Twelve years ago, al-Qaeda forces took control of four commercial airliners and used them to attack American interests and civilian populations, murdering thousands and bringing the attention of the American public to the fact that America was not safe from asymmetric warfare.

Since then?

When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s sometimes hard to recall your original objective was to drain the swamp.

If there is a better example of that proverb’s lesson than the situation in the Middle East, it doesn’t occur to me. The U.S.’s recent meandering led satirist Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker to write:

Attempting to quell criticism of his proposal for a limited military mission in Syria, President Obama floated a more modest strategy today, saying that any U.S. action in Syria would have “no objective whatsoever.”

“Let me be clear,” he said in an interview on CNN. “Our goal will not be to effect regime change, or alter the balance of power in Syria, or bring the civil war there to an end. We will simply do something random there for one or two days and then leave.”

“I want to reassure our allies and the people of Syria that what we are about to undertake, if we undertake it at all, will have no purpose or goal,” he said. “This is consistent with U.S. foreign policy of the past.”

In theory, the Borowitz Report is satire, but in fact he gives an excellent illustration of the vital-but-not-urgent, imperative-but-not-time-sensitive, forceful-but-impotent approach the Obama administration has taken for the last five years. It has gotten to the point where I think we’ve forgotten why we’re involved in the Middle East, why that involvement changed in a fundamental way on September 11, 2001, and what we’re really trying to do there.

As such, we would now benefit from revisiting those first principles in an attempt to make sense of recent history, to rediscover our original objective, and to consider how we might approach “draining the swamp.”

The War on Terror

President George W. Bush named the conflict, memorably and effectively, when he declared a “War on Terror.”

Of course — probably no more than 20 minutes later — some pundits made the criticism that you can’t declare war on “terror” because terror is a tactic and not an actor, and not an entity against which we can fight.

This critique is hard to answer, because it is specious.

It was clear from the start that the phrase was intended to mean “war against particular groups who use terror as a tactic of war against the United States and its interests and allies.” But speeches don’t have footnotes, and a three-word phrase is much clearer that a paragraph of discourse. Sometimes, however, a paragraph of explanation is needed, so let’s belatedly consider what we really mean by a “war on terror.”

Der Krieg ist also ein Akt der Gewalt, um den Gegner zur Erfüllung unseres Willens zu zwingen. — Carl von Clausewitz

In the first chapter of the first book of Carl von Clausewitz’s classic On War, he defines war as: “An act of violence to compel the opponent to do our bidding.” The aim of war is to make an opponent do what you want. Of course, it’s almost never stated this bluntly; if it is, it’s often dismissed as “mere Realpolitik,” as opposed to a more idealistic vision of policy, where the aim is to Do Good.

I’m unabashedly in favor of realistic policy; history, it seems, teaches that good intentions based on idealistic fantasies often lead to evil results. However, if the purpose of war is to compel an opponent to do our bidding, it’s helpful to know what our bidding ought to be. To clarify our goals, let’s look at the third word: “terror.” One difficulty in talking about a war on terrorism is that the very definition of “terrorism” is unclear.

There have been literally hundreds of attempts to define the word usefully; not wanting to be left out, let’s attempt our own. In considering war, looking to German language sources for insight is often productive. In this case, we can look back to a word from World War I: schrecklichkeit, literally “horribleness.” During the invasion of Belgium, in the face of civilian resistance, the invading army of von Moltke took brutal action against the Belgians: burning churches, libraries, homes; executing priests, resisters, and sometimes whole villages as an example to others. The stated aim was to inflict such brutal damage that the civilian population would be demoralized at relatively little military cost. I think this is the key to understanding terrorism, and so we will define it:

Terrorism is military action against a civilian population, whether by regular or irregular forces, intended to maximize the demoralizing effect of the action while minimizing the military force required.

The use of terror is generally understood as an unconventional tactic, although hardly an unknown one in conventional warfare, as the example of von Moltke shows. But then ours is an unconventional opponent: rather than a single state or alliance of states, our opponents are factions with some ideological commonalities, composed of small groups and even individuals of like mind but often of diverse intentions. This makes warfare against them much more difficult. Conventional warfare is effective as a rudder to turn the ship of state, but what we’re fighting is a flotilla of dinghies.

One objection to this definition might be that it includes too much: after all, the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were primarily intended not to destroy some military objective, but to break the will of the opponent. By this definition, these are themselves acts of terror. In my view, this criticism is both correct and pointless. Most all tactics of war have both an effect on the military forces and on the morale of the people involved. We choose, in general, to minimize the direct effects on civilians from military strikes, and it’s a point of pride for the American military that we try to minimize collateral damage. But the use of terror as a tactic must been seen in itself, as an attack on morale as well as people and assets. This definition, as offered, has this much to recommend it: it clarifies in the definition the specific, pragmatic military reasons for using terror as a tactic. Terror is used to break the will of an opponent at the least military cost.

It is a historical fact that the United States has never suffered a military defeat on military terms. It follows as a consequence that our opponents necessarily find themselves compelled to make war against us by unconventional means. It is also an unfortunate historical fact that the United States lost the war in Vietnam, arguably lost the war in Korea, and may right now be losing the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan because our various opponents have effectively fought us not through direct military action but by attacking our morale through unconventional means.

We call some of these means “terrorism,” but by using the word — and more so by treating the word as describing a crime rather than a kind of warfare — we protect our tender sensibilities from the realization that our opponents are, in an organized and concerted fashion, using force to bend us to their will. By definition, and by their intention, our opponents are in fact making war on us:

Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen mitteln. — Clausewitz

“War is merely a continuation of policy by other means” is a more commonly seen quotation from von Clausewitz, often mistranslated as “politics” or paraphrased as “diplomacy.” But in English, “politics” is the process through which policy is defined. The policy is the course of action proposed or to be taken. To von Clausewitz, war is a means by which policy is implemented. In other words: war is not a thing in itself; it is a tool through which an opponent is bent to our will, as expressed in our policy. To make war on terror, then, is to use force to achieve a policy end.

So what was our policy? Simply stated, the real problem of 9/11 is that our opponents were using “terrorism” as a tactic of war to bend the United States to their will. They used force, murdering thousands and attacking iconic buildings, to break our morale and to bring the United States to its knees. And our policy was to make sure they stopped doing that.

Who Is Our Opponent?

It could be argued — and has been argued, and will no doubt be argued again — that the unnamed opponent is the religion of Islam itself.

I personally know too many Muslims who are good, kind, gentle people to be comfortable with that; I’ve known too many Christians of whom I couldn’t say the same thing, and know too much history to be comfortable with the idea that Christianity has an objective claim to some inherent moral superiority. Be that as it may, pragmatically if Islam itself is the enemy, then our military objective would have to be the end of Islam as a world religion.

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world. Ending Islam would mean their forcible conversion — in the words of a famous philosopher and flying squirrel: “That trick never works” — or their extermination. Hitler tried — and failed — to exterminate all the Jews. Exterminating Islam would be a genocide thousands of times as great. It is certainly impractical, probably impossible, and in any case unthinkable. Fortunately, it is also unnecessary. Islam is not our opponent: the billion Muslims are not of one mind, and like people everywhere, most Muslims want to live their own lives, having children and grandchildren and dying in their beds at the end of a long and happy life. Our opponent is a fluid and shifting alliance of different groups with, in some sense, a commonality of interests: a religious ideology of strict adherence to the Qur’an, hadith, and Sunna.

The recent example that first captured current America’s attention was the Islamist takeover of Iran by the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini. While we tended to see this purely as an attack against the West, a position that Khomeini’s followers certainly tried to encourage, it was in reality primarily a conflict among Muslims, a particular group of religious zealots against a more flexible group led by the shah — the first Iranian ruler to have had a Western education. The Sufi communities, the Alawites, and other Muslim groups have suffered at the hands of Islamist zealots, and of course there is a 1300-year dispute between the Shi’a, the sect to which the Khomeinists belong and that rules Iran, and the Sunni, reified in the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia.

The conflict isn’t just between Islam and Christianity; it’s between conflicting sects of Muslims. This is an important point because our opponent would like this to become a war with all of Islam. Bluntly, if they can make us believe it is a war with all of Islam, it becomes a war of all Islam against us. And whoever leads that war against the West has the best shot at dominating the Muslim world. Bringing the United States into line with the opponent’s will is an important objective, and probably one they see as necessary, but the long-term objective of the various Islamist sects is the unification of all Islam under their respective sect.

Our Objective

We’ve identified the opponent’s objective, but then what of ours? The original formulation of the War on Terror actually stated it clearly: we want our response to be punishing enough that attacks on our civilian population are known to not be a cost-effective means of warfare against the United States, its allies, and interests.

In other words: if you try to kill our people and blow up our stuff, you will be very, very, sorry.

(Part Two of this article will appear soon at PJ Media.)