Fighting Words and False Promises

For almost five years, the “war on terror” has proved to be a false metaphor that has led to counterproductive and self-defeating policies. A misleading figure of speech has been applied literally to unleash a real war on several fronts, including Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, enraging millions around the world.

Yet al-Qaeda has not been subdued, as was shown by the recent plot to blow up United States-bound commercial flights from London. That plot, which could have claimed more victims than the 9/11 attacks, was foiled by the vigilance of the British intelligence authorities. Clearly, it won’t be the last.

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Unfortunately, the American public accepted uncritically the war metaphor as the obvious response to 9/11. Indeed, even now, when it is widely admitted that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder, the “war on terror” remains the frame into which American policy has to fit. Most Democratic politicians, too, subscribe to it for fear of being branded as weak on defense.

But continuing support for the war on terror makes it no less self-defeating. By its very nature, war creates innocent victims, and this even more likely when it is waged against terrorists, because terrorists tend to keep their whereabouts hidden. The deaths, injuries, and humiliation of civilians generate rage and resentment among their families and communities, in turn fueling support for terrorists.

Moreover, terrorism is an abstraction that lumps together all political movements that use terrorist tactics. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Sunni insurrection and the Mahdi army in Iraq are very different forces, but President George W. Bush’s global war on terror prevents us from differentiating between them and dealing with them accordingly. It inhibits much-needed negotiations with Iran and Syria, because they are states that support terrorist groups.

At the same time, as the British have shown, groups like al-Qaeda are best dealt with by good intelligence. The war on terror’s emphasis on military action merely increases the terrorist threat and makes the task of the intelligence agencies more difficult. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still at large, and we need to focus on finding them if we are to prevent attacks like the one foiled in England.

Finally, the war on terror drives a wedge between “us” and “them.” We are innocent victims; they are perpetrators. While we seem not to notice that we also become perpetrators in the process, much of the rest of the world does notice – a gap in perception that has severely weakened America’s international credibility and standing.

Taken together, these factors ensure that the war on terror cannot be won. On the contrary, an endless war waged against an unseen enemy is doing great damage not only to our authority and prestige in the world, but also to our own society. It has led to a dangerous extension of executive powers, tarnished our adherence to universal human rights, and inhibited the critical process that is at the heart of an open society. It has also cost a lot of money. Most importantly, the war on terror has diverted attention from other urgent tasks that require American leadership, such as finishing the job that we correctly began in Afghanistan, addressing the looming global energy crisis, and dealing with nuclear proliferation.

With American influence at low ebb, the world is in danger of sliding into a vicious cycle of escalating violence. We can escape it only if we Americans repudiate the war on terror as a false metaphor.

If we persevere on our current course, the situation will continue to deteriorate. It is not our will that is being tested, but our understanding of reality. It is painful to admit that our predicaments are brought about by our own misconceptions. But not admitting it is bound to prove even more painful in the long run. The strength of an open society lies in its ability to recognize and correct its mistakes. That is the test that now confronts us.