Thursday, December 09, 2004

War on Terror

To address in some part the whole controversy started by Peter Beinart in TNR, I have a few opinions on why liberals are not so enthusiastic about the "War on Terror". For my part the War on Terror, certainly as it is now being prosecuted is quite foolish. This is about the most completely wrong way to go about our national security. The central problem, as many have pointed out before, is that terror is a not an enemy, but a tactic. Similarly, Islam or militant Islam is not an enemy, but an ideology.A war, or indeed any really large project, needs to be directed toward a very clear and well defined goal, not something amorphous and ambiguous.

Therefore, to properly prosecute a war one needs an identifiable enemy. For example, in WWII, three nations (Japan, Germany and Italy) had, by mid December 1941, declared war on the US. One of them, Japan, had attacked us. We were at war with those three nations until they surrendered unconditionally and agreed completely that they no longer would be at war with the US. We had clear, well defined, unambiguous enemies. Furthermore, those nations were our enemies for clear and well defined reasons, they had attacked and or declared war on the US. Note also, it was not a war against Fascism (We were not at war with Spain), it was not a war against totalitarianism, or evil, or authoritarianism, or god knows a war to end war, or any other ideology or tactic. It was a war against three well defined enemies, and because of this it was successfully prosecuted.

Furthermore, because it was a war against well defined enemies and was well prosecuted it was very successful at reducing Fascism, and totalitarianism, and authoritarianism, and evil. It did not eliminate those things, but it has made it easier to reduce them in subsequent years.

Were we engaged in a similar, clear and well defined project today, liberals would be solidly behind it. When, in the aftermath of 9/11, it seemed that we recognized that there was a clear enemy, Ossama bin Laden and al Qaeda, liberals, such as myself, were solidly behind destroying those enemies. Currently, however, we are embarked on this huge effort that is very costly in both lives and money without any clear picture as to what is the object or how we get there.

During the course of the war on terror, we on the left have tried to raise an important point by asking whether the war on terror would be aided by attacking some terrorist group like ETA or the Tamil Tigers or hezbollah. The point is not to suggest that maybe some of these groups are really good guys, but rather to ask will attacking this group or that help us achieve our goals. Getting rid of ETA would reduce some terrorism, but would that help achieve our goals. The answer is not clear because our goals are not clear. Again to compare to WWII, one could ask in 1942 if maybe we should invade Argentina. However, it is clear that that would not help achieve the goal of bringing Germany, Japan, and Italy to surrender and therefore, no it would not help achieve our goals. The same clarity does not exist with the war on terror precisely because it is, as declared, a war against a tactic not an enemy.

So liberals are failing to support this war on terror not because we are unwilling to show strength or be tough on enemies, but rather because this war is so badly conceived, planned and executed, that in the long run it will only display weakness to our enemies.

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