On the whole, Mr. Miliband’s argument is sensible, but his closer, “Terrorists succeed when they render countries fearful and vindictive; when they sow division and animosity; when they force countries to respond with violence and repression. The best response is to refuse to be cowed,” triggered memories of militant pacifist comments made in the immediate post-9/11 days of my college experience to resurface. In turn, they led me to organize and lay down my particular thoughts on the War on Terror, which I realized had heretofore not been cogently expressed on this blog.
Let me be clear on two things. Government repression of the civil rights of its own citizenry is a wholly improper response to terrorism, and torture is both unacceptable and unreliable. Furthermore, the concept of continual warfare that could span generations is one that raises my conservative “spider-sense.” The Founders warned their posterity to avoid long or frequent wars, both for their devastating effect on humanity and for their potential to turn democratic governments into authoritarian tyrannies. I feel strongly that it is the responsibility of the citizenry to ensure that the government does not unnecessarily expand wars or trample the rights of its citizens in doing so. The American government is obligated to avoid war unless the country or its citizens are attacked or under direct threat. But I do understand reality: when we entered the era of nuclear proliferation and now the era of terrorism, fighting a war after it has come to American soil became an unviable option. Preventive measures have to be adopted, such as rigorous border security and, most important of all, a well-funded and well-equipped foreign intelligence apparatus that focuses on the human intelligence tradecraft rather than relying too heavily on technology. Our military should rightly receive a great deal of funding and remain the best-trained fighting force on the planet. It should be fearsome and overwhelming, but capable of nimble, surgical operations, such as those carried out by our special forces. And if we can get a missile defense program up and running that neuters the efficacy of ICBMs and tactical nuclear warheads, well then I’d be happy to help foot the bill for that too.
But the War on Terror walks a fine line, in my opinion. Invading Afghanistan was an appropriate response to the September 11 attacks. The PATRIOT Act was not. Invading Iraq was not necessary to defeating terrorism, but because we did, victory there is essential to doing so. I think that everyone can agree (particularly the Iranians, who perpetrated the deaths of countless American soldiers in Iraq with impunity) that the current over-extension of our military renders our foreign policy toothless in many cases. This will have to change, and this is where I agree with Miliband most strongly. The greatest fallacy of the War on Terror is its suggestion that terrorism is monolithic. It is not. Terrorism is a method of warfare and organization utilized by disparate groups with wide-ranging and often conflicting goals. The war is not fought in one or even two theaters of operation, but globally. We cannot kill every last terrorist, though it would be gratifying, and even if we did we would still be faced with their sons and grandsons and great-grandsons, largely radicalized by the institutions that drove their fathers to take up arms. While unpopular to say, the War on Terror cannot be won in a conventional sense. While maintaining a strong national defense and an agile military, the final solution to terrorism is to force the nations that harbor and nurture terrorists to resolve their internal issues. Primarily, this means pressuring moderate Islamic countries to confront the radical elements within them. This will be even harder than Iraq and Afghanistan have proven to be. It could take generations. But it has to be done, or we guarantee that we’ll be playing terrorist “whack-a-mole” across the globe. In doing so we render ourselves unable to deal credibly with more monolithic threats, such as the reassertion of Russia or a nuclear Iran, unless we start flexing our nuclear muscle, which will cause a whole slew of new problems and exacerbate existing ones.
I don’t particularly want to see us invading any more countries, especially Iran (if you know anything about the topography of Iran and military tactics, you understand that invading and occupying that country would be virtually impossible). I want to see the United States publicly more active in developing international coalitions to pressure irrational actors, and privately more active in causing mysterious strokes, heart failures and plane crashes that remove hostile dictators. I want to see the United States keeping the fight against terrorism where it belongs, overseas, rather than within American borders. That means not listening to my phone conversations without a warrant, illegally detaining me or torturing me. I want to see us supporting foreign governments that are sustainable, democratic and reform-minded, rather than backing tin pot dictators one after another until their latest student massacre forces us to withdraw our support and become the face of evil to the revolutionaries that seize power. I want us to aggressively promote human rights, economic liberty and democracy around the globe, and a good start is to ensure that we are practicing them at home so that we can serve as a credible example.