Declaring Victory

The United States is succeeding in its struggle against terrorism. The time has come to declare the war on terror over, so that an even more effective military and diplomatic campaign can begin.
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A state of war encourages a state of fear. “The War on Terror does not reduce public anxieties by thwarting terrorists poised to strike,” writes Ian Lustick, of the University of Pennsylvania, in his forthcoming book, Trapped in the War on Terror. “Rather, in myriad ways, conducting the antiterror effort as a ‘war’ fuels those anxieties.” John Mueller writes in his book that because “the creation of insecurity, fear, anxiety, hysteria, and overreaction is central for terrorists,” they can be defeated simply by a refusal to overreact. This approach is harder in time of war.

A state of war also predisposes the United States to think about using its assets in a strictly warlike way—and to give short shrift to the vast range of their other possibilities. The U.S. military has been responsible for the most dramatic recent improvement in American standing in the Islamic world. Immediately after the invasion of Iraq, the proportion of Indonesians with a favorable view of the United States had fallen to 15 percent, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. After American troops brought ships, cargo planes, and helicopters loaded with supplies for tsunami victims, the overall Indonesian attitude toward the United States was still negative, but some 79 percent of Indonesians said that their opinion of America had improved because of the relief effort. There was a similar turnaround in Pakistan after U.S. troops helped feed and rescue villagers affected by a major earthquake. But in most of the Muslim world, the image of American troops is that of soldiers or marines manning counterinsurgency patrols, not delivering food and water. “The diplomatic component of the war on terror has been neglected so long, it’s practically vestigial,” a Marine officer told me. “It needs to be regrown.” But in time of war, the balance is harder to correct.

Perhaps worst of all, an open-ended war is an open-ended invitation to defeat. Sometime there will be more bombings, shootings, poisonings, and other disruptions in the United States. They will happen in the future because they have happened in the past (Oklahoma City; the Unabomber; the Tylenol poisonings; the Washington, D.C.-area snipers; the still-unsolved anthrax mailings; the countless shootings at schools; and so on). These previous episodes were not caused by Islamic extremists; future ones may well be. In all cases they represent a failure of the government to protect its people. But if they occur while the war is still on, they are enemy “victories,” not misfortunes of the sort that great nations suffer. They are also powerful provocations to another round of hasty reactions.

War implies emergency, and the upshot of most of what I heard was that the United States needs to shift its operations to a long-term, nonemergency basis. “De-escalation of the rhetoric is the first step,” John Robb told me. “It is hard for insurgents to handle de-escalation.” War encourages a simple classification of the world into ally or enemy. This polarization gives dispersed terrorist groups a unity they might not have on their own. Last year, in a widely circulated paper for the Journal of Strategic Studies, David Kilcullen argued that Islamic extremists from around the world yearn to constitute themselves as a global jihad. Therefore, he said, Western countries should do everything possible to treat terrorist groups individually, rather than “lumping together all terrorism, all rogue or failed states, and all strategic competitors who might potentially oppose U.S. objectives.” The friend-or-foe categorization of war makes lumping together more likely.

The United States can declare victory by saying that what is controllable has been controlled: Al-Qaeda Central has been broken up. Then the country can move to its real work. It will happen on three levels: domestic protection, worldwide harassment and pursuit of al-Qaeda, and an all-fronts diplomatic campaign.

Domestically, a sustainable post-victory policy would mean shifting from the early, panicky “Code Orange” days, in which everything was threatened and any investment in “security” was justified, to a more practical and triage-minded approach. Four analysts—Mueller, of Ohio State; Lustick, of the University of Pennsylvania; plus Veronique de Rugy, of the American Enterprise Institute; and Benjamin Friedman, of MIT—have written extensively about the mindlessness and perverse effects of much homeland-security spending. In most cases, they argue, money dabbed out for a security fence here and a screening machine there would be far better spent on robust emergency-response systems. No matter how much they spend, state and federal authorities cannot possibly protect every place from every threat. But they could come close to ensuring that if things were to go wrong, relief and repair would be there fast.

Internationally, the effort to pin down bin Laden—to listen to his conversations, keep him off balance, and prevent him from re-forming an organization—has been successful. It must continue. And the international cooperation on which it depends will be easier in the absence of wartime language and friction. The effort to contain the one true existential threat to the United States—that of “loose nukes"—will also be eased by smoother relations with other countries.

Militarily, the United States has been stuck in an awkward middle ground concerning the need for “transformation.” Donald Rumsfeld’s insistence that the Army, in particular, rely on technology to become leaner and more “efficient” led to steady reductions in the planned size of the ground force that invaded and occupied Iraq. By most accounts, Rumsfeld went too far with that pressure—but not far enough in changing the largest patterns of Pentagon spending. This year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which is supposed to represent a bottom-up effort to rethink America’s defense needs, says that the nation needs to prepare for a new era of fighting terrorists and insurgents (plus China)—and then offers programs and weapons very much the same as when the enemy was the Soviet Union. “The United States is still trying to use its familiar old instruments against new opponents,” says Martin van Creveld, who calls Iraq a “totally unnecessary war.” “It was the right army to beat Saddam Hussein,” he says, “but the wrong one to occupy the country or deal with Osama bin Laden.” Most counterterrorism authorities say that a transformation is also needed in the nation’s spy agencies, starting with a much greater emphasis on language training and agents who develop long-term regional expertise in Muslim-dominated parts of the world.

Diplomatically, the United States can use the combination of “hard” and “soft” assets that constitute its unique strength to show a face that will again attract the world. “The only answer to a regime that wages total cold war is to wage total peace.” So said Dwight Eisenhower in his State of the Union address in 1958, four months after Sputnik was launched. He added, “This means bringing to bear every asset of our personal and national lives upon the task of building the conditions in which security and peace can grow.” A similar policy would allow the modern United States to use its diplomatic, economic, intellectual, and military means to reduce the long-term sources of terrorist rage.

America’s range of strengths is, if anything, greater than when Eisenhower spoke nearly fifty years ago. The domestic population is more ethnically varied and accepting of outsiders. The university establishment is much larger. The leading companies are more fully integrated into local societies around the world. The nation has more numerous, better-funded, and more broadly experienced charitable foundations. It is much richer in every way. With the passing of the nuclear showdown against the Soviet Union, the country is safer than it was under Eisenhower. We should be able to “wage total peace” more effectively.

Americans still face dangers, as they always have. They have recently lacked leaders to help keep the dangers in perspective. Shaping public awareness—what we mean by “leading"—is what we most remember in our strong presidents: Lincoln’s tone as the Civil War came on and as it neared its end; Theodore Roosevelt taking the first real steps toward environmental conservation and coming to terms with new industrial organizations; Franklin Roosevelt in the Depression and the Second World War; Eisenhower managing the showdown with the Soviet Union, but also overseeing the steady expansion of America’s transportation, scientific, and educational systems; Kennedy with the race to the moon; and on up to George W. Bush, with his calm focus in the months immediately after 9/11. One of the signals Bush sent in those first days may have had the greatest strategic importance in the long run. That was his immediate insistence that America’s Muslims were not the enemy, that they should not be singled out, that they should be seen as part of the nation’s solution rather than part of its problem. It is easy to imagine that a different tone would have had damaging repercussions.

Now we could use a leader to help us understand victory and its consequences. We are ready for a message like this one:

My fellow Americans, we have achieved something almost no one thought possible five years ago. The nation did not suffer the quick follow-up attacks so many people feared and expected. Our troops found the people who were responsible for the worst attack ever on our soil. We killed many, we captured more, and we placed their leaders in a position where they could not direct the next despicable attack on our people—and where the conscience of the world’s people, of whatever faith, has turned against them for their barbarism. They have been a shame to their own great faith, and to all other historic standards of decency.

Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist—and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk—especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.

We have achieved a great victory, and for that we can give thanks—above all to our troops. We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation’s growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development—people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world’s scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast—and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the world’s environment, to develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people’s lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put into the hands of individuals or small groups.

The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era’s duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era’s challenges—and opportunities. With quiet pride, we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation’s history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face.

Different leaders will choose different words. But the message—of realism, of courage, and of optimism despite life’s difficulties—is one we need to hear.

Photograph by Jim Hollander/EPA/Corbis

James Fallows is a national correspondent of The Atlantic.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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