Wednesday, July 25, 2007

# Posted 4:19 AM by Patrick Porter  

IS OUR RHETORIC THE PROBLEM? After 9/11, Bush should not have called America's campaign against terrorism a war. This is the view of a range of some powerful minds, from historians John Mueller and Michael Howard to ethicist Michael Walzer, from pundit James Fallows to several of my colleagues.

So its probably a hard task to disagree. However. I would respectfully argue that for all the problems that come with the term, it is a war.

This is also part of a bigger debate, about the role and importance of Bush's rhetoric. Some criticisms of the entire war effort focus like a laser on the words Bush uses to characterise the conflict. If only Bush had not spoken with simplistic rhetoric about war, good, evil, evildoers, God, etc, things wouldn't have gone so badly wrong.

The argument in brief: war gives Al Qaeda a dangerous status. It overinflates their image and exaggerates, wittingly or not, the threat they pose. It makes us irrational in our decision-making and our willingness to terrify each other and be terrified. It makes us bigoted in our self-exaltation and licenses our own brutal behaviour, from Fallujah to Guantanamo, etc. It leads to the 'demonisation' of our own dissenting voices, and enables our own governments to dismantle our civil liberties. Rhetorical commitment to open-ended war loses sight of 'exit strategies' and a proper plan to defuse or end the conflict. We should have treated the whole thing as a criminal, police and intelligence operation, maybe with brief cameos from the military.

This is roughly how the argument often goes. And declaring war does bring certain dangers. It does make effective compromise and open debate more difficult, it does create elevated expectations of decisive victories, and it can lead to irrational choices.

But this argument is so nuanced that it loses sight of some unpleasant core realities. The fact remains that 9/11 was an assault by a network that had the shelter, sanctuary and patronage of a sovereign state. The US had appealed for the assistance of that state against Al Qaeda, but it refused. If the US was serious about disrupting the guests of the Taliban, any responsible reaction must have included a military one. A writ or a police action would have been insufficient. And military operations in Afghanistan meant a state of war.

This is the primal scene of the argument: 9/11 created not just an effort against an outlaw gang, but against a state that supported it. If defending itself by taking the fight militarily to the Taliban was a necessary step, this entailed military action against a sovereign state. Which got the US onto a war footing.

Even if Bush hadn't used the label or rhetoric at all, large-scale military operations in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, broadcast over the world, would still have been depicted as a war in the Arab-Islamic world, and the accusation of 'crusader' would still have been made.

It is not just rhetoric that creates impressions, it is actual behaviour. In other words, it was our policy that placed us at war, not just our words. If that makes sense. To put it more bluntly: either the US should have conducted military operations against the Taliban, or it shouldn't. If it should, then war existed, and in a global media, would have been seen to exist. This wasn't the Malayan emergency that could be fought in the shadows away from global attention. This was the whole world watching to see what the US would do.

Also, its easy to overstate how decisive declaring war was to inflating AQ's status. To be sure, having America name you as enemy number one does confer a certain dark charisma, though not one that historically guarantees success. But declaring war was not the first gesture to give AQ prestige. They achieved a status by inflicting mayhem in the heartland of its enemy that Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan had not done. They did something that decades of preachers and propagandists in the Arab-Islamic world had called for, but not seen: they delivered spectacular, theatrical violence on American soil.

Had a nation-state conducted an attack directly on this scale, we wouldn't be having the same debate. There would be plenty of other issues to argue about, but not whether it constituted an act of war.

As for human rights abuses, being in a 'war mentality' does tempt states into abusive behaviour. Then again, the Bush administration may have been contemptuous of the constitution and Civil Liberties anyway.

The Clinton Administration, not exactly renowned for declaring an apocalyptic war on evil, was guilty of oppressive human rights violations on a range of fronts. This used to be the complaint, in fact, of some of its critics from the left. Warrantless searches, rendition, and imprisonment abroad without trial. I suspect that Bush using strong language is not the prime cause of the increasing bipartisan encroachment by the state on civil liberties.

Should we have declared the end of war around December 2001, and redefined the struggle as a criminal investigation? Unfortunately, America's enemies get a vote on this too. The Taliban were scattered by the first months of Operation Enduring Freedom, but found new bases, regrouped, and returned to the fight. Without Bush's war rhetoric, without the invasion of Iraq, major military activity would still have been forced on the US and its allies in Afghanistan.

Some critics have suggested that the Bush administration should have de-escalated the conflict by declaring victory after this. This is ironic, when that one of the faults of the Bush administration most complained about is its habit of declaring victory prematurely.

Who or what should the Bush admininistration have declared war on? This argument could go on forever. Terrorism is a method and rhetoric, not a finite group, and to declare war on it sets a very difficult standard to meet. Al Qaeda is a candidate, but it isn't just one group but a range of shifting coalitions of affiliates and groupings. To declare war on it now is to declare war on an idea. 'Islamic extremism' is too big and would attract even stronger condemnation. Whatever Bush declared war on, in fact, he would probably have been strongly criticised for it. But whatever the group or concept targeted, the unpleasant facts above remain.

Has war led to other errors, abuses, hysteria or poor judgement? Yes, and not just because of the nature of this administration. War is a chaotic and wild state, leading to miscalculations and unintended consequences, and even the most forbearing and rational state would probably be tempted into some of the moral and strategic errors of Bush.

Abuses of civil liberties during World War Two and the American Civil War also occurred and deserved their criticisms, but this did not obviate the need to recognise a state of war when it existed.

Whatever we should call the enemy, and whatever the risks of declaring war, and despite the disasters that have flowed from Iraq, I see little choice on this issue. A deadly and real enemy with state support had shown it had the will and ability to do things that if repeated serially would make life almost impossible for the world's superpower and, because of global interdependence, most of the world.

Tricky problem though.
(9) opinions -- Add your opinion

The rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’ has been extremely damaging, but ‘war’ is the word that concerns me least. My criticisms are as follows:

(1) The clumsy declaration of a ‘war on terror’. A ‘war on al-quaida’ would have made sense, but by declaring war on an abstraction Bush handed a weapon to every repressive state facing (sometimes violent) resistance. In the months after 9/11, the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’ was seized upon by the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in Tibet, and the governments of Burma and Indonesia. The same argument would have served the apartheid government against the ANC and Vichy France against the Resistance; and it sat rather uncomfortably with the rhetoric of “shock and awe” in Iraq. Bush was declaring war, not on a group or a cause, but on a method; and like so many of his clumsy utterances, it had extremely damaging consequences.

(2) I have no problem with describing 9/11 as ‘an act of evil’. But Bush uses the language of good and evil in a manner that lifts the whole problem beyond rational understanding. His analysis of al-quaida seems to run as follows: there are large numbers of ‘evildoers’; these evildoers must be killed; and when they are, the problem will go away. Any attempt to consider what is feeding this movement – other than the existence of schools and training centres run by other evildoers – is condemned as an attempt to justify it or to blame it on the West. Yet no-one thinks it inconsistent to declare Nazism an evil ideology, while also discussing the role of the Great Depression, the Versailles settlement or the international debt system in nourishing it. Analysis of this kind does not exonerate the Nazis or deprive them of ‘moral agency’; but it acknowledges that evil men are not simply injected into the world by the Devil, and that they will prosper in certain circumstances. Applying this to Al-Quaida does not mean blaming the West – we might, for example, discuss corrupt Arab governments, that encourage anti-Americanism as a distraction from their own failings – but it does mean thinking seriously about how we create a climate inhospitable to Al-Quaida’s ideology.

(3) Conceiving the war on Al-Quaida as an apocalyptic struggle against evil risks legitimising barbarous activities in the name of ‘the greater good’. It has allowed Western governments to legitimise torture and detention without trial – and even to make a virtue of these things. See Karl Rove’s horrific attempt to fight the 2006 elections on the principle that the Democrats could not be trusted to torture people.

(4) Finally, if there is a problem with the rhetoric of ‘warfare’, it’s not with the word itself so much as the inferences drawn from it. Suspected terrorists are now invariably picked up ‘on the battlefield’ – because the whole world is now a battlefield. They are treated not as suspects but as ‘enemy combatants’, and this is used as an excuse to deny them a fair trial. Soldiers captured at Waterloo or at Blenheim did not need a trial because their status as combatants was perfectly obvious – but this is rarely true of terror suspects. It is clear that some of those interned at Guantanamo Bay or in rendition camps were wholly innocent – and this is why fair trial matters. It is not about ‘rights for terrorists’, any more than fair trial for criminal suspects is about ‘rights for rapists’. It is about recognising that we sometimes make mistakes; and about trying to protect the innocent victims of those mistakes.

Apologies for such a long post…
Mr. Salient,

Comments -

(1) You make far too much of semantics. The Russians, Chinese et. al. were all quite freely doing whatever they wanted before Bush said anything. It seems to me the only people substantially affected by this were the nit-picky western chatterers. This was taken as an opportunity to excuse the Russians et al on the part of the chatterers of course, and to blame the US for the actions of others.

(2) The problem the Bush administration faced was the enormous numbers of people in or out of the West who did not in fact accept Al Quaeda and its affiliates as being evil - and who were not prone to reject the idea of evil in the first place. Bush had to rally the side, and make it clear what these people were.

And the problem is indeed beyond rational understanding - or analysis in common Western terms. Read Naipaul on the nature and manifestations of Islamic radicalism, and in fact of modern Islamic civilization. These things are of a nature that is not susceptible to explanation through political and economic interests. There is a metphysical element here, or call it a matter of culture and ideas that we are in no position to understand or manipulate. One might as well, for all we can come up with an engineering solution for it, ascribe it to the devil.

Of course there was going to be a movement to "blame the West" - most of the "western" intelligentsia seems to take that as their sole justification for existence, and acts accordingly. It was certain from the first that the moral agency of Al Quaeda would be quickly acknowledged in order to dismiss it from attention, so that it might be overshadowed by the focus on preferred enemy, the US. The US has more and more dangerous enemies than Al Quaeda, most of them on the inside.

(3) Its not an apocalyptic struggle, but the other side is indeed almost apocalyptically evil - that is a plain fact. Why is hiding it or de-emphasizing it so important ?

(4) There are real battlefields - the enemy in Afghanistan and Iraq (and until recently in Somalia) operate in some regions in a manner entirely in the mode of traditional organized warfare, or of overt guerilla war. These are not places with organized police or criminal justice systems, or even government control. In these areas the enemy is the only relevant government. There is no way to implement police or judicial procedure. One might as well talk of arresting and prosecuting Viet Minh regiments at Dien Bien Phu. This line of thinking is that absurd.
The way the Bush Administration has gone about it is indeed a war. However, it could and should be accompanied by a more comprehensive approach. This should include combating poverty in the areas where terrorist organizations operate and recruit. Giving people access to food, shelter, clean water and basic healthcare and education would greatly reduce the terrorists hold over underdeveloped areas. This should be a large part of the US's efforts to fight terrorism. Our current approach is lacking any comprehension of what lies behind terrorism and terrorist.
Ms. Maggie,

That is precisely what the US and allies have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think you may have missed all that work ?

The enemy has been going so far as to make special efforts to intimidate teachers, female students, doctors, etc.

This effort as (potentially) applied to Pakistan has been blocked by the intense opposition of the Islamic parties there.
Dear Luisalegria,

Thanks for your comments. It’s good to have a strong critique that’s free from personal abuse. I won’t respond to every point, as we’ve both had our say and other readers can judge between us. But I’d like to pick up on three issues:

(1) Discussions of this kind are constantly disfigured by amateur psychology, focusing not on the arguments but on the (presumed) motives of those who make them - whether love of oil or hatred of America. Both sides are guilty, but it has the effect of shutting down serious debate. It does a great injustice to the many liberals who fought and campaigned against Russian actions in Chechnya, who opposed Saddam in the 1980s, or who warned that the Arab-Israeli conflict was fuelling terrorism, to label them ‘Western chatterers’ for whom blaming the West is a raison d’etre. Surely it is possible to discuss their arguments without claiming to know what Bush and Cheney, or those who oppose them, really believe?

(2) An ideology may be irrational in its doctrines, but its rise and spread are still susceptible to rational analysis. Again, Nazism seems to me to be analogous. As a system of ideas, Nazism was a mystical cult which was not, of itself, susceptible to rational debate: its demands were non-negotiable and its racial ideas essentially mythic or pseudo-religious. Nazism was not a rational response to the problems Germany faced, and it cannot be analysed in these terms. But no-one thinks it odd – or self-hating – or anti-Western – to ask why millions of German citizens who were not intrinsically evil, who were not possessed by the devil, and who had not lost control of their reason, found Nazism plausible and even attractive. It is not an apologetic for Nazism to acknowledge that it appeared in a given set of global conditions, and that it is not a matter of chance that it gained purchase in the 1930s, rather than in the 1960s. The existence of grievances in the Arab World – not all, by any means, the fault of the West – does not excuse terrorists; but understanding this may help us drain support for Al-Quaida among larger populations who would not, in normal circumstances, give a moment’s thought to the Caliphate or the dress code in Western nightclubs.

(3) I take your point that there are real battlefields in the war on Al-Quaida, and that there are ‘enemy combatants’ in the traditional sense. But the concept is being applied much more widely, because of the alleged globalisation of the battlefield. What about Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen abducted by the CIA in December 2003? While on holiday in Europe, he was taken off a bus, flown to a rendition camp, tortured, and dumped in Albania when it transpired that he was wholly innocent. He was refused due process as an ‘enemy combatant’ – but it’s for people like him that due process matters.

Rats, another long post…
Mr. Salient,

It is indeed a pleasure to have a substantial conversation. If you would like a regular diet of this sort of thing, I suggest you visit TheForvm.org, which is dedicated to polite discussion across ideological lines. It doesn't always work out that way, but its surprisingly effective.

(1) I'm afraid that amateur psychology doesn't come into it. The motives of the liberal chatterers are for the most part pretty transparent, given their track record from the 1960's onward. Since the collapse of the cold war consensus foreign policy has taken a back seat to domestic politics. There is an immense gulf of mistrust of the liberal left on our side.

(2) Islam was dominant in these countries long before what we consider modern civilization came about. It has periodically suffered religious uprisings much like that we are seeing today - and that predates the Al Qaeda problem by decades - see Naipaul. Every element of the Jihadi subculture was visible since the 1970s, and in some places much earlier. Violence was part of this revival from the beginning, and the US and the west was a target from the beginning. Consider that US interests were subject to religiously sanctioned violence from at least the late 1970's. An escalation of this was inevitable, given that the fundamental ideologies (Qutb et al) have explicitly named the US as the principal enemy for sixty years - predating the creation of Israel even.

It is not very useful to look for proximate causes in US behavior or economic conditions or humiliation through onerous treaties. The experience of the last century across the Muslim world has been exceedingly disparate. There has been very little they have had in common. They have modernized faster or slower, been more or less prosperous, have had different disputes with opponents of many kinds. The only things that they have had in common, it seems, is the Muslim religion.

(3) It is my understanding that the vast majority of the detainees in Guantanamo were taken under the battlefield conditions I describe, or in the scarcely better ones of the tribal regions of the Afghan-Pakistani border, which is lawless and in a state of chronic warfare. A lot of these were just camp-followers or cannon-fodder, who would still have been POWs in a conventional war.

Some few were delivered by the Pakistani authorities, having been taken in government-controlled areas of Pakistan - and the Pakistani government controls very little and that poorly.

And then there are a few like El Masri, who was taken in error, handed over by the Macedonian government who arrested him on suspicion - he was not kidnapped. Errors happen in wars, they are inevitable.
Minor correction: John Mueller is a political scientist, not a historian. (And a big fan of ballet, at least when I knew him, way back when.)
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