The fog of "war"

We don't know who's winning, because President Bush -- for political reasons -- has never defined our aims or enemies.

By Scott Rosenberg

Published September 6, 2002 7:09PM (EDT)

The word "war" seemed to make perfect sense as the embers of the World Trade Center still burned. The United States had most certainly been attacked, and when you're attacked, you fight back. Though some argued that a response to 9/11 couched in the terms of global policing made more sense than a military reaction -- this was an international crime we were fighting, not a legitimate battlefield enemy -- the Bush administration chose to rally the nation behind a standard of war. The president first used the phrase "the war against terrorism" in his speech on Sept. 11, and we have been at war ever since.

Yet now, as this war passes its first birthday, its terms remain a perplexing and increasingly disturbing enigma. When President Bush told us, in his speech to Congress on Sept. 21, that we were engaged in a "war on terror" that would "not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated," we might have figured he'd fill in the blanks before much longer. But somehow, a year later, we're still sitting here wondering: Who exactly are we fighting? How do we define our enemy? What are our goals? And are we winning or losing?

By refusing to clarify these questions with any kind of precision, Bush and his administration have created a void in the public arena. They've left Americans confused and uncertain about the nature of the war we've been asked to support, and increasingly suspicious of the constitutional rule-bending taking place under its banner.

If fate had treated the U.S. more kindly, we would have a leader today who was able to answer these questions, to articulate why we're fighting -- and what we're fighting for -- as well as FDR explained the Second World War to his nation, or JFK explained the Cold War to his. We don't. But the questions still demand answers. We need to try to fill in the blanks ourselves.

The closest to a definition of our opponent in this war that the president has provided is "every terrorist group of global reach." We can assume a national consensus that the list of such groups begins with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. Does it include other groups? Who knows? As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has flared since 9/11, Bush has increasingly applied the "terrorist" label to a wider swath of Palestinians, and the cruel campaign of suicide bombing aimed at civilians has certainly earned it. But this terrorism remains confined to Israel and the occupied territories; "global reach" does not seem to be within its aims or grasp.

On Sept. 21, Bush specifically said, "Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." So what and where are these other "terrorist groups of global reach"? Are they all Islamic extremists, or are there other types? Shouldn't we have heard a little more about them over the course of the past year?

The president also said that "we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism," but though the number of such nations is probably in the dozens -- and certainly includes some of our allies -- Bush has so far left us in the dark about what exactly puts a nation on his "axis of evil" list. What criteria mark an Iraq as in need of immediate "regime change," while an Iran or a North Korea, not to mention a Saudi Arabia or a Pakistan, are free to continue to develop dangerous weapons and harbor terrorist organizations? Bush refuses even to acknowledge the question.

Saddam is surely a brutal and murderous dictator. But the case that the war on terrorism that began on Sept. 11, 2001 -- the effort to end the threat of future 9/11s -- demands an immediate invasion of Iraq remains tenuous at best. The conflation of "war on terror" with "war on Iraq" remains the Bush administration's most unconvincing maneuver since 9/11. In fact, it's hard not to suspect that Bush has been so reluctant to define the war's terms precisely because he wants to blur together these two different enterprises -- one that was forced upon him by circumstance (terrorism was low on the administration's priorities before the 9/11 attacks), and one that has long been close to his heart.

Before marching on Baghdad -- before another bombing campaign, another shooting war, another wave of international turmoil steal the headlines and turn our minds away from the recent past -- we need to stop and take stock of the war so far. No matter how hard Bush has made this for us, by failing to define our enemy or our goals, we owe it to everyone who has died so far and everyone who may die in the future to do so.

For the sake of clarity in discussion, let's consider our prime enemy in the war on terrorism -- at least its first phase -- to be al-Qaida. They, after all, started it. Here are some of the goals we can assume are, or ought to be, on the White House blackboard, along with a scorecard of how we're doing. This is a pragmatic exercise, looking at the practical realities of the war to date, rather than an idealistic brainstorm.

1) Prevent further terrorist attacks on American soil or citizens. Bush and his team have so far been successful here, and they deserve credit. But of course it's the sort of achievement that can be shattered at any time. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says he's quite certain there will be more attacks. Every sundown without another attack is a win; every sunrise is an opportunity for another defeat. Score: Provisional U.S. victory.

2) Apprehension of parties responsible for the 9/11 attack. Al-Qaida is in disarray but has not been obliterated. Osama bin Laden remains a giant question mark; even the leadership of American special forces charged with hunting him down in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan remain divided in their assessment of his fate. Elevated by President Bush to mythic status as "the evil one," he remains an inspiration to our enemies until and unless we can capture or kill him, or confirm his death. Score: Mixed.

3) Elimination of state-supported havens for al-Qaida terrorists. Al-Qaida's Afghan hosts, the Taliban, have been routed from power, but their leader, Mullah Omar, remains at large. Afghanistan's fledgling U.S.-backed government has not been able to rein in warlords who control most regions of the country. Meanwhile President Bush's "axis of evil" nations -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- each pose threats of varying kinds, but their status as havens for "terrorism of global reach" remains impossible to evaluate until and unless that nebulous phrase receives a better definition. Score: Mixed.

4) Rebuilding Afghanistan to win international support for future anti-terrorist campaigns. Having muscled out the Taliban with a speedy victory, the United States must live up to its rhetoric of supporting freedom and democracy -- for the sake of our allies and the general public in the Muslim world, both of whom are watching closely. "Nation-building" turns out to be not just an ethical responsibility but a realpolitik necessity -- particularly as this week's barely foiled attempt to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai shows just how unstable the country remains. It has taken the Bush administration a long time to accept this, but there's been grudging progress -- including recent willingness to expand the role of international peacekeepers outside of the Afghan capital. More money is also unavoidable. Score: Mixed to positive.

5) Preventing the spread of Islamic radicalism and support for bin Laden. One of al-Qaida's goals is to kindle anti-American fervor throughout the Muslim world, and thwarting that aim must be high on any list of U.S. priorities. The defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan have sparked no mass movements or leadership changes in Islamic countries that would harm American interests or provide more recruits for bin Laden and his allies. So far, so good. But the U.S. remains vulnerable -- both because our support for repressive Arab oligarchies makes our pro-democracy rhetoric sound hollow, and because our nearly unconditional support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's campaign against Palestinian terrorism is hardly winning over Muslim hearts and minds. Score: Mixed.

6) Protection of the U.S. economy as the backbone of our war effort. The terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, and one of their goals was to disrupt our economic system. Let's set aside the political debates here -- was the Bush tax cut the right prescription for the recession? what should be done to restore trust in corporate leadership? and so on -- and just look at the bottom line. On the one hand, 9/11 itself didn't wreck the economy the way many feared it might. Markets dove and then recovered; consumers kept buying. On the other hand, the economy has been essentially stuck in the same rut it was in before the towers fell, and nothing Bush has done has sparked a recovery yet. Meanwhile, the disastrous collapse of faith in the fairness of American business continues to eat away at our global standing and our confidence. Score: Mixed to negative.

7) Preservation of the ideals of our open society in the face of terrorist threats. Terrorism, by its nature, aims to disrupt daily life and force the target society to make rash choices out of fear. (That's why it's called "terrorism.") So far, I'd say that the American system has -- despite the occasional autocratic lunge from the Justice Department and the Bush administration's pathological secrecy -- proven its resilience, as it always has in the past. Whatever excesses have been committed in the name of the terrorism war, we do not live in anything like a police state. This goal will be further tested, of course, if future attacks rattle our nerves. Score: Mixed to positive.

8) Keep dangerous weapons and material -- nuclear, chemical and biological -- out of the hands of terrorists, and restrict their funding. This is an essential goal, and also one that is almost impossible for civilians to evaluate -- or even to know whether the government can properly evaluate it. If Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld know how we're doing in this area, they aren't telling. Maybe Tony Blair will enlighten us, but until then, the scorecard has to be left blank.

9) Cut American dependence on Mideast oil to reduce our exposure to instability in the area and our dependence on despotic regimes there. This is the one goal on my list that won't be found scrawled on any White House blackboard. To the oilmen of the Bush team, plainly, it's anathema. That's too bad, because kicking our imported oil habit could give us extra room to maneuver in all sorts of useful ways: No more kowtowing to the Saudis and their support for extremists; reduced need to support undemocratic governments of oil-rich nations; and hey, it's good for the environment too. Score: Total defeat.

Most people will disagree with one or another of the judgments on this scorecard. My purpose in the exercise is simply to point out how negligent Bush and the rest of the U.S. leadership have been in failing to publicly conduct it themselves -- and that includes congressional leaders who should be screaming at Bush by now for some answers.

Why hasn't Bush done so? I think there's only one plausible explanation: As long as the war's goals are unstated, Bush remains free to redefine the war itself on the fly -- to grandfather in other, preexisting goals that have little or nothing to do with the real war on terror, but that can borrow support from it. Iraq is the biggest example, but there are surely more to come.

Andrew Sullivan has argued in these pages that, somehow, because Bush has been clear all along that he wants to take out Saddam, you can't say he has "grandfathered" Iraq into the war on terror -- as New York Times columnist Frank Rich has said. But of course you can. No one ever said Bush tried to hide his desire to attack Iraq; the "grandfathering" lies in the president's opportunistic attempt to retrofit the nation's anger over the World Trade Center attack onto the substantially different campaign against Saddam Hussein.

By not telling the American public exactly who we're fighting or what we're fighting for, in other words, Bush is able to try to dragoon some of the energy and resolve that 9/11 crystallized in service to his prewar wish list. As he shoehorns incongruous policies into the "war on terrorism" box -- "regime change" in Iraq, an oil-friendly energy policy, lopsided tax cuts -- the gambit becomes more and more difficult to hide.

There's nothing wrong with a president trying to promote his policies, to be sure, but the underhanded tactics Bush is employing won't wear well as this war wears on. Stoking a wartime mentality without explaining the war's scope -- without giving the public any sense of how we'll know when we've won -- is a recipe for disaster. (We've been there before -- in Vietnam, the longest war in American history, and one that our government labeled as a mere "police action.") Piggybacking on that wartime mentality for partisan political goals that actually hurt the war effort can only backfire once people catch on to the game.

Karl von Clausewitz famously defined war as "an extension of politics [in German, politik, or 'policy'] by other means." In a war as complex and unorthodox as the war with al-Qaida, one that leaves old concepts of battlefield engagement far behind, that definition, with its reminder to keep one's eye on ultimate goals, provides a valuable compass. Unfortunately, President Bush seems to be simply reading Clausewitz in a self-interestedly literal-minded way. For him, the war on terror -- the war that he has framed as a noble crusade for freedom -- has become just a crude extension of his political agenda, "by other means."

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Osama Bin Laden Terrorism