Time to End the 'War on Terror' (for Real)

Six months ago, President Obama said that the fearfulness and over-reaction of the 'GWOT' were doing far more harm than good. He was right then, and still is. So why hasn't he matched his -- our -- policies to his words?
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Seven-plus years ago, I argued in a cover story that the open-ended "war on terror" was damaging American interests and American values more than the (still-real) threat of terrorist attack had or ever could.

This wasn't some big leap of insight or imagination on my part. I was mainly citing military strategists and historians who had demonstrated, over time, that the reaction provoked by terrorist attacks was always more damaging than the original assault itself. Extreme illustration: the nationalist-anarchist assassination of two people in Sarajevo in 1914 leading to the deaths of tens of millions in The Great War. (Hyper-vivid death-car recreation at left, via Smithsonian.) The damage done by an over-reactive response to terrorism seems almost a ho-hum point now, but it wasn't prevailing opinion at the time, and I will always be grateful to James Bennet, then just installed as our editor, for sticking with it as his first cover story

Thus I was glad when, earlier this year, President Obama announced that it was time to "define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America." 

But as with various other aspects of the Administration and of this era, we've learned that it's one thing to announce "change!" and something else to bring it about. The drone war goes on, the NSA programs go on, surveillance increases and detentions continue -- and the damage mounts up faster than we reckon. There's immediate damage to the objects of these programs, of course -- but broader and longer-lasting damage to American institutions, interests, and ideals. (As you've read from Conor Friedersdorf, Andrew Cohen, and other Atlantic writers over the years.)

This is all by way of directing you to David Rohde's latest installment in this vein, "Our Fear of Al-Qaeda Hurts Us More Than Al-Qaeda Does." Exactly so. And he speaks with the credibility of someone who knows about the direct damage terrorists can do, having been kidnapped and held hostage by the Taliban for nine months in Afghanistan.

Read it, and let us see whether our government can change a policy that the president himself has stated is damaging the world in general and us as well.


Update: For the corresponding effects on European politics, and US-European relations, please see this item by Michael Brenner, on Chuck Spinney's The Blaster.

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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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