised to end the war in Vietnam, McGovern promised to end the cold war itself,” he writes, “He called for cutting the defense budget 37% and withdrawing troops not only from South Vietnam but also from South Korea.” This is an important point, and Beinart is correct to note the contrast with contemporary political debates, but he winds up expressing it like this: “While many conservatives see anti-Iraq Democrats as McGovern’s spawn, they’re a very different breed. Pelosi and Reid aren’t against the war on terrorism.”
What does “the war on terrorism” denote in this context? It’s 85 percent meaningless placeholder. The contrast Beinart’s trying to draw is simply that neither Reid nor Pelosi are proposing any major deviations from America’s pre-Iraq defense posture in the way that McGovern wanted to scale back various non-Vietnam defense commitments. But most of America’s global national security infrastructure has nothing in particular to do with terrorism, and everybody agrees that terrorism will mostly be fought by agencies and resources outside the regular military.
I recall that after 9/11 it seemed to me that there was going to be a war. We were going to place demands on the Taliban regarding al-Qaeda that the Taliban wasn’t going to meet. The United States was then going to take military action and have a great deal of international support as it did so. During the same period when it became clear that this was, in fact, going to pass the phrase “war on terrorism” started appearing. I assumed at the time that “war on terrorism” was the name for this unfolding war. The war in which U.S. military assets operating with the cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbors were assisting the Northern Alliance in its years-long battle with the Taliban. That was a war. And wars need names. The war the US fought with Iraq after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is called “The Gulf War.” The war Finland fought with the USSR in 1939–40 is called “The Winter War.” There have been a lot of wars in Afghanistan, so they need names for the sake of precision, and “The War on Terrorism” seemed like an okay first stab.
Since then, though, it’s become this horribly vague and pernicious term. Am I against “the war on terrorism?” I’d like to think I’m not. I think it’s important that the United States take action to reduce the risks of terrorism in general and al-Qaeda terrorism in particular. I think military assets will be useful at times in doing this. I think the issue ought to be high on the international agenda. I think it’s reasonable for a large quantity of resources to be expended dealing with this and related issues.
But do I think the president should implement wartime emergency-style measures that seek to circumvent the established law and undermine long-held civil liberties on a quasi-permanent basis? No, I don’t. Nor do I think the threat of al-Qaeda terrorism rises to the level of a world-historical crisis on the same order as the attempted conquest of the world by Nazi Germany. Nor do I think the United States should be waging an expansive worldwide battle against any and all plausibly Islamist movements wherever we may find them and whatever their agenda may be. Nor do I think the United States ought to seek to seek the overthrow of the governments of a heterogenous set of countries inhabited by Muslims.
There’s a problem called terrorism. Some terrorism threatens the United States. There’s the possibility that in the future, as was the case in Afghanistan in late fall 2001, that fighting a war will be a responsible method of dealing with the problem of terrorism that threatens the United States. But there’s no “war on terror” as such to be either for or against.