The war on terror has been a total failure, so it must continue

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism,” President Obama said at West Point last week.

If the war on terror was conceived as a never-ending war, then I guess its continuation can be regarded as a success in the sense that relentless war has been normalized.

But the success for which neither the current nor previous administration will take credit is that the U.S. government, through its actions over the last thirteen years, has been instrumental in transforming al Qaeda from an organization into a movement.

Obama’s proudest accomplishment — overseeing the killing of Osama bin Laden — turned out to be the hollowest victory. For the sake of grabbing a bloody trophy, a genuine historic opportunity was sacrificed: the open trial of the al Qaeda leader.

The failure of the war on terror was built in from its conception. A refusal to address the political dimensions of terrorism has guaranteed that the ideological questions are only being raised and answered by one side, thereby reinforcing a perception that the U.S. and the West fight from an indefensible position.

Since relatively few Americans are willing to admit that 9/11 triggered a national psychosis and a foreign policy debacle, the sentiment now, in the face of failure, is that what is called for is persistence.

I’m reminded of a story about Mullah Nasrudin:

Nasrudin is sitting outside an Arabian spice shop. He’s sitting beside a huge basket of red hot ‘dynamite chillies’. Nasrudin’s eyes are filled with tears as he takes chillies from the basket and bites into one after another. His friend comes along and sees Nasrudin sweating and crying. “Nasrudin what are you doing. You’re crying and sweating. Why are you chewing on those chillies?” Nasrudin answers, “I’m trying to find a sweet one.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reprises the narrative of a never-ending threat that necessitates a never-ending fight:

Al-Qaida has decentralized, yet it’s unclear whether the terrorist network is weaker and less likely to launch a Sept. 11-style attack against the United States, as President Barack Obama says, or remains potent despite the deaths of several leaders.

Obama said in his foreign policy speech last week that the prime threat comes not from al-Qaida’s core leadership, but from affiliates and extremists with their sights trained on targets in the Middle East and Africa, where they are based. This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-type attacks against America, the president said.

“But it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi,” he said, referring to the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Experts argue that this restructured al-Qaida is perhaps even stronger than it has been in recent years, and that the potential for attacks on U.S. soil endures.

“We have never been on a path to strategically defeat al-Qaida. All we’ve been able to do is suppress some of its tactical abilities. But strategically, we have never had an effective way of taking it on. That’s why it continues to mutate, adapt and evolve to get stronger,” said David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Decentralization does not mean weakness, he said. [Continue reading…]

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7 thoughts on “The war on terror has been a total failure, so it must continue

  1. hquain

    What’s great, I think, is that the whole thing is not just all-but-fiction, it’s also filled with all-but-contradictions, exactly as your headline declares. Its weakness is its strength. Its non-existence is its existence. Its lack of weaponry is its most fearful armament. AQ has not disintegrated: it has “restructured,” albeit into a tissue of nothingness.

    The conclusion must surely be that its all about maintaining a certain US-internal state of affairs (euphemism for money-flow, I’ll say at the risk of exercising an eventually debilitating cynicism). The story requires a potent, demonic enemy; the role of the press and the intelligentsia is to expend immense ingenuity in keeping one in sight and inflated like a Macy’s parade balloon.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    Grand designs there were, back when the neocons seized their great opportunity, but for a long time now I think it’s been business as usual: no clear design, just the common mix of self-serving agendas out of which the path pursued is the one of least resistance. Obama won’t end the war on terror for no better reason than because it’s easier to keep it going.

  3. rosemerry

    Can none of the “leaders” ever consider that their behaviour for decades, even centuries has been the cause of the responses they designate as “terror”? Reading Bill Blum’s “Rogue State” would be beneficial to POTUS Obama and all the rest. Sadly, they think they know it all, so keep repeating their “errors”.

  4. hquain

    Woodward: “Obama won’t end the war on terror for no better reason than because it’s easier to keep it going.”

    Absolutely: inertia is a primary mover in policy. Why do we have a war on terror today? Because we had one yesterday — and the institutions that feed on it must be fed, merely to keep things stable. This observation may lead us to a grimmer conclusion: it could be that it’s not just be “easier to keep it going.” It may be near to impossible for a president to put it to an end, because the gigantic investment in it has created self-perpetuating institutions far more durable than the come-and-go of politicians in the electoral system.

    The role of the intelligentsia, then. would be to keep it all fresh-seeming, when in fact the situation is driven by a stale and mechanical form of self-replication. This line of analysis might even explain the inevitability of the descent into pretty much pure fiction that seems to have overtaken so much of the discourse.

  5. Paul Woodward Post author

    “it could be that it’s not just be ‘easier to keep it going.’ It may be near to impossible for a president to put it to an end, because the gigantic investment in it has created self-perpetuating institutions far more durable than the come-and-go of politicians in the electoral system.”

    True. To wit: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. It’s existed for almost 12 years and by most accounts has turned out to be yet another colossal administrative and policy blunder. It’s headquarters won’t be completed until 2026 — a quarter of a century after 9/11!

    One of the great weaknesses of democracy is that when politicians leave office, it’s a bit like declaring bankruptcy — they take away with them none of the debts they created. Likewise their successors are reluctant to own problems that they did not create. So the default position ends up being that bad decisions become too difficult to undo — like the development of the F-35, a sinkhole down which so much money has been poured that the losses are now deemed too big to cut.

    George Bush would have responded to 9/11 more intelligently if he had simply said: “Shit happens. And it looks like we need to tighten airline security. We shouldn’t be letting passengers carry weapons on board. Now let’s mourn the dead and clean up this mess.”

    That could have been his bullhorn speech. At the same time he could have discreetly directed the CIA to start talking to the Taliban and offered significant development aid (which they had already been seeking) in exchange for handing over the al Qaeda leadership for extradition and trial in New York City.

    9/11 could have been a chapter in American history that was largely closed by the end of 2001.

  6. Cole

    Terrorism is the gift that keeps on giving. I used to imagine Cheney shooting off a note to Osama with an urgent request that he attack and kill a bunch of Americans. Nothing has been so empowering to militarists as the “threat of terrorism.” The word terrorist is ideally flexible (even more flexible than communist, which was obviously absurd when applied to the illiterate peasants we occasionally murdered by the hundreds of thousands). It can be used against any group or individual that challenges the corporate / state nexus and the .05 percent’s control over resources, markets and labor forces.

    Killing and making a killing is what this is all about. It’s enabled murderers and parasitic shareholders to use the US Treasury as a slush fund. Osama was a CIA asset in the project to complete the Afghan Trap. But he was never more dutifully serviceable to the Global Mafia Don than when he (purportedly) set off the 9/11 Bonanza.

  7. Russell Scott Day

    Ideologically driven and at a large population representing a critical mass laced with a hatred of the west where individuals used to matter, it is too bad the US and its allies cannot afford to let the ignorant and angry stew in their own juices. We apparently want to buy oil really bad. Families with a need to keep up a war on us sell us oil and we see those who are rich have one religion of self interests aimed now at fueling China. Kleptocracy is a real governing philosophy and law? Oligarchy sounds good now if the King will leave me alone.

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