Perpetual War Poses a Risk to US Power
Published on Friday, June 28, 2002 in the International Herald Tribune
Perpetual War Poses a Risk to US Power
by Daniel Warner

GENEVA The United States is at war. This has been repeated by President George W. Bush and members of his administration on several occasions. What has not been made clear is the nature of the war. There has been no formal declaration that clearly sets out goals and objectives.

Why is this so worrying? In 1987, the Yale University historian Paul Kennedy described the rise and fall of empires. He analyzed how all imperial powers arrived at a point of overreach that eventually destroyed the empire. Too much concern for security and disproportionate spending on defense were endemic to the fall of all previous empires he studied. The United States appears at this time to be marching into a situation that fits Kennedy's description of imperial decline.

The march begins with the overextension of the mission beyond reprisals against the immediate perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. In his "axis of evil" speech, the president argued that the war against terrorism would be extended to countries building weapons of mass destruction that eventually could be used against the United States. In other words, the war against terrorism could be extended to not only those directly responsible for Sept. 11 but also to those who might be future aggressors.

Concern with future attacks is being presented as open-ended in time and place. There is no longer a clear necessity to link an enemy to specific events nor to say when the war can be declared over. If, in the future, one person gets on an airplane with explosives in his shoes, is the war against terrorism still on? It is difficult to imagine the limits of the war and to see how the heightened sense of national security could be diminished. The United States appears to be entering a situation of hypersensitivity wherein any threat to its national security justifies enormous sacrifices of resources and eventually civil liberties.

Kennedy's book set off an important reaction in the United States in the late 1980s. It laid out the consequences of the superpower contest with the Soviet Union in terms of mutual imperial overstretch instead of mutual assured destruction.

What is so intriguing and worrying about the war on terrorism is that following the implosion of the Soviet Union due to its imperial overreach the United States seems to be embarking on a war that may have similar effects.

The most obvious war being fought is the campaign against the perpetrators of Sept. 11. The search for Osama bin Laden and the members of the Qaeda network is an act of self-defense legitimatized by the United Nations and NATO. The United States was attacked and has the right to seek out and punish the attackers as well as to prevent future attacks by the same group as long as its reaction is proportional and within the overall framework of the laws of war.

What is more difficult to justify is the enlargement of the war to other groups. Is punishment for Al Qaeda the same as punishing governments for harboring or encouraging the terrorists? The overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan was generally welcomed internationally, but the responsibilities of the Taliban are not the same as that of Al Qaeda. In the name of fighting terrorism, excesses can easily be committed when one moves further and further away from punishing those with direct responsibility. This is what makes fighting terrorism so frustrating and dangerous. To root out particular terrorists is not the same as destroying terrorism in general.

The war on terror succeeded the Cold War. The peace dividend from the collapse of the Soviet Union has not appeared. Instead, there has been a new confrontation with rogue states, states of concern and the axis of evil.

While the war against communism was international, it was focused. The war against terrorism is global and diffused. The United States wants everyone to be "with it", but is both incapable of securing that form of domination and unwilling to understand its implications. The war against potential enemies is too open-ended.

Finally, the war on terrorism has been used within the United States for clear political and ideological reasons. Politically, it is obvious that it is difficult to criticize a president and his party during war. Ideologically, exchange communism for terrorism and Americans are back in the 1950s, with all the attacks on civil liberties which that period represented. Where this war is different is in the nature of the enemy and the terms of victory.

The irony of the current situation is that just at the moment when the Soviet Union imploded and the United States was the lone superpower, America is confronted with a situation that could easily lead to its implosion as well. In "The March of Folly," Barbara Tuchman, the historian, wrote: "All misgovernment is contrary to self-interest in the long run, but may actually strengthen a regime temporarily. It qualifies as folly when it is a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counterproductive." The war on terrorism may America lead down that very path.

The writer is deputy director of the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, and author of "An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations." He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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