Thursday, September 09, 2004

War on Terror

Ever since the President stated on one day that we could NOT win the "war on terror" and the next day flip-flopped with a statement that we would win, I have been thinking about what it really means to "win the war on terror."

In order to define how a war can be won, the enemy being fought must be defined. Is this war on terror a war against the tactic of terrorism, regardless of who uses it? Or is it a war on the idealogy of muslim extremism? Or is it a war on a specific group like Al Queda?

Outright, we can reject the proposition that this is a war on a single enemy such as Al Queda. Al Queda has splintered into many subgroups and muslim extremisim is not limited to the Al Queda organization.

But the notion that we are at war against muslim extremism falls down on two counts. Perhaps most important is the fact that world governments have identified non muslim groups around the world as terrorist groups under the "war on terror." So both the United States and our allies in this war have identified a broader enemy. Secondly, though, it would be difficult to make a case that we can "win" a war against a set of ideas, such as those espoused by muslim extremists. If, for example, we had said during World War II that our goal was to "win the war on fascism" we would have to admit that we either had lost, or that we are still at war today. There are still dozens of fascist regimes in the world and these governments have killed millions just in Africa over the last few decades. One might say that fascism has been contained, but not defeated. Given that muslim extremism is not a political movement so much as it is a religious movement, and thus trans-national, it would be difficult if not impossible to "contain" this set of ideas the way that fascism can be contained within narrow national borders.

But given the first point, that the US and others have defined non muslim extremist groups as enemies in this war on terror, we must conclude that the war is not solely against a set of ideas. Which leaves one to conclude that we are waging a war against the tactic of terrorism.


There is a basic discontinuity between the categories of activity that the words "war" and "terror" encompass. War is an activity, the object of which is an enemy. Terror is a tactic which can be used by anyone. It simply doesn't make sense to talk about a war on a tactic. For example, could one speak of a "war on hand-to-hand combat?" Or a "war on spying?" It just doesn't make sense.

Perhaps the closest examples that our civilization has in which we reject a particular tactical approach to combat are weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological, and nuclear -- and genocide. Through a series of treaties, the countries of the world have sought to criminalize, in some global sense of crime, the use of these kinds of weapons or the elimination of a civilian population. One could say that we are now criminalizing terror as well. But it would be difficult to define any of these tactics as an "enemy" at least one that a "war" could be fought against.

Furthermore terror is fundamentally different from genocide and WoMD in at least one major way -- terror can be utilized as a tactic by a single person or a small group. Genocide and the creation of WoMD requires a large entity, typically a state. Certainly there are examples of small groups employing chemical weapons, such as in the Tokyo subways. But the mass production and utilization (thus the mass in WoMD) requires a large infrastructure. The crossover problem here might be in the concept of a briefcase nuke -- but today the origination of materials for such a device would still have to come from some national entity -- whether sold or stolen.

By contrast, one can gather a few dozen devotees and some easily acquired munitions and take 1000 school children and their parents as hostages, as was recently done in Russia. The easy accessibility of terror as a weapon makes it a tactic that cannot be managed through the existing notion of treaties and global national cooperation.


President Bush had it right, the first time. A "war" against "terror" cannot be won. We can identify particular groups that have specific plans against the US and we can defeat those plans and groups. But we will never eliminate terror as a tactic.

1) There will always be people in the world who disagree and even hate western civilization and the US specifically. However, our national policies and the ways in which we interact with the rest of the world can serve to fuel or calm this hate. We should focus more energy and money on these issues.

2) Terror will continue to be a tactic used against the US and other civilized societies. We need to develop defenses against the introduction of terrorist elements and we need to have more refined ways of reacting to terrorists. This must be done while respecting and protecting our core beliefs in civil liberty and freedom of speech.

3) Organizations which promote terror are genuine enemies and should be fought. But there are different kinds of battles against different kinds of threats. States which harbor and promote terrorists can be battled through economic isolation, physical isolation (blockade) and ultimately through regime change as a last resort.

Transnational organizations such as Al Queda must be battled by evolving the tools we have available to fight organized crime. Many of the organizational and operational techniques, and even the activities (drug and gun running) overlap. The end goals of an Al Queda vs. Columbian drug runners are different but their methods are alike.

4) Finally, effective implementation of these methods to contain and reduce terrorism will only work through effective global cooperation.

I don't feel that I have done more to advance the world's thinking on these issues -- just advanced my own thinking. This process, however, does give me a framework for examining the decisions that we have made over the past few years -- for going to war in Iraq, and even Afghanistan, for the laws we are passing, and the statements that politicians are making. Time to think more on all of these things.