Strategic threat or law enforcement problem?
In John McCain’s final scramble for votes last week, there was a revealing moment in Tampa Bay, when he seemed to dismiss the economic crisis that will probably take a decade to fix, and urge undecided voters to instead focus on what he considers to be the “real” challenge facing America’s next leader. Of his opponent, McCain asked, “Can this man defend America from Osama bin Laden?”
The suggestion that al Qa’eda poses more danger to the well-being of ordinary Americans than a tanking economy that threatens the jobs and homes of millions seems preposterous to any sober observer: al Qa’eda is a small conspiratorial organisation that once, seven years ago, managed to pull off a spectacular attack on US soil, and has over the same period pulled off a few more such grisly stunts in London, Madrid, Casablanca and Bali. It controls no territory and is incapable of disrupting the defences of even the weakest states on the planet, much less the most powerful. To suggest it poses a greater risk than the most profound slump in three generations made a good Halloween story, nothing more.
But if McCain was simply trying to scare people into voting for him, he was inadvertently laying bare the fallacy at the heart of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”, which made the organising principle of US foreign policy a campaign against a handful of extreme jihadists.
McCain regularly repeats the preposterous mantra that the struggle against Islamist radicalism is the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century,” but make no mistake, Barack Obama falls victim to the same flawed logic when he proclaims Afghanistan “the right war” and promises to get out of Iraq in order to free up more troops to send to “stamp out the Taliban”, as he put it one of the presidential debates. The war on Afghanistan is no more winnable than the war in Iraq. Both are products of a mindset that responded to the spectacular provocation of a tiny band of jihadists on 9/11 by launching massive military campaigns to remake whole societies in a more U.S.-friendly image, and as a result ended up inflicting far more damage on American life, treasure and strategic position than al-Qaea ever could have.
The war on terror is a profound conceptual error, not simply because the problem with making war on a common noun (drugs, poverty, terror) is that a common noun cannot surrender; but also because it treats a small band of extremists with no means of transforming the balance of power as if they represent a genuine strategic threat rather than what John Kerry quite correctly in 2004 labeled a “nuisance.” Kerry told the New York Times, ”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”
(Yes, yes, I know Kerry lost, but he was right about the strategic signficance of terrorism.)
Instead, like Captain Ahab in his obsessive pursuit the whale, President Bush has perverted the U.S. constitution and its protections of liberty, and “set the East ablaze” in a manner that has burnt U.S. interests from the Mediterannean to Pakistan. If the next President has time for much beyond rebuilding the economy, a good starting point would be rethinking U.S. foreign policy in a way that puts terrorism in perspective, ending the policy of repeatedly destroying the village in order to save it.