Passing the torch of war

by Patrick Grumley

President-Elect Barack Obama’s towering victory Tuesday certainly communicated to the world that change was coming to America’s policies. During the next few weeks in a three-part series, St. James’ Street will be evaluating the war on terror and exactly what lies ahead for our new Mr. President. Few words have worked their way into our everyday vernacular as insidiously as the word “terrorism.” As there is little consensus in America’s departments and agencies as to what the definition of terrorism is — largely because each definition is self-serving to their respective missions — the war on terrorism is truly a battle against, as strategic analyst Michael Howard puts it, “an abstract noun.” Such a critique of word choice might only be a pedantic quibble if it didn’t so accurately depict the attitude of our foreign policy. So what is terrorism, why does it exist, can it be defeated, and at what cost? The 2006 version of the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, although an improvement from its 2003 counterpart, has paid little attention to answering these questions. What should be a precise conflict requires precise terminology. This column defines terrorism as violence aimed at civilians by a subnational or non-state entity — with an identifiable command or conspiratorial cell structure, whose intent is to disrupt civic norms and incite fear. The U.S. Department of State currently lists 42 Foreign Terrorist Groups that match a similar description. Our current administration’s proverbial war is not only, by definition, declaring war on these groups (many of which have no intention of targeting the United States), but setting the stage to be at war with all groups that will be created in the future. Our current strategy seeks to snuff out terrorist groups regardless of the country where they find haven, it aggressively promotes democracy and attempts to transform governments from adversaries to allies. From a callow and idealist standpoint, all seems logical but the war in Iraq, if it were to prove anything, would be that is no quick task. Not to mention that nearly all terrorist campaigns are launched against democracies; thus suggesting that propping up democratic regimes around the world hardly acts as a deterrent. The mainstream media often acts as though Iraq and Afghanistan are two fronts that are fighting the same broader war. The only greater defamation of the causes for the invasion of Iraq might be the title of the operation itself. The war on terror had, at best, an infinitesimal amount to do with the war in Iraq, barring the notion that it created the political climate to facilitate such a campaign. Whether the war in Iraq can be justified outside the war on terror is a separate debate but the distraction of forces from the already Herculean task that started in 2001 has left our troops in Afghanistan incapable of completing their objectives against al-Qaida and the Taliban. As Michael Scheuer, the chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s bin Laden Issue Station, advises, “The next president will find that their dream of straightening things out with two brigades (in Afghanistan), are exactly that. They’re dreams.” The next president can no longer sustain securing Iraq and prolonging the tenuous holding strategy in Afghanistan. The little attention the war in Afghanistan received during the presidential debates reveals that this is already transforming into America’s most recent forgotten war. The lack of ground troops has forced commanders in Afghanistan to launch “economy of wars” operations: you receive what we can afford to give you, do the best you can. The corollary has been an increase in air operations which has inextricably led to an increase in civilian deaths. Despite the moral complications this poses, it further enables the terrorist groups to recruit the victims of America’s imprecise war. As many analysts have noted, this is not just the conventional battle as we have seen in the past, it is also a battle of ideas. Our current strategy against terrorism has put this concept last, and the terrorist groups have put it first. Over the last seven years the U.S. government has relinquished civil liberties and moral codes that have survived during times of greater existential threats than terrorism ever could. The National Security Agency has tapped domestic phone calls without warrants. Enhanced interrogation, as it is often euphemistically referred to, has existed outside the realm of clandestine operations. We have squandered funds on failed national security programs and have become accustomed to the useless idiosyncrasies of the Transportation Safety Agency. If anyone feels safer at the airport by taking off your shoes, please let your correspondent know. The tradeoff between civil liberties and national security is a fine line that must be walked delicately and it has instead been stumbled along much in the manner as a failed sobriety test. Obama has been dealt a complicated hand and some of his early remarks this column finds highly suspect. With the election at an end, Obama can no longer enjoy the comfort of running on grandiose political rhetoric. Now he must face real questions, including if catching Osama bin Laden is worth the potential of causing a failed state in Pakistan. Those at St. James’ Street welcome comments at [email protected]