The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

Terror, War On
John Zmirak - 06/28/11

The “War on Terror” now being undertaken by the United States in order to eliminate incidents of attacks against civilians—particularly, but not exclusively, Americans—is difficult to define precisely because it is so broad and far-reaching. Its name was coined in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by a Bush White House seeking to rally Americans behind a global effort to punish and render harmless the forces that had perpetrated (and continued to plan) such assaults.

Military strategists such as William Lind have suggested that the conflict with terrorist groups would be better described as “Fourth Generation Warfare.” The first three generations of modern strategy, according to Lind, arrived with the technical and tactical advances that accompanied, respectively, the Thirty Years’ War, the American Civil War, and World War I. As the technical power of each individual soldier has systematically increased (first to rifled muskets, then to machine guns, then to bazookas, TOW missiles, and “suitcase” nuclear devices), the importance of tightly massed men in formal units has steadily declined. The guerrilla, the infiltrator, the saboteur—even the terrorist—has moved to center stage.

Unlike the Cold War, which was waged against a particular enemy with a particular territory, civilian leadership, flag, and army, the War on Terror as now conceived is directed against a tactic—and a tactic, moreover, that has been employed by many nationalist movements throughout history, transforming “terrorists” such as Eamon de Valera, Menachem Begin, and Nelson Mandela into statesmen. The difference between guerrilla movements (which target military and police forces) and terrorist groups (which attack civilians) has tended to disappear in the current conflict. Military historian Caleb Carr has insisted on the distinction, grouping together punitive acts against civilians—by governments and guerilla movements alike—under the single label “terror.” In The Lessons of Terror (2003), Carr points to the long history of anticivilian violence—from the murder of hostages in ancient Rome to the terror-bombing of London and Dresden during World War II to the 9/11 attacks—and argues that it is nearly always counterproductive. In contrast to disciplined military or guerilla actions aimed at combat units, anticivilian terror tends quickly to unite the population against its perpetrators, Carr concludes.

Because of the conceptual confusions attending its definition, some observers have said that the War on Terror ought not to be compared with previous military conflicts, but rather with the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs” or the Johnson administra-tion’s “War on Poverty.” To these critics, the current “war” is a policy slogan rather than a constitutionally declared military engagement, although military and covert operations form a major component in its prosecution. Indeed, Senator John Kerry proposed during his failed presidential campaign that crime-fighting provided a better model for suppressing terrorist groups than an inchoate, borderless “war.” However, the Bush administration’s military metaphor proved more popular with voters, and it continues to shape American policy.

Others have noted that although the U.S. is primarily concerned with those terrorist groups which rely on Islamist ideology, it has been reluctant to name its enemies for fear of rallying Muslims worldwide around the militants in their midst. Instead, the U.S. and its allies have sought to divide Islamic opinion between moderates and fundamentalists, looking to the former for help in suppressing the violent rhetoric and actions of their radical coreligionists. Critics of Islam such as Srdja Trifkovic and Robert Spencer argue that the “radical/moderate” distinction is essentially spurious, and that the West should admit that what it really seeks to contain is, in fact, Islam itself; the policies they propose center on restricting immigration from Islamic countries and maintaining strict surveillance on Muslims living in the West, if necessary through the dreaded tactic of “profiling.” Opinion in nations such as the Netherlands has swung in favor of such policies after high-profile acts of extremism by Islamic residents.

An alternative label for U.S. policy was floated in summer 2005, when Bush spokesmen began to speak of the “struggle against violent extremism.” However, the term had little traction and led some to suggest that the U.S. was somehow retrenching, so the older rhetoric returned with a new twist: President Bush began to echo the term employed by hawkish commentators in the blogosphere, who refer to the grandiose, theocratic fantasies of al-Qaeda and its allies by the invented epithet “Islamo-Fascism.” Scholars both of the Islamic faith and of World War II remain skeptical of the term, which lumps together stateless, internationalist religious extremists and narrowly chauvinistic radical nationalists. These groups’ only common features seem to be brutal illiberalism, disdain for civilian life, and anti-Semitism. Indeed, the role of Osama bin Laden as a roving inciter of revolutionary violence around the world recalls to some the career of Leon Trotsky more than that of any European dictator.

The War on Terror in practice encompasses many initiatives both foreign and domestic. Abroad, it began with the partly successful invasion of Afghanistan—a “failed state” that harbored Islamist terrorists who had received their first training and support from the American C.I.A. in their guerrilla war against Soviet occupiers. American forces aided tribal forces and regional militias, which by January 2002 had largely overthrown the radical Taliban regime, but failed to capture Osama bin Laden or many of his subordinates. Al-Qaeda then transformed itself from a centrally directed organization to a viral network of independent anti-Western terrorists akin to the “leaderless resistance” once invoked (though thankfully hardly practiced) by neo-Nazi groups in the 1970s. Affiliates and sympathizers of al-Qaeda have continued to perpetrate attacks in nations as far-flung as Britain, Spain, and Indonesia; governments from Russia to Uzbekistan attempting to suppress insurgencies by Islamic populations have lumped together all resistance by those populations as “terrorism” and linked such movements, accurately or not, with al-Qaeda.

Hundreds of suspected members of al-Qaeda and soldiers who fought for the (internationally unrecognized) Taliban regime have been interned at U.S. military bases such as Guantanamo Bay, out of the reach of U.S. courts’ jurisdiction and unprotected by the Geneva Convention (which the Taliban never signed). At home, shortly after 9/11 the U.S. Congress created a new Department of “Homeland Security,” the purpose of which is to protect the soil of the United States from attack—leaving some to wonder what had been the purpose of the existing Department of Defense. Congress also enacted and renewed the “PATRIOT Act,” which (among many other extensions of federal power) enabled the FBI to undertake wiretaps of U.S. citizens with relative ease and to subpoena hitherto private documents. Most disturbing to many conservatives and libertarians was President Bush’s invocation of the concept of “enemy combatant” to justify the arrest and indefinite detention without charge or legal recourse of U.S. citizens—a power which they compared to the ancien régime’s infamous lettres de cachet. This power, upheld so far by federal courts and extended indefinitely into the future until the unforeseeable end of the undeclared War on Terror, is susceptible to enormous abuse, civil-liberties activists complained, amounting to a repeal not so much of the U.S. Constitution as of the Magna Carta.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the War on Terror has been the Bush administration’s April 2003 invasion of Iraq—a nation which had links to Palestinian terror groups, but apparently few or none to al-Qaeda and other organizations involved in attacks on the U.S. However, administration claims to the contrary—combined with the fear that the brutal Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was pursuing “weapons of mass destruction” that might someday be shared with terrorists—rallied public support behind this invasion and occupation, which continues as of publication. So do guerilla assaults on Anglo-American occupation forces and terrorist acts against Iraqis working with the newly constituted government. Threats of attacks on civilians on U.S. soil by agents of Iraqi insurgents and by “free-lance” terrorists inspired and even trained (via the Internet) by al-Qaeda, suggest that this “war” will continue for generations—as will, many traditional conservatives fear, the agglomeration of governmental authority required to constrain it. This phenomenon, the synergistic relationship between security “crises” and increasing federal power, has been noted by economic historian Robert Higgs. Advocates of limited government and U.S. disengagement from foreign wars find their warnings met (and so far, deflected) by charges of “appeasement,” “defeatism,” and even “unpatriotic” sentiments. The conservative movement is currently torn between its traditional commitment to ordered liberty and a potent strain of aggressive nationalism. It is unclear whether one will prevail or the movement will permanently split.

Further Reading
  • Anonymous. Imperial Hubris. Dulles, Va.: Brassey’s, 2004.
  • Higgs, Robert. Crisis and Leviathan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Horowitz, David. Unholy Alliance. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2004.
  • Spencer, Robert. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2005.
  • Trifkovic, Srdja, The Sword of the Prophet. Salisbury, Mass.: Regina Orthodox Press, 2002.
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