Michael Totten

War, Struggle, or Counter-insurgency?

Yesterday I fisked Juan Cole for claiming the enemy in the Terror War (or whatever this contraption ought to be called) is “four guys in a gymn in Leeds.”
His characterization was absurd. But he isn’t the only one who absurdly characterizes what’s happening here. The Bush Administration does it, too, and has since the very beginning.
Cole links to the following article:


WASHINGTON, July 26 (UPI) — The Bush administration has begun downplaying the “war on terror” in favor of “a global struggle against violent extremism,” the New York Times reports.

One thing I find supremely irritating about this whole business is that a professor who is supposedly an expert in all things Middle Eastern couldn’t hit such a wide target as the Bush Administration. I mean, come on. “A global struggle against violent extremism?” Give me a break! What the hell is the matter with the Bush Administration, anyway? They have never, ever, been able to define the enemy properly.
Bush is famously inarticulate. Someone in his administration should be able to work on that problem by speaking for him or giving him something slightly less obtuse to say. But apparently that’s asking too much.
“War against terrorism” is pathetic and always has been. It’s a cliché now to point out that terrorism is a tactic not an enemy. World War II was not a “war against U-boats” or a “war against kamikazes.” World War II was a war against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Empire of Japan.
Clearly this war is different. It’s asymmetrical. It functions like a global civil war, rather than a state-on-state fight, which is perhaps fitting in the age of globalization. But I can’t understand why so many people have such a hard time figuring out who the enemy is just because this war is different. Paul Berman figured it out easily and wrote the following in The American Prospect shortly after September 11, 2001.


Some people have emphasized that, so far as we know, not one of the national states in the Middle East or anywhere else seems to have been directly responsible for the attacks. Thus it is said that without the involvement of a national state, we cannot properly speak of something as capacious as war (as if wars can take place only between national states–when the great majority of wars in recent years have been, in fact, civil wars, meaning, conflicts in which only one side possesses a state). This is another way of making the same minimizing point: that we are not facing any kind of substantial or well-organized enemy, even if we have suffered a disastrous blow. But we are facing a substantial and well-organized enemy. Our enemy is the combat wing of radical and Islamist movements that are genuinely enormous. [Emphasis added.]

Exactly. Shouldn’t that be obvious by now? It was obvious to some people then. While the conservative administration sputtered incoherently, a liberal essayist put it right. If more of Berman’s fellow liberals were as perceptive as he is, we wouldn’t be having this argument over basics right now. We wouldn’t be arguing about the Bush Administration either because the Bush Administration would no longer exist.
We don’t like any terrorists no matter who they are or why they kill innocent people. But we are not at war with the Basque ETA or the Irish Republican Army. We’d like to see them go away and will do what we can to help Spain and Britain. But these groups are not who the Terror War is about. Not for us.
We are at war with Islamists. Why? Because they declared war on us. It isn’t any more complicated than that. It takes two to make peace. But it only takes one to declare and make war. We’re at war with these people whether we like it or not. They declared it. They did not consult us in advance. We are not allowed to unilaterally declare the end of the war just because we don’t want to fight it. That’s not how it works. They will keep fighitng and it will go on and on no matter how much we wish it weren’t so. They must also tire of fighting before peace is an option.
Cole doesn’t seem to get this. He agrees that the Bush Administration ought to backpedal on the word “war” even if he doesn’t quite agree with what the administration has decided to settle on. He says “It is not a war. It is counter-insurgency.”
No, it isn’t.
When you kill people in someone else’s country you are not an “insurgent.” Whether you are a terrorist, a guerilla, a soldier, or whatever, if you kill people in someone else’s country you are an invader. Even if your targets are exclusively government in nature (which is clearly not the case with Al Qaeda) you still don’t get to be called an “insurgent.” Toppling the Baath regime in Iraq was not an act of insurgency by the United States military. It was an invasion, and we have no right to call it anything less. Likewise, Al Qaeda has no right to call what it does an insurgency.
Thing is, Al Qaeda did not declare an “insurgency” on America. Al Qaeda declared war. What on earth is the point of downplaying and whitewashing Al Qaeda’s behavior when even Al Qaeda doesn’t agree with the downplaying and the whitewashing? I ask that question of both Professor Juan Cole and President George W. Bush.
I would have loved nothing better than to vote for a Democratic president in 2004 who was more like Paul Berman and rather unlike Juan Cole or George W. Bush. I have a pretty strong hunch that if the Democrats nominate a Bermanesque figure in 2008 that he or she will kick the snot out the Republicans. Maybe I’m just projecting. It’s certainly possible. But if we still can’t figure out who we’re supposed to be fighting in 2008 it will be — as Berman himself might put it — “our misfortune, and the world’s.”


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