War on (fill in the misleading blank)
One of the worst foreign policy developments of 2009 was also one of the most underreported—the Obama administration’s decision to do away with the official use of the term “global war on terror” in favor of “Overseas Contingency Operation.” The term “global war on terror” was awful, to be sure—it named our enemy vaguely and evasively. But instead of correcting that mistake by a clear identification of the enemy that threatens us with terrorism and nuclear attacks, President Obama’s new designation denies the existence of any enemy. We went from worse to worser.
Correctly defining the enemy is indispensable in any war. In Chapter 4 of Winning the Unwinnable War, Alex Epstein and Yaron Brook write:
To fulfill the promise to defeat the terrorist enemy that struck on 9/11, our leaders would first have to identify who exactly that enemy is and then be willing to do whatever is necessary to defeat him.
Who is the enemy that attacked on 9/11? It is not “terrorism”—just as our enemy in World War II was not kamikaze strikes or U-boat attacks. Terrorism is a tactic employed by a certain group for a certain cause. That group and, above all, the cause they fight for are our enemy.
My colleagues and I define the enemy as the Islamic totalitarian movement — funded, inspired and backed by state-sponsors, principally Iran. We show how misidentifying the enemy by (one of) its tactics, terrorism, undercuts our ability to defend ourselves. “Terrorism” — and the host of other superficial definitions of the enemy (“evil doers,” “haters,” “hijackers of a great religion,” etc.) — obscures the fact that the attackers were committed to an ideological movement, seeking the forcible imposition of Islamic law worldwide. The Bush administration’s utter failure to properly name the enemy that threatens us is central to understanding why the U.S. response to 9/11 has been a fiasco.
Team Obama took this to a new low.
Apparently, “war on terrorism” retained some a vestige of an association in the public mind with Islamist attacks — some faint hint of an ideologically driven, state supported enemy. The solution? “[M]ove away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur,” explained Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Defense. In a speech earlier this year, Napolitano deliberately avoided “the word ‘terrorism,’ [and instead] referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters.” [emphasis added]
This way of classifying mass-casualty acts of war, like 9/11, is an intellectual abomination. It works to dissolve any link between such violent attacks and the specific ideas motivating the killers. While clouding the intelligibility of the atrocities, this approach further underplays the moral culpability of those who carry them out. Moreover, and perhaps worse, it suggests that we ought to resign ourselves to attacks as if they were woven into the fabric of nature: we can no more eradicate the threat than we can eradicate earthquakes or hurricanes.
That defeatism was already becoming part of our culture in the final years of Bush’s time in office; now under Obama it is being officially endorsed.
All of which underscores the crucial importance of correctly answering the simple, but momentous, question: Who is the enemy?