The war on terror is a false metaphor that has led to counterproductive and self-defeating policies. Five years after 9/11, a misleading figure of speech applied literally has unleashed a real war fought on several fronts Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia a war that has killed thousands of innocent civilians and enraged millions around the world. Yet al-Qaeda has not been subdued; a plot that could have claimed more victims than 9/11 has just been foiled by the vigilance of British intelligence.
Unfortunately, the “war on terror” metaphor was uncritically accepted by the American public as the obvious response to 9/11. It is now widely admitted that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder. But the war on terror remains the frame into which American policy has to fit. Most Democratic politicians subscribe to it for fear of being tagged as weak on defense.
What makes the war on terror self-defeating?
First, war by its very nature creates innocent victims. A war waged against terrorists is even more likely to claim innocent victims because terrorists tend to keep their whereabouts hidden. The deaths, injuries, and humiliation of civilians generate rage and resentment among their families and communities that in turn serves to build support for terrorists.
Second, terrorism is an abstraction. It lumps together all political movements that use terrorist tactics. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Sunni insurrection, and the Mahdi Army in Iraq are very different forces, but President Bush’s global war on terror prevents us from differentiating between them and dealing with them accordingly. It inhibits much-needed negotiations with Iran and Syria because they are states that support terrorist groups.
Third, the war on terror emphasizes military action while most territorial conflicts require political solutions. And, as the British have shown, al-Qaeda is best dealt with by good intelligence. The war on terror increases the terrorist threat and makes the task of the intelligence agencies more difficult. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still at large; we need to focus on finding them, and preventing attacks like the one foiled in England.
Fourth, the war on terror drives a wedge between “us” and “them.” We are innocent victims. They are perpetrators. But we fail to notice that we also become perpetrators in the process; the rest of the world, however, does notice. That is how such a wide gap has arisen between America and much of the world.
Taken together, these four factors ensure that the war on terror cannot be won. An endless war waged against an unseen enemy is doing great damage to our power and prestige abroad and to our open society at home. It has led to a dangerous extension of executive powers; it has tarnished our adherence to universal human rights; it has inhibited the critical process that is at the heart of an open society; and it has cost a lot of money. Most importantly, it has diverted attention from other urgent tasks that require American leadership, such as finishing the job we so correctly began in Afghanistan, addressing the looming global energy crisis, and dealing with nuclear proliferation.
With American influence at low ebb, the world is in danger of sliding into a vicious circle of escalating violence. We can escape it only if we Americans repudiate the war on terror as a false metaphor. If we persevere on the wrong course, the situation will continue to deteriorate. It is not our will that is being tested, but our understanding of reality. It is painful to admit that our current predicaments are brought about by our own misconceptions. However, not admitting it is bound to prove even more painful in the long run. The strength of an open society lies in its ability to recognize and correct its mistakes. This is the test that confronts us.
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Reprinted with the author’s permission.