Editorial: Reassessing the War on Terror

President Obama’s speech last week at the National Defense University has been variously characterized as going too far or not going far enough in recalibrating the war on terror. A fairer reading is that the president was seeking to redefine the whole effort to keep America and Americans safe.

As part of the policy realignment, Obama called for more narrowly targeting efforts to dismantle terrorist networks, curtailing the use of drones, finally closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and placing new limits on presidential war powers.

This pleased neither conservatives nor liberals. The former decried what they viewed as a premature declaration of victory in the war on terror, while the latter were unhappy that the president had failed to move more quickly and authoritatively to halt drone strikes and release the Guantanamo detainees.

The exact parameters of the policy shifts announced by Obama remain classified, but his general argument makes a lot of sense to us. Since 9/11, terrorism has been officially regarded as the most urgent, and perhaps only, threat to the nation’s existence instead of what it is: one serious threat among others, including economic and environmental challenges that are just as pressing. The emphasis on terrorism has thus distorted the nation’s priorities to the detriment of the national interest.

In fact, the “war on terror” declared by Obama’s predecessor has always seemed to us a shortsighted formulation of the challenge faced. War implies that there will be a victor and a vanquished. But as with the “war on drugs” or the “war on cancer,” there can never be a clear-cut victory in the war on terror because the nature of the threat is constantly evolving and it likely never will be eradicated. For instance, the Boston Marathon bombings appear very different in origin from the attacks of 9/11, a smaller-scale operation carried out not by a terror network directed from abroad, but apparently by people who became radicalized while already living in the United States and who acted independently.

“Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terrorism,” Obama said. “We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”

Psychologically, a permanent state of war is something no nation — particularly a democracy — can easily bear. The successful prosecution of war requires unity of purpose and effort, which are difficult to maintain for years on end. When public support begins to ebb, through war-weariness or dissatisfaction with the results, then democratic governments become subject to the bitter divisions that the United States experienced in the Vietnam era. As Obama said, “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”

A more apt metaphor for countering terrorism is perhaps drawn from medicine: to understand the nature of the disease, cure it where possible and contain it where not. That is, terrorism is more correctly understood as a dangerous problem that needs to be managed effectively rather than as an enemy that can be defeated decisively.