After Boston: Don’t Get Fooled Again by the ‘War on Terror’ Hawks

April 25, 2013 by  


Yes, of course terrorism is real. But that doesn’t mean the hawkish approach to counterterrorism hasn’t been discredited.

By Conor Friedersdorf

hawkThe self-assurance of War on Terror hawks is one of the most peculiar phenomena in our politics. You’d think that the failure to foresee or stop the biggest terrorist attack ever carried out on U.S. soil would’ve caused guys like Dick Cheney to question their own geopolitical prescience. Instead, they immediately began urging the invasion of Iraq they’d long desired, insisting it was necessary to keep Americans safe. They got their war. As efforts to “keep us safe” go, it was a spectacular failure: Almost 4,500 Americans died in Iraq. More than 30,000 were wounded. Despite deaths and casualties far greater than on 9/11, the hawks insist to this day that Iraq was a prudent war. They’re ideologues who can’t see or won’t admit failures, facts be damned.

Don’t forget that.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon, the War on Terror hawks are speaking out with characteristic bluster. An uninformed observer might easily mistake their certainty for wisdom or competence. There is, in fact, no reason to trust their judgment on foreign policy or counterterrorism. Their dearth of self-doubt should be unnerving, not reassuring. And most Americans will recognize as much, so long as they’re reminded of the catastrophic policies the hawks unapologetically advocated, the many times their predictions have proven wrong, and the logical flaws in the arguments that they’ve been making in response to last week’s terrorist attack.

One ongoing controversy concerns whether the criminal justice system is capable of grappling with terrorists. Cheney himself warned against a law-enforcement approach to terrorism in a 2009 speech, and much of Congress is averse to trying accused terrorists in the federal court system. You’d think that law enforcement’s success apprehending the Tsarnaev brothers, the elder brother’s death, and the solid evidence against the younger brother would suggest that the criminal justice system is in fact capable of bringing terrorists, or at least these particular suspects, to justice.
John Yoo thinks this case shows the inadequacy of the law-and-order approach.

“How is this a victory for traditional law enforcement?” he asks in an item at the American Enterprise Institute’s blog. “Two young brothers, lightly armed, killed several innocent civilians, wounded 170, killed an officer and wounded another, and shut down one of America’s great cities. We had a whole city trapped in its homes and paramilitary forces in its streets. Law enforcement alone means the nation lies vulnerable to attacks on soft targets and must expend enormous resources to catch the killers afterwards. A pre-emptive strategy based on intelligence and the use of force overseas seeks to prevent such attacks further from our shores. That option should be preferred by everyone compared to what we’ve seen in Boston these last five days.”

What a slippery rhetorician. Obviously, the United States should preempt terrorist attacks using intelligence when possible. Does anyone disagree? Can anyone deny that we already dedicate significant resources to intelligence gathering? Yoo writes as if that wasn’t happening prior to Boston. For years now, we’ve also been preemptively using force overseas. The drone war waged in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere didn’t stop the Tsarnaevs. And it is difficult to imagine any preemptive war that could have stopped two legal residents of the U.S. from attacking their city. Exactly which country would Yoo have had us invade to stop those bombs? But never mind. Yoo has an ideological predisposition to preemptive war. So he implies that it would’ve made us safer in this case, even though that makes no sense given the facts. It should also be noted that the Tsarnaevs did not shut down a major American city. Boston wasn’t shut down by their bombs. The day after the marathon, Bostonians kept calm and carried on.

The suspects were still at large, and at that point, unknown. The Tsarnaevs failed to shut down Boston with their violent act. Once they were flushed out of hiding and killed a police officer at MIT, once they engaged in a shootout with police, leaving one of them dead, authorities made a decision. Whether prudently or overzealously, it was U.S. authorities who decided to shut down Boston. Since Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found hiding in a Watertown backyard, apparently wounded, it seems that shutting down Greater Boston, however understandable, didn’t save any lives. In hindsight, shutting down a single Watertown neighborhood would’ve been sufficient.

Another ongoing controversy concerns the relationship between Islam and terrorism. No one denies that there are Islamist radicals who regard us as enemies. Mark Steyn wants to go a step farther:

The Tsarnaev brothers had spent most of their lives in the United States, and lived the diversity dream. They seem to have had a droll wit when it comes to symbolism: Last year, the younger brother took his oath of citizenship and became an American on September 11. And, in their final hours of freedom, they added a cruel bit of mockery to their crimes by carjacking a getaway vehicle with a “Co-exist” bumper sticker. Oh, you must have seen them: I bet David Sirota has one. The “C” is the Islamic crescent, the “O” is the hippy peace sign; the “X” is the Star of David, the “T” is the Christian cross; I think there’s some LGBT, Taoist, and Wiccan stuff in there, too. They’re not mandatory on vehicles in Massachusetts; it just seems that way. I wonder, when the “Co-exist” car is returned to its owner, whether he or she will keep the bumper sticker in place. One would not expect him to conclude, as the gays of Amsterdam and the Jews of Toulouse and the Christians of Egypt have bleakly done, that if it weren’t for that Islamic crescent you wouldn’t need a bumper sticker at all. But he may perhaps have learned that life is all a bit more complicated than the smiley-face banalities of the multicultists.

Multiculturalism is its own ideology with its own flaws. Publicly urging Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other ethnic, religious, and ideological groups to coexist peacefully is not one of those flaws. Why would Steyn, surveying all possible targets in this fallen world, choose “Co-exist” to mock, as if the wisdom of merely urging co-existence could be disproved by two terrorists? I suppose a traditionalist conservative could be forgiven for shaking his head wistfully at that bumper sticker. “If only. Alas, the crooked timber of humanity will always war with one another.” In place of that tragic view, Steyn gives us farce, implying that, but for Islam, all others would live in peaceful coexistence, an implication so silly that he wouldn’t dare to state it plainly.

Elsewhere at National Review, Andrew McCarthy, author of a book that posits President Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy in a “grand jihad” against America, has published a column titled, “Jihad Will Not Be Wished Away,” though no one in America has ever argued that it will.

He writes:

Our enemies’ ideology is Islamic supremacism. To challenge and defeat an ideological movement, you have to understand and confront their vision of the world. Imposing your own assumptions and biases will not do. Islamic supremacists do not see a world of Westphalian nation-states. They do not distinguish between Russia and America the way they distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims. Their ideology frames matters as Dar al-Islamversus Dar al-Harb: the realm of Islam in a fight to the death against the realm of war — which is everyone and everyplace else.

In fact, even if it turns out that Tsarnaev brothers perpetrated a terrorist attack with the struggle in Chechnya specifically in mind — which is far from clear at this point — the fact would remain that the vast majority of Chechen terroristshave distinguished between America, which they haven’t attacked, and Russia, their constant enemy. There are Islamist radicals out there who aspire to global Islamic supremacy, of course, but the vast majority of Chechen fighters would stop fighting if Chechen independence was achieved; the vast majority of Palestinians would stop fighting if their conflict with Israel was resolved; the vast majority of fighters in Iraq will stop trying to kill Americans once we leave. The fact that McCarthy thinks all those fighting us share a single vision of the world is telling. His ideological notions about the War on Terror blind him to the facts. 

Next up is Bill Kristol, writing in The Weekly Standard. The bulk of his column accuses President Obama of lacking the moral clarity to fight the war on terrorism, not because of something he did, or even something he said, but based on the response his spokesperson gave to a reporter’s question.

Elsewhere in the same article, Kristol states:

Haven’t conservatives also lapsed into silence about the barbarians outside? Bush’s “war on terror” has been much mocked, and not just by liberals. Of course the idea is too abstract. Still, on the big question Bush was right. Terror is real, and terrorists must be defeated. Bush’s failure was to stop short in 2004, when he had the terror sponsors on their heels, and to allow them to regain momentum. That momentum has accelerated under President Obama.

Need it really be said?

Everyone save the stray 9/11 truther knows that terrorism (and “terror” itself, for that matter) is real. Of course Bush got that right. Something everyoneknows to be true is not, by definition, a big question. And I don’t know what’s worse, pretending that “terror is fake” is a competing ideology, or really believing that it is. Oklahoma City happened. 9/11 happened. Bali, Madrid, and London happened. Find me anyone, fringe conspiracy-theorists aside, who claims otherwise. Kristol can’t do it. He makes his views seem hardheaded by pretending that the perfectly obvious is a matter of controversy. He raises Mission Accomplished banners over straw men.

Then there’s the other part of his formulation: “Terrorists must be defeated.” Does that mean that people who commit terrorist attacks should be captured or killed? Again, that’s not controversial. Does it mean that all terrorist attacks “must” be preemptively stopped? That’s impossible. Kristol’s formulation of “the big question” is analytically useless. And as I’ve documented at length, his predictions are proven wrong by events as often as any pundit in America.

In an item that actually made several good points, Max Boot engages in the same “terrorism is real” rhetoric. “This terrible bombing has shattered our post-9/11 complacency,” he writes. “There has been a tendency to think that because Osama bin Laden has been killed and there has been no repeat of 9/11 that the threat from terrorism is overhyped. There have been calls to shutter Guantanamo’s detention facility, to stop renditions of suspects, to scale back interrogation and surveillance of suspects, to stop drone strikes and even to repeal the authorization for the use of military force …. We do not yet know if the Tsarnaevs had contact with any terrorist network but, whatever its origins, their attack shows that the threat from terrorism remains real — and that it is not only our airliners that are in the terrorists’ crosshairs. We cannot afford to let down our guard or to repeal the measures that have kept us (relatively) safe since 9/11. Indeed we may need to step up security around ‘soft targets,’ which abound in our large and open country.”

Notice how the whole paragraph is structured as if accepting that “the threat from terrorism remains real,” which no one ever doubted, means embracing Boot’s very particular approach to counterterrorism. He writes as if his critics disagree with his proscriptions because they  think terrorism is fake.

Of course, his critics know full well that terrorism is real. They just believe counterterrorism as Boot would conduct it is immoral and ineffective — that drone strikes which kill hundreds of innocent people, holding prisoners without charges or trial for years on end (even after they’ve been cleared for release by U.S. officials), detainee abuse, and torture are likely to create more terrorists. (As far as I know, nearly everyone in America favors “interrogation and surveillance of suspects.”)

Notice how Boot says the Tsarnaevs are evidence in favor of his worldview regardless of the facts that come out in the future. Also note that, contra Boot, the United States wasn’t “complacent” about terrorism before the Boston bombing. Ask anyone who traveled there on an airplane. Look at how much is spent on counterterrorism in the U.S. budget. Interview any national-security official, or the chief of any big-city police department. Anyone can question the wisdom of our counterterrorism policies, as I often do. To charge that they’re characterized by complacency?

The facts don’t support that conclusion.

Every War on Terror hawk mentioned in this column has a long list of predictions they’ve made about foreign policy and geopolitics, only to see them proved definitely wrong by subsequent events. None of them is among the pundits who grappled with their past errors in any meaningful way. Their pronouncements today are as untempered by self doubt as they ever were. If past performance meant anything in the pundit’s game, their past punditry (and Yoo’s discredited Bush-era legal analysis) would’ve long since stripped them of “War on Terror expert” status.

They’re nevertheless regarded as experts on the right, despite the fact that they treat disagreement with their ideas as if it proves that their interlocutor is unaware that terrorism is a threat. Their most frequent targets are pretend. They can’t conceive of the fact that other people who take terrorism as seriously as they do reach dramatically different conclusions about the best way to respond to it.

As a point of contrast to their unearned self-assurance, it’s worth looking at one more column from the aftermath of the Boston bombing. It ran alongside the Steyn and McCarthy pieces in National Review.

Daniel Foster is young enough that, insofar as I know, he wasn’t around to get anything right or wrong during the early stages of the War on Terrorism. He nevertheless proceeds as if he’s learned a lesson his colleagues haven’t. “The desire to read one’s political biases into acts of violence is unfortunate and, unfortunately, bipartisan,” he writes. “But if there is any little thing to be thankful for about the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, it’s that it defies easy classification. Those who try to tell a simple story about who they were or why they resorted to terrorism will end up like the six blind men and the elephant: each partially in the right, and all in the wrong.”

In these pages, I’ve been a consistent critic of President Obama’s approach to the War on Terror. Conservatives won’t succeed in offering America anything better until the geopolitical thinkers who got so much wrong during the Bush years learn some humility — or are no longer treated, within their movement, as “experts” who never got huge questions wrong.

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