What if We Actually Had a War on Terror?

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.