The following are parts of an article written by me which appeared on the Op-ed page in the International Herald Tribune on June 28, 2002. In parentheses and italics are updates that I have added after President Obama’s September 10, 2014, speech on the Islamic State (ISIL). The direct quotations are from his words.
The United States is at war. This has been repeated by President George W. Bush and members of his administration on several occasions (and has been repeated by President Obama on September 10, 2014, although the word war was not used and there has been no approval by Congress or the United Nations Security Council for the U.S. use of force.) There has been no formal declaration that clearly sets out goals and objectives. (“Our objective is clear: we will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” an objective and strategy which were not elaborated in terms of time and planning.)
Why is this so worrying? In 1987, the Yale 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 a 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 September 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 could eventually 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. (“…we continue to face a terrorist threat. We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.”)
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 will be declared over. (“So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.”)
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. (“Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world. It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny.”)
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. (“My administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home. I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”)
In The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote: “All misgovernment is contrary to self-interest in the long run, but may actually strengthen a regime temporarily. It qualifies as a folly when it is a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable and counterproductive.”