Thursday, January 26, 2006

Goodbye War on Terrorism, Hello Long War

William M. Arkin
The Washington Post
26 Jan 2006

One phrase contained in the draft Quadrennial Defense Review document circulating amongst defense experts is sure to be a part of your life for years to come: The long war.

Defense experts want the long war to be the new name for the war on terror, a kind of societal short hand that will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Cold War, promoted to capital letters, an indisputable and universally accepted state of the world.

"This generation of servicemembers will be in what we're calling the Long War," Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week.

"Our estimate is that for at least the next 20 years … our focus will be … the extremist networks that will continue to threaten the United States and its allies."

Twenty years? Why not ten? Or forty?

On the surface, you might be thinking: wait a minute, if Arkin is questioning the duration of our conflict with terrorists, isn't he implicitly accepting the notion of a long war?

I'm questioning the ridiculous and baseless timeframe, and the characterization of the war on terrorism as either "winnable" or a war worthy of supplanting either the Cold War or World War II.

Ever since 9/11, President Bush and other government officials have been describing the war on terrorism as a long war, one equal to the Cold War or the Second World War.

"Our struggle is similar to the Cold War," the President said at the West Point commencement in June 2002. "Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life."

The President, of course, argues for the "resolve and patience" to fight the long war. He is pleading for the grant of wartime power, hoping for the freedom to fight on behalf of civilization.

If there is anything that is extraordinary about the four years since Bush and company began fighting the long war on September 11, it is not the accumulation of executive powers to prosecute their war; it is how quickly the administration lost the well of sympathy and support that existed after the attacks of that day.

Even here at home, where the public can't accept that Iraq is really a part of the response to 9/11, support for permanent war is declining.

Let me be clear that there are two reasons I reject the long war characterization: I think it is intellectually shallow to compare terrorists, "extremist networks," Islamic Jihadists or radical Islam with our enemies during the Cold War or the Second World War, who could have indeed destroyed our societies. Intellectually shallow sounds like a pretty weak attack, but I mean to suggest that this administration has the wrong vision of both the severity of the threat terrorists present to our societies.

Let's put aside for a moment their opportunistic flag-waving that insults every American who sacrificed during two wars that indeed were wars for our survival as a nation and a civilized people.

Terrorists can not destroy America. Every day we articulate a long war, every time we pretend we are fighting for our survival we not only confer greater power and importance to terrorists than they deserve but we also at the same time act as their main recruiting agent by suggesting that they have the slightest potential for success.

The Bush administration has been in panic mode since 9/11, and though it has tripped upon sometimes improved articulations of what it is doing to respond to the scourge of modern terrorism, it has both the wrong vision of the severity of the threat and it has shown itself, in four years of fighting, that no matter how much it articulates that the United States and the world must use all aspects of their power to thwart and defeat terrorism, the Bush administration is only comfortable with the military response, and it is only really happy with secret operations.

The Quadrennial Defense Review now exhorts the military to reform and retool to fight the long war, in everything from its business practices to its training. The backdrop of what the Pentagon is arguing is clear: Whatever constraints exist in the current world to fight need to be changed to increase operational flexibility. "New and more flexible authorities from the Congress" are needed. Old laws, like old Europe, need to be chucked overboard.

"Future warriors will be as proficient in irregular operations, including counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, as they are today in high-intensity combat," the document also states.

Last year, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld already issued new guidance to the military placing "stability operations" on par with major combat operations in terms of funding priorities.

This is bureaucratic sleight of hand to make the Iraq war seem as if it was somehow planned all along, a kind of losing Philippine campaign of the big long war where modern day MacArthur's can not only exclaim that they'll be back but that they are nimble enough to come back in the course of the same battle.

Here is another danger of staying fighting in Iraq: It provides the fuel to foolishly retool our military to fight the last war while stupidly allowing the administration to abuse the military institution by saddling it with the mission of solving all problems, even ones that are self-created.

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