Remember GSAVE? That was the clunky abbreviation for Donald Rumsfeld’s brief, ill-fated replacement name for the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as the “global struggle against violent extremism,” which was slightly less ridiculous than warring against an abstraction and yet even more amorphous and aimless. Little wonder it didn’t catch on. In his Inaugural, President Obama referred to a war against a “far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” That would be the WAFRNOVAH. Somehow I don’t think this is going to become a useful shorthand when referring to U.S. anti-terrorist policy. I bring this up after reading Yglesias’ article in which he argues against the continued use of the phrase “war on terror” and Roger Cohen’s column in which he claims that Obama’s Al-Arabiya interview demonstrated that the “war on terror,” or at least its role as the rhetorical frame of U.S. policy, was over.
Yglesias is making sense when he lays out the reasons why the phrase and the concept behind it are deeply flawed, but seems to miss an obvious reason why the “war on terror” framing is going to survive and probably thrive. Like its open-ended, ill-defined and misguided cousins, the drug war and the war on poverty, the “war on terror” is a rhetorical frame and set of policies that may not be very good at achieving the objectives for which it was created, but it is very valuable as an ongoing, never-ending pretext for concentrating additional power in the federal government and as a justification for preserving and expanding bureaucratic territory and budgets. If these “wars” were judged on whether they met their stated objectives in a reasonable amount of time in an affordable way, not only the phrases but most of the policies related to them would have been eliminated long ago. Whatever their initial ideal purpose and whatever the intentions of their creators, these “wars” become self-perpetuating rackets whose preservation becomes the priority of all those institutions and interest groups with a stake in the policies in question. More to the point, even if the “war on terror” language was dropped most of the policies of what is called the Long War would remain intact, because the Long War, as Prof. Bacevich has argued in several places, is not confined to combating Al Qaeda and likeminded groups but has a much more expansive scope. The Long War is not simply a response to blowback, but is an expression of domestic impulses:
The impulses that have landed us in a war of no exits and no deadlines come from within. Foreign policy has, for decades, provided an outward manifestation of American domestic ambitions, urges, and fears. In our own time, it has increasingly become an expression of domestic dysfunction–an attempt to manage or defer coming to terms with contradictions besetting the American way of life. Those contradictions have found their ultimate expression in the perpetual state of war afflicting the United States today.
(The Limits of Power, p. 5)
As Prof. Bacevich observed correctly last May, Secretary Gates has endorsed the concept of the Long War entirely. In this respect, he is no different from former Secretary Rumsfeld (he is, arguably, less anxious about large, prolonged deployments of American soldiers in hostile countries than Rumsfeld). As some may still recall, Robert Gates will continue to be Secretary of Defense for the foreseeable future, and Gates has shown no signs of breaking with his earlier embrace of the Long War, which suggests that Obama has no real disagreements with it. What is the Long War? Bacevich explains:
Well into the first decade of this generational struggle, Americans remained oddly confused about its purpose. Is the aim to ensure access to cheap and abundant oil? Spread democracy? Avert nuclear proliferation? Perpetuate the American empire? Preserve the American way of life? From the outset, the enterprise that Gates now calls the “Long War” has been about all of these things and more.
Cohen’s claim that Obama has signaled the “war on terror” to be over is very questionable. Leaving aside the missile strikes in Pakistan last week, which suggest that the “war on terror” is doing just fine, mindset and all, we had numerous statements from Obama and Biden during the campaign in which they emphasized that Afghanistan, and not Iraq, was the proper “central front” in this war. Obama said this during his trip overseas during the summer of 2008, and he said something very similar earlier this week, except this time it was the “central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.” How does OESATAE strike you? Incidentally, his remarks from earlier this week confirm pretty much everything I feared about Obama’s policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, including talk of a “regional appoach,” which conjures up the prospect of the “grand bargain” I warn against in the new column.
In any case, there is no reason to think that the “war on terror” mindset is going away, because the government is not going to repudiate the Long War, and this is part of the ongoing deferral of responsibility and refusal to accept limits that plagues our country in many other ways. No, I’m afraid the “war on terror” is here to stay for the time being, complete with misleading references to fronts–as if speaking about conventional fronts makes any sense in a war that must by definition lack conventional fronts–and false promises of military solutions to problems that are ultimately rooted in how we live.