EDITORIAL: The future of democracy depends on abandoning the war metaphor

The future of democracy depends on abandoning the war metaphor

If presidential candidates can’t come up with some intelligent foreign policy positions, it’s time that they followed State Department advice: shut up — at least for a while.

In just three days we’ve heard candidates proposing sending troops into Pakistan, using nuclear weapons against al Qaeda, and threatening to bomb Mecca and Medina.

Campaign rhetoric is doing what ought to be impossible: make the Bush administration sound responsible. It is also sending a chilling message to the rest of the world: if you’re hoping that George Bush is going to be replaced by a president with a more enlightened view of the world and a more sophisticated approach to politics, don’t count on it.

In the latest instance of “precision bombing” gone wrong, women and children are among up to 300 civilians killed in air strikes in the Afghan province of Helmand. How many more times does the West have to be responsible for the indiscriminate killing of innocent people before it acknowledges that this is neither an effective nor legitimate means to counter terrorism?

The so-called “war on terrorism” has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Small wonder that in the Muslim world this war is regarded as a war on Islam. This perception is further reinforced by the fact that Western leaders persist in framing the struggle as one between religious extremists and secular moderates.

In a bold initiative in April, John Edwards posed a challenge to fellow Democratic candidates when he rejected the phrase “war on terror”:

“This political language has created a frame that is not accurate and that Bush and his gang have used to justify anything they want to do,” Edwards said in a phone interview from Everett, Wash. “It’s been used to justify a whole series of things that are not justifiable, ranging from the war in Iraq, to torture, to violation of the civil liberties of Americans, to illegal spying on Americans. Anyone who speaks out against these things is treated as unpatriotic. I also think it suggests that there’s a fixed enemy that we can defeat with just a military campaign. I just don’t think that’s true.”

In 2001, the neocons rapturously applauded President Bush’s “insight” (triggered by their prompting) that America was at war. What the last six years have demonstrated are the consequences of allowing “war” to become the governing metaphor in national and international affairs.

The inescapable effect of being governed by the war metaphor is that it fosters absolutist expectations. The goal of war is to crush, defeat, and eliminate the enemy.

When Bush declared that we will not discriminate between the terrorists and those who harbor them, he opened the door to a genocidal sentiment. Security analyist, Michael Vlahos notes:

I have had many “Defense World” conversations that have ended with: “the time may come when we will have to kill millions of Muslims,” or, “history shows that to win over a people you have to kill at least 10 percent of them, like the Romans” (for comparison, we killed or contributed to the death of about five percent of Japan from 1944-46, while Russia has killed at least eight percent of the Chechen people). Or consider the implications of “Freeper” talk-backs to an article of mine in The American Conservative: “History shows that wars only end with a totally defeated enemy otherwise they go on … Either Islam or us will quit in total destruction.”

Even if the majority of Americans might not believe that America is engaged in a war on Islam, Muslims have solid grounds for thinking otherwise. Images of the dead are not erased by empty rhetoric from American politicians who express their support for “moderate, peaceful Muslims.”

If the 2008 presidential elections are to going to open the possibility for a change of lasting political consequence then they should be focused on a campaign between those who support and those who reject the “war” metaphor.

George Bush declared his to be a “war presidency.” Because he faced no political challenge in doing so, America blindly submitted itself to being governed by war. The real wars in which the United States is now embroiled were not entered into in response to real acts of war. Terrorists can commit atrocities but they cannot start war; only nations can enter war. Not only the war in Iraq, but also the war on terrorism itself, were wars we embarked on by choice. We didn’t choose to be attacked on 9/11 but we did choose to turn a political challenge into a military one.

As Zbigniew Brzezinski eloquently stated in his seminal Washington Post op-ed earlier this year, “Terrorized by ‘war on terror’“:

The damage these three words have done — a classic self-inflicted wound — is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves.

The 2008 presidential race is still in its early days. There is still time for Democratic candidates to follow John Edward’s lead (something they are clearly already eager to do in other ways). But if by the time it comes to election day we have no better choice than between candidates who are competing for the role of “strongest leader in the war on terrorism”, we might as well burn our ballot papers rather than vote.

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