Requiem for the War on Terror

Published on
by
TomDispatch.com

Requiem for the War on Terror

Goodbye GWOT, Hello OCOs

This is the way the Global War on Terror (also known, in Bush-era jargon, as GWOT) ends, not with a bang, not with parades and speeches, but with an obscure memo, a few news reports, vague denials, and a seemingly off-handed comment (or was it a carefully calculated declaration?) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "The administration has stopped using the phrase ["war on terror"] and I think that speaks for itself. Obviously."

This is often the way presidents and their administrations operate when it comes to national security and foreign policy -- not with bold, clear statements but through leaks, trial balloons, small gestures, and innuendo.

In this case, though, are we seeing the cleverly orchestrated plan of a shrewd administration, every move plotted with astonishing cunning? Or are the operators actually a bunch of newbies bumbling along from day to day, as a literal reading of press reports on the end of GWOT might suggest? Unless some historian finds a "smoking gun" document in the archives years from now, we may never know for sure.

If the motives remain obscure, some effects of this major shift in language are already evident, though whether the result is a glass half empty or half full may lie in the eye of the beholder. In some cases, the new administration's policies still look amazingly like those of the Global War on Terror, sans the name -- most notably in Afghanistan, where President Obama is pursuing many of the same old goals with renewed force, and in Pakistan, where he is steadily widening Bush's war. Sounding a lot like Bush, in fact, Obama played the 9/11 card repeatedly in his announcement justifying his program of stepped up action in the AfPak theater of operations.

There, as Pepe Escobar of Asia Times says, "for all practical purposes, strategically reviewed or not, GWOT goes on, with no end in sight." There, Obama's "new" policies seem to justify Jon Stewart's clever label for the recent language changes: "Redefinition Accomplished."

Yet there is good news, too. Just a few years ago, Dick Cheney told America's young people that the "war on terror" would be a generations-long struggle and the defining fact of the rest of their lives. A perpetual war for peace (and the endless terrors it unleashed) was then to be the single purpose to which the United States would bend all its strength and will for decades to come. Abandoning such terrible language really does make a difference.

Unlike his predecessor, President Obama is not staking his claim to historical importance on being a "war president." Both his personal history and his laser-like focus on HEE (health, energy, education) suggest that his true passion is his domestic agenda. He may see national security as filled with distractions or potential stumbling blocks rather than as a field of glory.

Without a "war" to wage, this administration cannot so easily claim, as its predecessor did, extraordinary powers for the president. It won't be able to use the argument "we're at war" to justify poking holes in the Constitution, or to get a mindless rubber-stamp for its national security policies from Congress and the public. That will open up at least a bit more space for debate about those policies.

Spending unconscionable sums of public money on military action may, in the long run, prove far harder, too. Americans will pony up endlessly when we are at war. They are less likely to shell out so quickly for the proposed successor phrase to the Global War on Terror: "Overseas Contingency Operations." As Escobar notes, this "delightfully Orwellian" term is known to the bureaucrats by its equally Orwellian acronym, OCO.

The Bad News of Empire

The bad news is that nobody can say exactly what an OCO is. A war requires at least a convincing illusion of threat to the nation. An OCO, on the other hand, can be just about anything. It doesn't have to be over any literal seas; it merely has to aim at a target outside U.S. borders (even as close as Mexico). It doesn't have to involve shoot-'em-up military action, only an action -- kidnapping, computer hacking, whatever -- carried out by U.S. government operatives.

An OCO is, in the end, any U.S. government response to some "contingency" outside our borders. Philosophers use the word "contingent" to mean something that could happen but doesn't have to happen -- that is, something that isn't necessary. In that case, a wag might say, we're really talking about "Overseas Unnecessary Operations." But for the "serious" people who make U.S. national security policy, a contingency is undoubtedly any new event that isn't fully predictable. In other words, just about anything that occurs beyond our borders can be deemed a contingency and so require an OCO.

Of course, by that definition the U.S. government has been carrying out dozens of OCOs every day for decades. As early as 1937, Secretary of State Cordell Hull said publicly: "There can be no serious hostilities anywhere in the world which will not one way or another affect interests or rights or obligations of this country." Since the late 1940s, U.S. policymakers have assumed that there were no serious "contingencies" of any kind, anywhere on the planet, that did not affect this country's interests. In public, they substitute polite euphemisms for the pursuit of those interests like "global responsibilities" or "leader of the free world."

Their critics call it by its true name: Empire. Empires can go for many years without fighting a war. But they have to carry out OCOs all the time.

That's why the administration's new military budget is geared to switching priorities, spending less on preparations for future conventional warfare against great power enemies who have yet to emerge and more on counterterrorism -- "to deter aggression, project power when necessary, and protect our interests and allies around the globe," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently put it. Though proposed military cuts like the F-22 Raptor are getting most of the attention this week, a Pentagon spokesman went out of his way to stress that Gates is "going to be adding a lot of things to capabilities that we need too."

The new Pentagon budget rollout is part of a larger public relations campaign to promote a simple idea: We're no longer at war, but there's still plenty of fighting to do. There will still be the requisite number of OCOs with substantial costs to bear, not only in dollars but in blood and misery.

Will Americans Still Want the War?

Will Americans buy it? Will they give up the war, yet keep paying the sky-high bills for OCOs? The popular reaction to the end of the unmourned Global War on Terror is hard to discern, because there really hasn't been any. The obituaries dutifully appeared, were noticed by only a few, and are already almost forgotten.

That gives the Obama administration reason to hope they'll win their linguistic gamble -- that Americans will let the War on Terror die as quickly as it was born, that they are as indifferent to it as they seem to be. Polls suggest that may be a safe bet. Throughout the 2008 election year, remarkably few Americans rated terrorism as their top concern. And that was even before economic collapse pushed the subject further down the list of national priorities.

On the other hand, reports of the death of the War on Terror could turn out to be premature. Maybe most Americans just assume that it continues, whatever anyone calls it. When given a chance to name several issues of concern, three-quarters or more of polling respondents typically put terrorism on their list.

Since the 1930s, Americans have, by and large, been willing to work together for common national goals only when they believed they were at war and following the orders of a commander-in-chief. Under the rubric of "the war against...," the federal government has had its greatest successes in mobilizing public support for major programs (as Michael Sherry has shown in his fine book, In the Shadow of War).

And we Americans go willingly to war only when we're convinced that our "way of life" is gravely threatened. The number one purpose of the government is to protect that way of life -- or so the official story goes. Unfortunately, since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's day we have lived in a permanent state of national insecurity, always at war with or against someone or something, because there is always someone or something to be afraid of.

If Americans do turn out to be perfectly willing to let go of the magic word "war," the end of GWOT may lighten the shadow of war, which hovers over us and ultimately leaves us afraid of considering fundamental political change of any sort. That might prove important in the long run, even if, in the short run, it gets little notice.

By Any OCO Necessary

Sometimes President Obama sounds like fundamental change is really what he has in mind: to shift the nation's priorities from protecting what we've got to creating a new and better way of life. At other times, he talks like just another commander-in-chief of the national insecurity state, warning us about al-Qaeda and all sorts of other "threats to our nation's security and economy [that] can no longer be kept at bay by oceans or by borders." (In case you forgot, the "theft of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union could lead to the extermination of any city on earth.")

This ambiguity reflects the fine political line Obama has chosen to walk. Ending the "war on terror" may please millions of his supporters who expect him to offer genuinely new policies, foreign as well as domestic. Continued dire warnings may satisfy millions of middle-of-the-road voters who opted for him despite fears that he might undermine national security.

Satisfying both groups is no small trick. But if, with linguistic substitutions and innuendo, he can pull it off, he'll be free to carry out the empire's daily round of OCOs, large and small, without having to worry about the meddlesome vagaries of public opinion. That's one big advantage OCOs have over wars: They tend not to attract too much attention. For most inhabitants of the imperial homeland, OCOs are too distant to be noticed. If one or two (or three or four or five) go wrong, who's watching?

The daily routine of OCOs may be expensive, but as long as life in the homeland is comfortable enough, few questions are likely to be asked. Even when life grows uncomfortable for many, as today, the links between domestic economic meltdown and the costs of empire remain largely obscured. As a result, the imperial government has a relatively free hand to keep "order" around the world, by any OCO necessary.

Still, for those who would stand against the empire, the death of GWOT is one more reminder that under Obama, the glass, though usually half empty, is also half full. If we no longer say we're at war, it may be easier to see the brute fact that we are at empire, day in, day out, year around.

On the other hand, if the government no longer relies on the word "war" to scare the public into paying the bills, it may be harder to bring the national insecurity state's fear-based worldview to bear on decisions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or any of those places where OCOs are in progress all the time. That could just bring us a step closer to a different kind of politics. So Obama's gamble on banishing the word "war" could, in the long run, drain support for OCOs of all kinds, even the ones that actually are wars, regardless of his intentions.

For that to happen, Americans will have to be persistently reminded of those ongoing OCOs and their single goal: protecting the empire. After all, Americans have never much liked the idea of using their tax dollars for imperial purposes. The more the links between OCOs and the defense of empire are apparent, the more we'll be ready for the politics and policies of genuine change.

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Mythic America: Essays and American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.

Share This Article

More in: