The war on terror is a false metaphor that has led to
counterproductive and self-defeating policies. Five years after 9/11,
a misleading figure of speech applied literally has unleashed a real
war fought on several fronts -- Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan,
Somalia -- a war that has killed thousands of innocent civilians and
enraged millions around the world. Yet al Qaeda has not been subdued;
a plot that could have claimed more victims than 9/11 has just been
foiled by the vigilance of British intelligence.
Unfortunately, the "war on terror" metaphor was uncritically accepted
by the American public as the obvious response to 9/11. It is now
widely admitted that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder. But the war
on terror remains the frame into which American policy has to fit.
Most Democratic politicians subscribe to it for fear of being tagged
as weak on defense.
What makes the war on terror self-defeating?
- First, war by its very nature creates innocent victims. A war waged
against terrorists is even more likely to claim innocent victims
because terrorists tend to keep their whereabouts hidden. The deaths,
injuries and humiliation of civilians generate rage and resentment
among their families and communities that in turn serves to build
support for terrorists.
- Second, terrorism is an abstraction. It lumps together all
political movements that use terrorist tactics. Al Qaeda, Hamas,
Hezbollah, the Sunni insurrection and the Mahdi army in Iraq are very
different forces, but President Bush's global war on terror prevents
us from differentiating between them and dealing with them
accordingly. It inhibits much-needed negotiations with Iran and Syria
because they are states that support terrorist groups.
- Third, the war on terror emphasizes military action while most
territorial conflicts require political solutions. And, as the
British have shown, al Qaeda is best dealt with by good intelligence.
The war on terror increases the terrorist threat and makes the task
of the intelligence agencies more difficult. Osama bin Laden and
Ayman al-Zawahiri are still at large; we need to focus on finding
them, and preventing attacks like the one foiled in England.
- Fourth, the war on terror drives a wedge between "us" and "them." We are innocent victims. They are perpetrators. But we fail to notice
that we also become perpetrators in the process; the rest of the
world, however, does notice. That is how such a wide gap has arisen
between America and much of the world.
Taken together, these four factors ensure that the war on terror
cannot be won. An endless war waged against an unseen enemy is doing
great damage to our power and prestige abroad and to our open society
at home. It has led to a dangerous extension of executive powers; it
has tarnished our adherence to universal human rights; it has
inhibited the critical process that is at the heart of an open
society; and it has cost a lot of money. Most importantly, it has
diverted attention from other urgent tasks that require American
leadership, such as finishing the job we so correctly began in
Afghanistan, addressing the looming global energy crisis, and dealing
with nuclear proliferation.
With American influence at low ebb, the world is in danger of sliding
into a vicious circle of escalating violence. We can escape it only
if we Americans repudiate the war on terror as a false metaphor. If
we persevere on the wrong course, the situation will continue to
deteriorate. It is not our will that is being tested, but our
understanding of reality. It is painful to admit that our current
predicaments are brought about by our own misconceptions. However,
not admitting it is bound to prove even more painful in the long run.
The strength of an open society lies in its ability to recognize and
correct its mistakes. This is the test that confronts us.
Mr. Soros, a financier, is author of "The Age of Fallibility:
Consequences of the War on Terror" (Public Affairs, 2006).
© Copyright 2006 Wall Street Journal