Some Thoughts on the War on Terror

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

The New, Upside-Down War on Terror

Is there any logic in the confusion of the Obama administration’s actions and statements on fighting the war on terror?

On the one hand, we had a two-year campaign (2007–08) of damning the Bush protocols, from renditions and military tribunals to Guantanamo and Predator strikes. Then, the Obama administration unleashed Eric Holder and John Brennan, who in highly partisan fashion attacked the anti-terrorism policies implemented from 2001–08 and reflected the themes voiced by Obama himself in his Al-Arabiya interview and Cairo speech, many of which were reified by the Mirandizing of the Christmas Day bomber and the announced civilian trial of KSM in New York.

But all that said, Obama never shut down Guantanamo; has not tried KSM in New York; has kept the wiretaps, intercepts, renditions, and tribunals he once castigated; has escalated the war in Afghanistan; and has kept the status-of-forces agreements that Bush negotiated with the Iraqis — and Joe Biden now claims that Bush’s Iraq agreements were Obama’s greatest success!

Most importantly, Obama has vastly increased the Predator assassination missions along the Afghan-Pakistani border. If one were to sort out the politics of all this, one would conclude that Obama’s cynical strategy looked something like this:

1) Run against Bush as the candidate of the Democratic party’s hard-Left, anti-war, pro-ACLU base.

2) When elected, pacify that same base with soaring multicultural-outreach rhetoric of the Cairo sort and grand gestures, such as promising to close Guantanamo, investigate former CIA interrogators, appoint a Muslim-American liaison to the Islamic world, and end waterboarding.

3) Meanwhile, up the fighting in Afghanistan and the Predator assassination missions to prevent another 9/11-style attack.

Bottom line?

a) Obama really does (privately) believe that radical Islamists wish to kill us, and apparently has decided the only effective means of combating them is to copy the Bush strategy but drop the “smoke ’em out” rhetoric and substitute hope-and-change therapeutic banalities as we blow up suspected killers. The more conservatives rail about the KSM trial, the more Obama gains trust with the Left, and the more he can keep quietly killing suspected terrorists in Waziristan. (Dead men need no Miranda rights.)

b) So at home, Obama’s calculation is even more cynical: He assumes that left-wing hatred of Bush’s war on terror was never principled, but was always about partisan politics, and that left-wingers were far “angrier” about Bush’s waterboarding of three admitted terrorists than they ever will be about Obama’s assassinating suspected terrorists along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

c) Conservatives are then supposedly put in a bind: They may be angry that Obama demagogued the issue for two years as a candidate, and they may be upset that he so brazenly reversed course and emulated what he had demonized, and they may be mad about the hypocrisy of the hard Left — but they are also relieved that Obama is fighting terror and killing terrorists, and might even be impressed that he is doing so as a Nobel Peace laureate immune from the criticism that nearly destroyed Bush, and as someone who quietly executes suspected terrorists by remote control but worries publicly about confessed detainees in Bush’s gulag.

I think that sums up the present Obama policy, which is far more cynical than confusing. I have no idea whether it is sustainable.

No Need for Hubris on Matters of National Security

Vice President Joe Biden recently opined that he did not think the terrorists were able to pull off another attack of the 9/11 magnitude: “They are, in fact, not able to do anything remotely like they were able to do in the past.” Robert Gibbs last week assured us that Iranian rhetoric about nuclear enrichment was not matched by reality — e.g., “The Iranian nuclear program has undergone a series of problems throughout the year; we do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching” — although the U.N. just announced that the theocracy is focused rather seriously on a warhead.

Four reactions:

1) In war it is never wise to underestimate your adversary, e.g., the worst violence often comes at the end of a war from a reeling enemy (cf. the Bulge or Okinawa).

2) A small, briefcase-sized biological weapon could indeed trump 9/11; and this country has been consistently wrong in predicting nuclear proliferation, from the acquistion of the bomb by the Soviets and China to the 1998 Pakistani detonation.

3) This administration has a particularly bad record of prognostication (cf. last year’s assurances on the unemployment rate, the number of jobs saved or created, the size of the deficit, etc.).

4) This administration has an even worse record of consistency, e.g., former fat cats on Wall Street are now wealth producers; once-taboo nuclear power is now viable; KSM will/will not be tried in New York; previously anti-Constitutional protocols from renditions, tribunals, and wiretaps to Predators, Iraq, and Guantanamo are now apparently acceptable anti-terrorism methodologies. I am sure that, if need be, they will blithely and without embarrassment offer us a new narrative in which, in fact, al Qaeda is still dangerous in the 9/11 sense and Iran most assuredly is close to getting a bomb.

Blown Up or Guantanamo?

Those who accuse former Bush administration officials of criminality for having supported enhanced interrogation techniques are nearly silent about the ongoing and vastly increased targeted assassinations ordered by the Obama administration, and I for one am confused by this standard of attack.

If a suspected jihadist on the Afghan Pakistan border were to be asked his choice, he might very well prefer to be apprehended, transported to Guantanamo, and harshly interrogated rather than blown to bits along with any family and friends who happen to be in his vicinity.

To make things simpler, water-boarding the confessed architect of the murder of 3,000 innocents, on a moral scale, seems less atrocious than executing suspected terrorists, as we are now doing. Since the easy denunciations of criminality are moral rather than legal — no one has actually convicted a John Yoo or a Dick Cheney of anything — surely we should hear something about these capital sentences handed down from the sky on those who, quite unlike KSM, are suspected, rather than confessed, killers.

This is not a question of either advocating the use of water-boarding or criticizing the Obama administration for its judge-jury-and-executioner Predator attacks against probably dangerous terrorists. It is simply a matter of curiosity about why in the former case there is loud moral outrage but in the latter, far harsher instance, relative silence.

Since we have transformed this War on Terror into a criminal-justice matter rather than a traditional conflict in which uniformed combat soldiers are pitted against non-uninformed combat soldiers on a global battlefield, it is not persuasive to say that in one case non-uniformed suspects are in our custody while, in the other, they are only in our cross-hairs. It is time critics made the case that targeted assassinations fall within the legitimate bounds of a war in which we are properly engaged, while the water-boarding of three confessed terrorists was morally unacceptable torture of no utility and contrary to any of our own past protocols concerning apprehended and non-uniformed belligerents. Otherwise, their exercise in moral outrage is blatantly selective and reduced to a partisan belief that the evil Bush and Cheney are guilty of crimes, while the contemplative Obama is simply struggling with a moral crux.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This