Is the “war on terror” over?

Is the “war on terror” over?

By Peter Feaver

So says Dana Priest, the Post’s prize-winning reporter, in today’s paper. To her, Obama’s actions had the collective symbolic effect of "ending the war on terror.” Moreover, Priest asserts, Obama intended for this to be the signal sent by his actions. To be sure, Priest claims that Obama does not intend to reduce counterterrorism operations abroad. He just means to signal that these counterterrorism operations no longer constitute a war.

If Priest is right, and the war is over, then why did Obama begin his celebrated Inaugural Address with a list of challenges in which this was item #1: "Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."

An audience dulled by countless speeches from Bush administration officials making roughly that point probably ignored it, but it struck me because it echoed Bush’s own dramatic opening line from the 2006 National Security Strategy: "America is at war." It also struck me because it was a rather bold marker on one side of a raging debate among experts: Is the struggle against the al Qaeda network best understood as a "war" — or as something else?  Obama seemed to be siding with his predecessor, surprisingly enough, and calling it a war.

As my partners on this blog well know, this is a hoary debate that went on inside the Bush Administration, but it has been even more active outside.  The conventional wisdom, at least among academics, follows the early critique laid out by Sir Michael Howard that Bush has erred in viewing the conflict through the war paradigm.  This view is popular among our allies, too.

The debate is somewhat tedious, dominated by specious claims like the idea that calling it a war narrows options down to only military tools. On the contrary, of course, calling it a war actually has the opposite effect of expanding options: It admits the use of military and other war-like tools, but it also encompasses the rest of the non military tools in the toolbox, as I’ve argued here. Those who want to label it as something other than a war are the ones who want to limit the tools available.

Which brings me to Obama’s early executive orders related to what the Bush administration called the Global War on Terror. The orders were dramatic, though perhaps not as dramatic as the breathless commentary suggests.  Contrary to reports, Obama did not shut down Gitmo. Rather, he issued an order saying he will (or, to be precise, he intends to and is willing to commit in advance to) shut down Gitmo in a year’s time. This, to mix a metaphor, is kicking the can as far down the road as he possibly can without being penalized for delay of game. Or, to mix yet another metaphor, Obama is promising to write a popular book in a year’s time and is happy to pocket a sizable advance of good will and commentary now; book to be written later. Until then, however, other actions, like the shuttering of other detention centers, will have an immediate impact.

The two views of whether we are at war or not can be reconciled — if Obama intends to say that we are really at war, but we will voluntarily not use all of the tools of war because we do not need to. That is certainly a popular straddle today. Whether it will still be popular if the country suffers another terrorist attack remains to be seen. In the meantime, one of the things I will be watching in the coming months is how the Obama team navigates its way through the symbolic minefield of labeling the conflict.  Looking only at the President’s own words and actions in the first two days, the team is off to a bit of a rough start.