Should the United States be permanently at war? Listen carefully to this week’s Republican presidential debate on national security and the answer becomes pretty clear. For most of the major GOP candidates, the answer is yes.
Within the first few minutes of the GOP debate, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum had all declared the United States at war while answering a question about the Patriot Act. In making this assertion, none of them mentioned Afghanistan or Iraq, the two countries where large numbers of U.S. troops have in recent years actually been fighting. No, for the Republican presidential candidates, talking about Iraq and Afghanistan is thinking small. They were talking about America’s “war against terror,” a war they believe should define the way the U.S. government approaches civil liberties, and spends money, for, in Gingrich’s words, “the rest of our lives.”
Think about that for a second. When George W. Bush declared the United States at war with terror after Sept. 11—thus setting in motion the vast financial expenditures and gut-wrenching human-rights abuses that would mark his foreign policy—many national-security experts genuinely believed Al Qaeda would commit additional 9/11s on American soil—and possibly attacks that could be far worse. But it’s been more than 10 years without another attack in the U.S.—or anywhere in the world—that’s even close to 9/11 in scale. Al Qaeda is largely irrelevant to the changes shaking the Arab world, where even Islamist parties are taking part in elections and thus breaking fundamentally with the terror network’s core belief that sovereignty belongs to God, not to the people. And America’s drone and special forces attacks have eviscerated Al Qaeda’s leadership structure. A Washington Post report this summer explained that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies now consider Al Qaeda a shell of its former self. As a top U.S. counterterrorism official told the Post more recently that “we have rendered the organization that brought us 9/11 operationally ineffective.”
Intelligence experts can be wrong, of course. But at the debate, the major Republican candidates didn’t even bother to explain why. They simply declared that because there is a threat, America remains at war. Sure, there’s a terrorist threat and there always will be, even if Al Qaeda itself goes out of business. But if that’s all it takes for the United States to be at war, the United States will never be a peacetime nation again, which means we’ll never be able to regain the civil liberties we enjoyed before 9/11, or tame a defense and homeland security budget that has grown so massively in the last decade.
We’ve been through this before. The idea that America was fighting a “Cold War” against “global communism” when in fact we were engaged in a power struggle with a calcifying Soviet Union and a series of left-wing Third World movements over which it had little influence distorted American foreign and domestic policy for decades. But at least the “Cold War” was an oxymoron—it suggested a state of tension that did not result in the taking up of arms. “War on terror,” which suggests active military conflict, is even worse. Travel around America today. Do we look like a nation at war? The small segment of the American population that serves in the military is still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the rest of the nation has utterly lost interest. And when those two wars mercifully end—as they likely will no matter who is president in the next few years—America will be a peacetime nation again. At some level, the leading Republican presidential candidates understand that. They would never dream of suggesting that America’s “war on terror” requires higher taxes, a draft or anything else that would burden the ordinary American. And yet they keep using the language of war to insulate America’s defense budget from serious scrutiny and to suggest that people accused of terrorism don’t deserve basic protections under the law.
As George Orwell famously noted, bad public policy often hides behind dishonest language. Nations that truly are permanently at war generally go bankrupt or become police states or both. Nations whose leaders pretend they are permanently at war when they are actually not simply suffer a profound distortion of their national priorities. In the United States today, that is bad enough.