What War on Terror?

What War on Terror?

“The ‘War on Terror’: Good Cause, Wrong Concept” by Gilles Andréani, in Survival (Winter 2004–05), International Institute for Strategic Studies, Arundel House, 13–15 Arundel St., Temple Pl., London WC2R 3DX, England.

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The global war on terror has become such an accepted part of America’s foreign-policy thinking that the Pentagon has created an acronym for it (GWOT), and two service medals to honor those engaged in the struggle. What began as a metaphor has evolved without careful thought into a strategic reality that has led America down the wrong path, asserts Andréani, head of policy planning in the French foreign ministry and adjunct professor at Paris II University.

It did make sense to define the campaign to root out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11 as a war on terror. As in other efforts of this kind in Northern Ireland and Algeria, the terrorists operated inside clear territorial areas, making it possible to conduct full-blown counterinsurgency operations in a defined space. But in combating today’s loosely knit global networks, with no geographic center, speaking of a “war” only exaggerates the importance of military operations in dealing with the threat.

Merging that war with the effort to contain rogue states is another source of trouble. The Bush administration worries that a rogue state will provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. But such states acquire such weapons, at great cost, in order to intimidate their neighbors or gain leverage against the United States, Andréani says, and they see the terrorists more clearly than Washington does: They’re “not about to give their most cherished toys to madmen they do not control.”

Attempting to confront these different threats with the single doctrine of “preventive war” makes no sense. And carrying the war to Iraq has “worried the United States’ partners and undermined the antiterrorist coalition,” while whipping up anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East.

One of the most negative consequences of America’s war against terror, according to Andréani, has been U.S. treatment of prisoners. By failing to treat its enemies as mere criminals, the United States has awarded them undue status, and by categorizing prisoners as “unlawful combatants” and depriving them of the protections of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. criminal law, America has besmirched itself. “In this ‘war’ without limit in time or space,” the door is open to limitless abuses: “Where is the theater of operations? How will we know when the war has ended?”

Andréani hopes that as the United States devises new strategies, it “does not mistake terrorism for a new form of warfare to be met with a rigid set of military answers.” Such thinking can produce blinders, as it did decades ago when Western military leaders intensively studied the challenging new tactics of guerrillas in Southeast Asia and, disastrously, missed the crucial larger point that these revolutionary movements were rooted more deeply in nationalism than in communist ideology.

Andréani acknowledges that the United States has tried to tackle the underlying causes of terrorism, especially in its campaign to spread democracy. But the war on terrorism “has detracted from the consideration of some urgent political problems that fuel Middle East terrorism, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Most Arabs continue to view Islamic terrorists as criminals rather than liberators, and the United States should do everything that it can to reinforce that conviction.

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