Declaring Victory in the War on Terror

Gideon Rachman agrees with Peter Beinart that the "war on terror" should come to an end.

This is not the same as saying that the US and Europe can now stop worrying about terrorism. The west will need a serious counter-terrorism policy for many years to come. But the Bush-inspired drive to make terrorism the centrepiece of US foreign policy was a mistake. The declaration of a "Global War on Terror" distorted American foreign policy and led directly to two wars - in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war on terror has guzzled billions of dollars in wasteful spending and spawned a huge and secretive bureaucracy in Washington. The death of bin Laden gives President Barack Obama the cover he needs to start quietly unwinding some of these mistakes.

Gideon is always interesting and persuasive, and I agree with much of what he says, but again I want to distinguish between "war on terror" as terminology and "war on terror" as substance. My view on terminology is, what's in a name? War on terror. War on drugs. War on want. War on poverty. Politicians are constantly declaring war on things. It doesn't commit you to anything. It just sounds urgent and grave. Sometimes, it is right to sound urgent and grave. Sometimes, a politician has no choice but to.

Obviously, the point is that once you call it a war you are somehow committed to (or pushed in the direction of) actual wars, the all-encompassing security state, gross violations of civil liberties, and all the rest of the post-9/11 landscape. But you aren't. All those things happened not because of a poor choice of words, but because, in working out what a "serious counter-terrorism policy" (Gideon's term) would be, the United States chose to fight actual wars, build a security state, violate civil liberties, and the rest. The problem was the mindset and the policies they yielded, not the words. In many ways, those policies do need to be changed--but what is wrong with saying that we need to prosecute the war on terror more intelligently? That sounds fine to me. It would have been a good line for Obama to take up. I can't see that his carefully avoiding "war on terror" has achieved much, except (until this week) to invite mockery.

Now, were the policies of the war on terror wrong? In many cases, yes. The Iraq war was a terrible error. The people who said so before it began--I wish I had been among them--were proved right. (Things would have looked a little more complicated if the WMD had turned out to exist, but they didn't.) Was the invasion of Afghanistan also a mistake? Not initially, surely, with the Taliban government shielding the perpetrators of 9/11. That justified an actual war, it seems to me, and no US president could have settled for less. Yet having removed that government, the US and its allies acquired responsibilities that are proving difficult and perhaps impossible to discharge. Today, it's not the "war on terror" mindset that is keeping us there; it's entirely warranted concern over what happens to the country when we leave. And Obama doesn't need the cover of bin Laden's death to accelerate the disengagement in Iraq or Afghanistan, by the way. Voters have been demanding that for months.

Gideon deplores the enormous sums spent on intelligence and homeland security. I agree the figures are amazing; the waste must be colossal. More than 50 federal agencies monitoring the flow of money to terrorist networks, for instance. Absurd. On the other hand, I don't buy the whole of Gideon's argument on the hyping of the terrorist threat.

In a book published a couple of years ago John Mueller, a US academic, pointed out that the number of Americans killed by terrorists since 1960 is "about the same as the number killed over the same period by accident-causing deer". In a report for the Rand Corporation, Brian Jenkins made a similar point: "The average American has about a one in 9,000 chance of dying in an automobile accident and about a one in 18,000 chance of being murdered." However, in the five years after 9/11, and including the people killed there, "an average American had only a one in 500,000 chance of being killed in a terrorist attack".

First, one shouldn't just assume that the security state has done nothing to avert terrorist attacks. It might be one reason the risk has been so low. As for relative danger, you can infer from those numbers that one 9/11 attack per year would expose people to an annual one in 500,000 risk. Still very low. Would it be rational to take one 9/11 attack a year in stride? Once we get up to one a month, we might take a more serious look at the problem?

It's true, I'm sure, that people do have an exaggerated view of the terrorist threat--at least, until terrorists get their hands on nuclear material. But I don't think Americans are oppressed by wholly irrational fears, or that this creates the political demand for vast quantities of useless security and military spending. They seem pretty calm on the whole. Mostly, they very much regret the costs, in every sense, of the overgrown security apparatus. But they also want the commitment to fighting terrorism to be what Mueller would call irrationally large, because a terrorist attack is not an accident, or a random act of violence, or a crime of local and momentary significance. It's an attack on their country. It's an attack on all of them. That requires an intelligent, measured response, to be sure--but also a special response. Forgive me for saying this, but a terrorist attack is in some ways an act of war.