4. Unilateralism is not a four-letter word. Contrary to the campaign rhetoric or the media mantras, the Bush administration did not “go it alone” in Iraq or Afghanistan. But President Obama did in Pakistan, and he was right to do so. However, it’s ironic that the president chose this course of action. After all, as a candidate Obama strongly criticized the Bush administration for acting unilaterally, alienating allies and launching military operations without UN permission.
In other words, the bin Laden strike failed to meet any of the standards Obama placed on his predecessor. It was not authorized by the UN. In fact, it has drawn strong criticism from some allies in Europe and the Middle East; some observers have even condemned it as illegal. It infuriated and humiliated the Pakistani government, which was notified of the operation only after U.S. forces had left Pakistani airspace. And it was completely unilateral. Pakistani forces didn’t even participate in the operation, which, it pays to recall, happened just miles outside their capital city. In fact, contingencies were in place for the U.S. strike team to fight its way out of Pakistan, against the Pakistani military.
This is not to criticize the operation, but rather to highlight two important truths. One, high-minded campaign rhetoric has a way of evaporating when confronted by real-world crises. Two, sometimes the only way to address a threat is through unilateral action. In this instance, the exigencies of speed and timing made UN pre-approval impossible; Pakistan’s duplicity made involving the Pakistani military and intelligence services risky; and the U.S. military’s unique capabilities made allied involvement unnecessary.
5. The war on terror really is a war. Some bristle at the “war on terrorism” phraseology, which took root during the Bush era. For instance, the Obama administration initially encouraged use of “overseas contingency operations” instead. Obama’s secretary of homeland security even went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.
We cannot defeat “terrorism,” the critics argue, because it is a condition or method. Hence, a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst. Yet the civilized world has, in the past, defeated, marginalized or consigned to history uncivilized behavior and methods. “Terrorism,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests, “must become as obsolete as slavery, piracy, or genocide.”
Truth be told, the Bush administration itself struggled with what to call its post-9/11 campaign. Almost three years after 9/11, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked, “Are we fighting a global war on terror? Or are we witnessing a global civil war within the Muslim religion…Or are we engaged in a global insurgency by a minority of radical Muslims?”
The answer to each question is yes, which means the language of war is appropriate. And it seems Obama now agrees. In his address announcing the strike on bin Laden’s compound, Obama tellingly used the word “war” eight times.
To be sure, the war on terror enfolds far more than military operations. Intelligence agencies, law enforcement, trade and development, homeland security and diplomacy play important parts as well. However, these are supporting parts because al Qaeda and its kindred movements have defined this as a war, and wars are waged by military forces.
We can quibble about what to call the thing we’re in the midst of—a war on terror, a global guerilla war, a worldwide police action—but one thing is beyond debate: The jihadists know they are at war with us. In 1996, bin Laden called on his foot soldiers to focus on “destroying, fighting, and killing the enemy until…it is completely defeated.” In 1998, he declared, “To kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it.” For good measure, he added, “We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.”
That became clear on 9/11, when al Qaeda’s war reached our shores. Even if that was the jihadists’ high-water mark—and let’s hope it was—they are not drug dealers, mobsters or scofflaws. They remain tenacious military adversaries. The desire by some policymakers to approach global terrorism as a criminal matter—or worse, to dismiss this as something short of war—is counterproductive. As former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White has argued, “We plainly need more comprehensive measures and, most especially, a strong and continuing military response.”
If indictments and prosecutions were effective at combating terrorism, the World Trade Center would still be standing. It pays to recall that the man behind the 1993 attempt to take down the World Trade Center was arrested (in Islamabad) and then imprisoned—and that bin Laden was indicted in 1998. That didn’t stop him from waging war on the West, but SEAL Team 6 did.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.
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