The End (of the War on Terror) Is Nigh!

August 1, 2013

For a long time there has been concern that the war on terror would be of indefinite duration.  (Yeah, I know that the Administration no longer calls it the “war on terror,” but everyone else does so I will too.)  A typical recent bit of Glenn Greenwald prose, for instance, held that:

(1) [The war] is designed by its very terms to be permanent, incapable of ending, since the war itself ironically ensures that there will never come a time when people stop wanting to bring violence back to the US (the operational definition of “terrorism”), and (2) the nation’s most powerful political and economic factions reap a bonanza of benefits from its continuation.

Others such as Daniel Byman simply note more calmly that it will be hard to know when the war is over because the nature of the adversary means that there can never be a sharp self-evident endpoint – no surrender ceremony on the deck of the Missouri.

However, looking for an endpoint internal to the war itself—a final and decisive defeat of the terrorists or ourselves – is a fool’s errand.  Terrorism generally has been with us for centuries, if not forever, and Islamist terrorism specifically has a long pedigree and will continue for a very long time.

This does not mean that the war on terrorism will be permanent, however.  1984 is not at hand.  Rather, the war will end when we as a government and as a society decide that it is over.  The key point that Greenwald and other like-minded observers miss is that the end of the war is largely a matter of perception, not of objective reality.  President Obama hinted at this in his May 23 speech at the National Defense University, when he said, “Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street; a citizen shouting her concerns at a President.”  Put another way, contra both Greenwald and Byman, the end of the war comes when we as a society take a chill pill, calm down, stop feeling like we’re at war, and stop demanding that our government be at war on our behalf.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University in which I listed four things that have to happen to end the war on terrorism.  They were:

  1. Kill or capture Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda.
  2. Close Guantanamo Bay.
  3. End the war in Afghanistan.
  4. Repeal the Patriot Act.  I wrote that “there is much that is sensible in the Patriot Act but also much that is offensive to many Americans.  Come up with new legislation not written in a post-attack panic, that ditches the name and the bad parts of the Patriot Act and keeps the good parts.  Give the bill a thoroughly boring name that only lawyers and policy wonks will remember and move on.”

All of these are tied to public perceptions in some way or another.  Zawahiri’s death is important because Americans like to personalize their wars.  That said, we are aided by the fact that Zawahiri has nowhere near the name recognition that Bin Laden had.  This is probably the hardest one on the list, but also the one which can be most easily deferred or downplayed by a clever Administration.

Closing Guantanamo is also difficult, but I disagree with my esteemed colleague John Amble, who argues that the American public will always see the closure of Guantanamo as an intolerable security risk.  If diplomatic solutions can be found—and the Obama Administration definitely wants to find them—I think the American public would be happy to see these people removed from Guantanamo.  And the time may soon be right, as I’ll get to below. Again, the issue is proper framing.  That framing should emphasize the following key points: None of the men now in Guantanamo will ever get anywhere near the US again; the surface area of the deployed US military they could attack is small and getting rapidly smaller; and if they really want to violate the terms of their release and return to their evil ways, we kill them.  No threat, no problem.

The last two items on the list are the most important ones, because they are most closely related to public perceptions.  Fortunately, they are also the easy ones.  President Obama is moving the US military rapidly toward the exits in Afghanistan even as we speak in large part because the American public got fed up.

Also, and rather to my surprise, something that can be packaged as the repeal of the Patriot Act seems to be on the way.

The historical record suggests that our reactions to security threats are cyclical.  The United States has a long tradition of overreacting when there is a major security threat.  It happened during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War.  However, after the American public stops feeling threatened, we’ve always moved to restore the status quo ante.  To wit: habeas corpus was restored, the most egregious parts of the Espionage Act became moribund, the Japanese-Americans were released, Americans stopped voting politicians like Joseph McCarthy into office, the House Un-American Activities Committee was disbanded, COINTELPRO ended.

There should have been no reason to think that things would be different this time.  It should have been no surprise that the United States overreacted after 9/11 and passed the Patriot Act.  The fact that the nature of the threat posed by Al Qaeda was so new to us and its severity was so unclear made the overreaction all the more extreme, but also all the more understandable.  Looking back on that time, one intelligence analyst put it this way: “people do not understand how goddamn dangerous we thought it was.  The absence of solid information on additional threats was terrifying.”  Now, however, the US government has figured out the parameters of the problem, and essentially nobody thinks that Al Qaeda poses an existential threat to the United States anymore.  Indeed, Al Qaeda has been almost completely unable to mount any attacks in the United States since 9/11.  The pendulum has been in equipoise, waiting to start swinging back toward the middle.

Dramatically and unexpectedly, Edward Snowden may have given it that nudge.  Pew Research polling now shows that for the first time more Americans have “expressed concern over civil liberties than protection from terrorism since the question was first asked in 2004.”  A Quinnipiac University poll found that more Americans think that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower than a traitor.  The public’s feelings on the question are reflected in the halls of power.  The bipartisan near victory of the Amash Amendment last week; the outrage about NSA surveillance on the part of Congressman Sensenbrenner, the father of the PATRIOT ACT; the continuing pressure on the Hill and elsewhere for changes in NSA’s authorities; the Government’s declassification of a great deal of information about NSA surveillance as recently as yesterday – all of these developments suggest that change is coming. What’s more, change is coming not because we have reached some arbitrary benchmark, but because the public perception of the threat and of the need to be at war has leveled off.

With any luck, the war is about to end.  That said, don’t go joining Al Qaeda.  The US Government and its partners have its number.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks.  He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.


Photo Credit: Le Dahu