Peter Beinart: The War on Terror Isn’t a War


If you’re trying to kill large numbers of people who are trying to kill you en masse, most people would correctly identify this situation as a war.  President Barack Obama knows this, which is why he bristled at former Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent claims that he doesn’t treat our counterterror efforts like a war against Islamofascism.  But writing for the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart argues:

[W]hile America is obviously at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it isn’t actually at war with jihadist terrorism. Rather than proving Cheney wrong, the White House should have done something more audacious: Prove him right.

Beinart says Obama should openly embrace the argument that the War on Terror isn’t a “war” for three main reasons.  First, the term “war” should be reserved for direct armed confrontations, and common American rhetoric about “wars” on poverty, cancer, drugs, and such have diluted this strict meaning.  Second, the term gives the executive branch cover to destroy civil liberties in the name of security.  Third, it gives the false impression that bullets and bombs are sufficient to defeat Islamofascism.

There’s a kernel of truth in Beinart’s first reason—war is recklessly thrown about all the time to raise the stakes of politicians’ pet issues (is a war really being waged on the middle class?)—but the War on Terror is not such a case.  It is not exclusively a combat-based confrontation, the enemy’s primary goals are unmistakably militaristic: infiltration and killing.  There’s a saying conservatives have repeated so often it almost sounds like a cliché, but it’s absolutely true: even if we are not at war with them, they are at war with us.

Likewise, military and intelligence operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other fronts are major components of our response, and other essential aspects of a sound counterterror strategy—comprehensive missile defense, improved border security, and domestic intelligence gathering—are no mere police or diplomatic measures.  Yes, there are important non-military aspects to the war, such as negotiation, economic sanctions, and propaganda efforts.  But while “war” may not be a catchall for every ambitious undertaking or dispute between societies, nor should it be construed to exclusively denote battlefields and F-22s.

Beinart’s next point highlights the real reason liberals deny we’re at war: minimizing the threat we face has given them cover to oppose President George W. Bush’s proactive intelligence-gathering measures, “from military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay to warrantless wiretapping.” But as usual, the Left is wrong.  The Right doesn’t claim “unfettered executive power;” we simply recognize that the Constitution is not a suicide pact.  Beinart is on especially shaky ground with the two examples he cited. As non-citizens who wear no country’s uniform and violate the rules of war by targeting civilians, jihadists are not entitled to Geneva Convention rights, and certainly not to an American citizen’s due-process rights.  Likewise, the Bush Administration’s domestic wiretapping efforts were constitutional and took care to respect Americans’ privacy as much as possible.  Rest assured, there’s no secret stash on Capitol Hill where the feds are keeping all of Keith Olbermann’s private phone calls (something for which we should all be grateful).

Lastly, it’s true that guns won’t be enough to win the War on Terror.  But again, military preparedness is still more important than President Obama will accept.  We need to build back up the military Bill Clinton cut down, not because we should systematically conquer the entire Middle East, but because we need our enemies to see that we possess the capability to punish state sponsorship of terrorism if we so choose, on multiple fronts simultaneously if necessary.  We need to pursue comprehensive missile defense to neutralize the threat of nuclear weapons against ourselves and our allies.

Besides, when it comes to the cultural and rhetorical dimensions of this struggle, it is the Right, not the Left, which advocates talking honestly and openly about the enemy’s true nature and motivations. No discussion with other nations about countering radical Islam can possibly bear any fruit if we lie to ourselves and to others about the religious roots of jihad, what fundamentalist regimes do to their own citizens, or the blatant indoctrination that breeds new generations of suicide bombers.

We face a global movement wholly uninterested in anything resembling dialogue, who will use any means necessary to kill as many of us as possible. Defending ourselves will require the smart use of our government’s every military, economic, and diplomatic tool, and our populace’s capacity for open discussion and honest evaluation.  If that’s not a war, I don’t know what is.



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