It was your garden-variety partisan smackdown. After the underwear-bomber attack, Dick Cheney accused President Obama of “trying to pretend we are not at war” with jihadist terrorism. The White House responded by quoting Obama’s inaugural address, in which the president declared that “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred” and his Nobel Prize speech, in which he reiterated that “we are at war.” Democrats congratulated themselves for making Cheney look like an ass, again.
We can no more militarily defeat jihadist terrorism than we could militarily defeat Soviet communism. The way to win is by using military force sparingly, and massively leveraging America’s greatest assets, which are economic, diplomatic and ideological.
But they missed the larger point, which is that while America is obviously at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it isn’t actually at war with jihadist terrorism. Rather than proving Cheney wrong, the White House should have done something more audacious: Prove him right.
To understand why America is not at war with jihadist terrorism, it helps to start by defining “war.” At its most basic, war is a state of military conflict between nations or other organized groups. But not every struggle that involves some military conflict is a war. Consider the Cold War. From the late 1940s through the late 1980s, the U.S. and the USSR tried to destroy each other’s economic and political systems. They killed millions in proxy wars. Occasionally, American and Soviet soldiers even shot directly at each other. But “Cold War” was an oxymoron: The Cold War wasn’t really a war because the struggle was not primarily military. That was the fundamental insight underlying George Kennan’s strategy of containment. Kennan recognized that the best way to defeat the Kremlin was to limit armed confrontation and instead leverage America’s economic and ideological power. America didn’t need to destroy the Red Army, he argued, because if it convinced the world that the U.S. and its allies offered a more dynamic and humane economic and political system, Soviet power would eventually crumble from within.
Right-wingers like Barry Goldwater, James Burnham, and Norman Podhoretz vehemently disagreed. At various points, they proposed preventive (or what Dick Cheney would call “preemptive”) attacks against the USSR and its allies. Rather than “Cold War,” they often employed the term “World War III,” which implied direct military action.
When people like Cheney insist that the “war on terror” is really a war, they’re making the same point: that this is a primarily military struggle. (In fact, having called the Cold War “World War III,” Podhoretz and other hawks now often call the war on terror “World War IV.”) Once again, the debate is more than semantic. Just as the debate between “Cold War” and “World War III” was a debate over whether the U.S. should attack—rather than contain—the USSR (and later China, Cuba, and Nicaragua), the debate over whether the war on terror is really a war is, among other things, a veiled debate over whether the U.S. (or Israel) should attack—or contain—Iran.
• Bruce Riedel: Obama’s Challenge in YemenWhy doesn’t the White House recognize this? Because while Cheney and company love the word “war” precisely because they define it as military conflict, Americans in recent decades have gotten used to employing the word to mean something more like “national mobilization.” As a result of Washington’s “wars” on poverty, drugs and cancer, the word’s meaning has grown fuzzy. It is this fuzziness that allows the Obama administration to try to have it both ways. On the one hand, they claim that for them, war means mobilizing the economic, diplomatic, and ideological aspects of American power, with the military playing only a supporting role. On the other, they can brandish the macho-sounding “war” to deflect Republican charges that they’re soft on national security.
But it’s too clever by half. For one thing, the kinder, gentler, non-military definition of “war” being employed by the White House doesn’t translate outside the United States. Americans find it easy to sanitize the word because we have little memory of foreign bombers destroying our cities or foreign armies marching across our soil. Among people who do, however, “war” connotes something savage, humiliating, and terrifying. And as a result, using the term undermines the Obama administration’s effort to reduce the anti-American hatred that breeds terrorism. Liberals must make a linguistic choice. If we really do see war as savage, degrading, and terrible, we must stop whitewashing it by applying it to struggles against poverty, cancer, and the like, which are not savage or terrible at all.
Calling the anti-al Qaeda struggle a war is also a disaster for civil liberties. From military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay to warrantless wiretapping, Bush and Cheney repeatedly used the claim that America was at war against terror to justify their claims of unfettered executive power. The linguistic struggle over whether the U.S. is really at war is inevitably a legal struggle over the degree to which government can infringe on individual freedom. If the Obama administration is serious about challenging the “imperial presidency” reestablished after the 9/11 attacks, it has to challenge the concept of a “war” on terror as well.
The underwear-bomber attack underscores all this rather well. We can’t defeat men like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab by invading Yemen or Nigeria. Nor can we defeat them by sending drones to kill dozens of terrorists and thousands of civilians, thus producing more terrorists than we destroy. While military action may sometimes be unavoidable, we can no more militarily defeat jihadist terrorism than we could militarily defeat Soviet communism. The way to win is by using military force sparingly, and massively leveraging America’s greatest assets, which are economic, diplomatic, and ideological. When people in countries like Yemen and Nigeria see America and its allies as a force for progress and dignity and al Qaeda as a force for misery and oppression, America will win the struggle against al Qaeda where it won the struggle against the USSR: on the battlefield of hearts and minds. Winning the “war on terror,” like winning the Cold War, starts by recognizing that what we’re fighting isn’t really a war at all.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.