Get out of the GWOT

Jun 8, 2009

This article is posted with permission from The Providence Journal. It appeared on Friday, June 5, 2009. A longer version will appear in the Summer 2009 issue of Ethics & International Affairs journal.

In foreign policy, candidate Obama promised change—and as president he has largely delivered. On Russia, Iran, Cuba, Europe, China, change has taken place, sometimes dramatically so. But he has found it much more difficult to escape his predecessor's legacy with respect to the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Although the Obama administration discourages the use of this term and in some areas—the Guantanamo closure, the turning away from coercive interrogations—has stepped back from inherited practices, in other areas it remains captive to the GWOT mindset. Nowhere is this more evident than in the burgeoning engagement in Afghanistan, and by extension Pakistan. High official after high official justifies these enormous resource expenditures in terms of some variant of "9/11 changed everything." U.S. defense policy is now geared almost exclusively to a counter-insurgency posture designed to prevent a new 9/11.

The only way to head off these misadventures before they become unstoppable national enterprises is to mount a full frontal attack on the crass ignorance inherent in the GWOT concept.

Why is this? Simply put, GWOT thinking has deep roots. Although liberals do not like to be reminded of it, many of the controversial provisions of the 2001 USA Patriot Act were already proposed in the 1996 Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorism Act, passed under Bill Clinton following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. After the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the 2000 attack on the Cole, Osama bin Laden entered the public discourse.

Following 9/11, the GWOT made its formal appearance as the dominant organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, claiming an iconographic status on a par with foundation myths of manifest destiny and the frontier nation. Like many durable stories, the GWOT narrative contained archetypes of good and evil, an epic battle, and the promise of a triumphal end for the forces of Virtue.

There is a technical term for this phenomenon. The GWOT acted as what, in the language of semiotics, is called a "floating signifier," able to be attached at will to a wide range of actions and policies. The Bush administration organized the al-Qaida 9/11 perpetrators and Saddam Hussein into seamless chapters in the same account. The GWOT narrative led directly to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to justifying torture and to disregard treaty obligations under the laws of war.

The GWOT story gathered wide public support across the political, professional and cultural spectrum. Distinguished academics from the country's most prestigious universities provided intellectual grounding; Washington think tanks supplied policy assessments that, while often decrying tactical mistakes, confirmed the larger effort; and the mainstream media either cheered the war or muted their criticism in the face of caustic charges that the media were unpatriotic.

As is also characteristic of stories that strike a deep chord, the global war on terror expanded beyond its original authors. Other countries told their own versions of the tale, even if these were in fact referring to longstanding local conflicts or contests over national identity, political franchise, or resources. The world's leaders also adopted the GWOT story. When they were recently in Washington, Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan sounded like GWOT spokesmen.

Against this background, it is thus easy to see that technical, incremental change of the sort the Obama administration has embarked on will be insufficient to undo the prevailing narrative or the intellectual and operational climate it breeds.

Instead, what is needed is an attack on the central fallacy at the heart of the current narrative, namely that a fantastically complex world can be reduced to a single storyline. The war in Iraq was justified on the basis of a baleful conflation of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Today, a similar mistake threatens in Afghanistan, where—contrary to the underlying facts—a tacit conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaida justifies the expansion of the U.S. civil and military presence in the country. Seen through the GWOT lens, this makes sense. By any other measure, it is a gross distortion. Although General Petraeus recently acknowledged that al-Qaida no longer has a presence in Afghanistan, a shadowy presumption that it does, or might, continues to cast the indigenous Afghan insurgent movement as an existential threat to the United States—thus turning what is in essence a local problem into a global challenge.

In short, the GWOT narrative is constructed on ignorance. Something of the sort underlay the Cold War tendency to see the hand of Moscow or Beijing behind every movement that seemed opposed to U.S. interests. The GWOT projects an equally flawed pattern onto al-Qaida. Unless the Obama administration wants to repeat history, it should reject the concept of a Global War on Terrorism once and for all—along with all the pathologies it breeds.

Knowledge is the best antidote to fear.

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