"Who's Winning the War on Terrorism?" - by Harlan Cleveland. 


My mother always told me that when someone asks a question, I should think hard first about the question, and only then about my answer. So when WorldPaper asks "Who's winning the War on Terrorism?" I have to ask in return, does the question itself make sense?   Terrorism is not a doctrine, like President Harry Truman's declaration that the US would protect Greece and Turkey from Soviet takeover. It's not a purpose, like the postwar recovery of Western Europe assisted by the four-year Marshall Plan.   It's not a deadly disease like AIDS or a chronic condition like poverty, on which metaphorical wars have been declared.  No, terrorism is a tool - "a tool, not an actor,"  as Chester A. Crocker, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa,  puts it in a perceptive analysis of "failing states" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.   It's a tool often used in history. Terrorism is usually violent action, often aimed at a few of the innocent in order to terrify much larger populations. The violence has traditionally been directed, by the weaker and less organized, against the stronger and more "established." It has often been aimed by people who got there first, against other people who came later to muscle the early-arrivers aside: colonial subjects against imperial powers, people of color against dominant whites.  

Terror has also, and often, been used as an instrument of governance. But history is mostly written by the winners, so the "downs" are more often called "terrorists" or worse, the "ups" skipping lightly over their own uses of terror tactics as tools of government. Either way, terrorism will doubtless be a feature of world history during the rest of this century and beyond.  A terrorist conspiracy that could launch so major an attack on the United States as occurred on September 11, 2001, was bound  to provoke a warlike response. The attackers weren't a state,  but they were hosted and shielded by a (failing) state.  

Declaring "war" on Afghanistan, supplanting the Taliban, and trying to prevent the country from serving as a sanctuary for an organized non-state called al Qaeda, were necessary - though obviously not sufficient - reactions to the 9/11 attack.   But a war against terrorism? That's a promise to destroy anyone anywhere who tires of opposing established power by eloquent words and non-violent deeds, and decides instead to use the tool called terror to advocate change. A war on terrorism is a permanent engagement against an always available tool.  Why would a political leader such as President Bush declare such a "war" - without an end in sight, without an exit strategy,  with enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics?  One reason was to mobilize allies around the world to help. But peremptory, unilateral noises out of Washington rapidly eroded the multilateral cooperation that was initially there for the asking. All sorts of needed helpers - NATO allies,, Arab opinion-makers, the UN Secretary General, Russians, Chinese and others -- began distancing themselves from this too-unilateral war. 

Another motive for casting the U.S. reaction to 9/11 as a "war" was to mobilize Americans to follow their leader. This worked for a little while. But more and more Americans came to realize that they were being asked to set aside some of their own human rights in an overriding cause. So they began to look harder at the cause.  The war's purpose was meanwhile getting wider and fuzzier -- a serious case of "mission creep." Anti-terrorism was cited as a reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, for developing a new kind of government in Baghdad, and for broader and longer-range ambitions to democratize the whole Middle East.  

For each new policy a valid case could be made, but spreading the War on Terrorism to cover each new aim was a mighty stretch. It made most non-Americans apprehensive, and a growing number of Americans uncomfortable. Then the announced doctrine of pre-emptive war began to sprout some unintended consequences. A spokesman for Israel explained its recent attack on Syria as "part of America's war on terrorism." Last week, the New York Times reported the Russian minister of defense as saying his country "reserves the right to launch preemptive strikes against other nations."  Who's winning and who's losing?  A war on terrorism cannot be definitively "won."  The slaughter of innocents in high-minded desperation will always be an option for persuasive and imaginative leaders. The practice of terrorism provokes its own backlash, so the terrorists won't win either. 

Terrorism by its nature won't be eradicated or abolished. But a broad cooperative international effort, robust and resolute, using all the capabilities of modern human and electronic intelligence, can contain it, isolate it, fragment it, reduce it to criminal behavior that can be internationally policed. Moreover, the swamp of poverty, unemployment, and desperation in which terrorism thrives can be drained by getting much more serious about economic and social development.  This will require American leadership that really wants to work with the rest of the world. That is what's dangerously lacking just now.  Whether it will require régime change in Washington - the next presidential election is just ... months from now - depends on how fast President Bush can rediscover the need for what Senator Joe Lieberman, one of his Democratic rivals, calls "a muscular multilateralism." 


[Harlan Cleveland,  political scientist and public executive, is an Associate Editor of WorldPaper. During his long career in government and academic leadership he has been, among other things, U.S. Ambassador to NATO and Assistant Secretary of State for international organization affairs.  The HTML version can be found at:
http://www.arlingtoninstitute.org/products_services/futuredition.html ]