by Reg Whitaker
The contrast could not be greater.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush declared, in apocalyptic tones, a “Global War on Terror” (GWOT). The GWOT, successor to the Cold War as the grand strategic doctrine of global conflict, prevailed for eight years. Then, shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, his White House sent out a directive specifying that “this administration prefers to avoid using the term [GWOT]. Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’”
That this signals much more than a mere change in bureaucratic nomenclature was starkly evident only two days into the new administration when the President swept away key components of Bush’s GWOT: the infamous prison camp at Guantánamo was to be closed, and the CIA network of secret prisons abroad was to be terminated. Moreover, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations (justifying torture and other human rights abuses and the limitless expansion of executive powers) issued by lawyers in the Bush Administration after 9/11.
Obama had campaigned on a message of “hope.”While this might be dismissed as political rhetoric, the marker of hope was in fact a philosophical challenge to the foundation of Bush’s global crusade. For everything advanced in the name of fighting terrorism under Bush had been premised on fear. “Terrorists” (Muslim/Arab) replaced “Communists” (Russian/Chinese) as the fearful Other that threatened the Free World both externally and internally. Evil was at the door and under the bed, and its armies were immensely resourceful and cunning. The very essence of freedom, democracy and Our Way of Life was in imminent peril.
So dire was the threat that the most extreme countermeasures were required. As the real architect of the GWOT, Vice President Dick Cheney, argued, America would have to “go over to the Dark Side” to beat the terrorists. Moreover, as with the Cold War, there could be no neutrality. As Bush memorably declared, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” As America’s increasingly disconcerted allies learned, “with us” meant “under us.”
Just as the Cold War had been sponsored by a military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about, the GWOT was backed by a security-industrial complex of companies selling technological fixes for security threats that they themselves were warning against, or gaining contracts for private security services for the U.S. government’s antiterrorist operations and military interventions abroad, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.
All this machinery ran on the fuel of fear. To be sure, the terrorist bogey was not conjured out of nothing. The 9/11 attacks did happen and almost 3,000 innocent people lost their lives, with more to follow in attacks on Madrid, London and other locations around the world. Democratic states were bound to respond strongly to such a violent challenge to their very raison d’être, the security of their citizens. Terrorism thus remains a very serious law enforcement and security problem for governments everywhere. But a law enforcement and security problem does not add up to a global war that would define an entire era. In declaring and conducting the GWOT, the Bush Administration overreached itself catastrophically. Its successor is left to clear the rubble.
Were Cheney and the neocons who ran the Bush Administration sincere in their apocalyptic prognosis? Perhaps. There must have been a great deal of self-delusion in a worldview that could bring about such calamitous results on all fronts. But there was a great deal of self-interest involved as well: the economic interests of the security-industrial complex and, most clearly, the political interests of the Republican Party, which was able to parlay 9/11 into Bush’s 2004 reelection and a continued Republican lock on all three branches of government. The GWOT paid off handsomely for Bush and company – until its final collapse. But the fear on which it ran still remains, some of it justified, some of it deliberately kept alive by those who have benefited from it.
In the immediate frightened aftermath of 9/11, Western publics were anxious for reassuringly resolute words and actions by their leaders, and thus a ready market for Bush in his momentary Churchillian guise. But the GWOT doctrine was from its outset an incoherent set of ideas, phony nostrums with pernicious consequences.
First, consider the sheer inanity of the term itself: a war on terror/terrorism. You can’t declare war on an abstract noun. States declare and make war on other states. Terrorism is a technique, not an enemy. If Franklin Roosevelt had followed Bush’s formula after Pearl Harbor in 1941, he would have declared war not on Japan, but on air power!
Roosevelt did declare war on Japan. This war had an end point in Japan’s surrender and the occupation of Japan by the American armed forces. There can be no such end point in the GWOT because the terrorists, as nonstate actors, hold no territory to surrender to occupation, nor any basis for negotiating a peace treaty that would conditionally retain their nonexistent sovereignty over their nonexistent homeland. A war with no end point, and thus no exit, served the Bushites well. It promised an unlimited supply of blank cheques from Congress and the American public for whatever the administration wished to get away with in the name of prosecuting the “war,” and for riding roughshod over the Constitution in the name of “wartime” emergency.
How do you conduct a “war” against an enemy who has no home address? Bush answered that difficulty by striking out at targets that did have addresses. First was Afghanistan, for which there was some rationale inasmuch as the terrorists who had struck the United States were being offered shelter and support by the Taliban regime. However, after the Taliban were removed, U.S. attention waned. Eight years later, Osama bin Laden is still at large, still conducting a global terrorist network, still without an address (although perhaps with an area code for the caves of Waziristan). On top of this, the Taliban are back, big time – as 117 dead Canadian soldiers (at the time of writing) can sadly testify.
Attention to Afghanistan waned because the Bush-Cheney neocons decided in their wisdom to invade Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, whose address they did know, and who they said was behind 9/11 (false) and was hiding WMDs (nonexistent). These follies were justified under the claim that we were fighting them “over there” to prevent having to fight them “over here.” As a strategic doctrine, this was nonsense, with serious consequences for neglect of security at home, evident in the incompetent handling of Hurricane Katrina.
The Bush Administration also neglected the hard task of marshalling multilateral cooperation in combating the real terrorist networks, all the while adding fuel to Muslim rage at Western policy and adding recruits to the terrorist cause, both in the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in the West. The GWOT mentality gravely damaged American foreign policy in the Muslim world, especially around the crucial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Labelling opponents of the Israeli occupation, including those like Hamas and Hezbollah who were democratically elected, “terrorists” with whom you must never talk may please Israel but is an impenetrable barrier to progress toward peace in the region.
Perhaps the worst result of this era is the poisonous legacy of Cheney’s “Dark Side”: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, extraordinary rendition, torture and human rights abuses form a dark stain on the reputation of a nation that likes to think of itself as the shining beacon of freedom.
Barack Obama is busy trying to erase as much of Bush’s mess as he can in an orderly and reasonable time frame. It remains to be seen how successful he will be in turning eight years of folly around. Getting out of Iraq and extending the hand of friendship to the Muslim world are a good start.
But even as the spectre of the GWOT begins to recede in the land that spawned it, it lingers on in Canada. Under former management, Canada had the good sense to stay out of the Iraq folly. Under Stephen Harper, Canada clings to the Bush legacy. Conservatives insist, with no reasonable supporting case, on the need to reintroduce the controversial preventive arrest and investigative hearing powers in the Anti-terrorism Act that had been allowed by Parliament to lapse. Although Harper’s government did vindicate and compensate Maher Arar, Canadian victim of American extraordinary rendition (while blaming the Liberals), it has failed to respond to the Arar Commission’s recommendations for the much needed overhauling of the accountability process for national security.
Shamefully, Harper has stonewalled the entire opposition, the Canadian Bar Association, civil liberties groups and leading newspapers by refusing to bring home child soldier Omar Khadr from the horror of Guantánamo. His government has kept another Canadian rendition victim, Abousfian Abdelrazik, in Kafkaesque limbo in the Canadian embassy in Sudan on utterly specious, derisory grounds. And Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made Canada an international laughingstock by banning British MP George Galloway, who had freely visited Bush’s America. In all these cases, the object appears to be to pander to the Tory right-wing base at the expense of civil liberties and basic decency.
The politically bankrupt and morally squalid GWOT is being buried in Obama’s America, but it is being kept on life support in Harper’s Canada.