It’s good to know that the war on terror is finally over. It was all so ugly, what with the beheadings and bombings.
Weren’t we just talking about the IRS targeting conservative groups and the Justice Department secretly seizing reporters’ phone records? Weren’t we just talking about how no effort was made to rescue our people in Benghazi? The official line is that we couldn’t have gotten there in time, but, as numerous military readers have pointed out to me, no one knew how long the siege would last. How, then, could anyone have known that there wasn’t time to get there? Turns out maybe, though hindsight isn’t much of a military strategy.
But, then, I am behind the news. While I was temporarily suspended in a fever-induced fugue, someone apparently changed the subject. More relevant — suddenly! — are drones, Guantanamo and the end of war. Fine, then. Let’s do war. In a nearly 7,000-word speech that has been praised as oratory for grown-ups (dissenters presumably are childish), President Obama intoned that the time has come to end the war on terror. Hear, hear.
But does saying it’s so make it so?
Surely the limbless victims of the Boston marathon bombing, perpetrated by radicalized Muslims, have no such sense of the end of terror. Certainly the family of a British soldier recently hacked to death in a London street by ranting Islamist lunatics shares no such understanding of things.
Obama’s central point was that we should keep our eye on the individual or terrorist cell but end the open-endedness of our wartime footing. Our postwar strategy would depend largely on the use of drone strikes — remote and tidy by usual war standards.
Most Americans, though reluctant to enthusiastically support robot-propelled weaponry against unsuspecting strangers (a.k.a. evildoers), support Obama’s drone policy, nonetheless. They do draw the line at killing U.S. citizens on American soil and also oppose using drones to catch speeders, according to polling.
It is a nice thought, the end of war. To make official our non-war stance, Obama wants to end the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Noting that no president can promise to end all terror, or the enmity that informs terrorism, our nation can ill-afford to continue to define itself by an endless war.
Whether the authorization should be eliminated will be debated in Congress. But lest we swoon ourselves into a state of British-style appeasement (their solution to the recent attack is for soldiers not to wear uniforms), we should be mindful that Obama has maintained and/or ratcheted up nearly every objectionable measure instituted by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama kept Guantanamo because, like Bush, he discovered he couldn’t close it. He kept and boosted security measures, including increasing surveillance and expanding law enforcement powers, even though Bush was loathed for his draconian measures.
Once during an interview, Bush told me that he had made the hard decisions and put the unpopular things in place. He promised that his successor would be grateful. “The next president will need them.”
In his speech, Obama said all the right things about how some security measures have “raised difficult questions about the balance we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy.” Sounds good, but let’s be clear: Worry or not, we’ve landed on the side of further limiting liberties.
Similarly, we may end the war on terror, but we will still rain shock and awe on perceived enemies where they sleep, and — in the collateral damage we say we hate but ruefully accept — on the innocents sleeping nearby.
To Obama’s credit, he has ended the use of torture. We became temporarily insane after 9/11, willing to do almost anything to prevent the next attack. But torture, besides producing unreliable information, is contrary to our national soul and a blemish on our history. We cannot express moral outrage at the actions of others when we are committing the morally outrageous.
Finally, to the larger point, the war on terror is not over and saying so won’t make it so. We may change our strategies, but we should not convince ourselves that our enemies are contained. Rather, they are like cicadas, rising from their subterranean berths to wreak havoc when the time is ripe. Let’s hope we’re ready when that time comes.