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Two Winners In A War Without End

By Robert S. Becker

24 September, 2006

Few argue today the Bush White House didn’t load the dice to justify its pre-emptive war in Iraq. Why the war continues on and on, as if incapable of alteration, that is less clear. No longer simply for oil or geopolitics or intimidation, even protecting Israel, Iraq is less about “business” and feels more “personal,” as if being right matters more to Bush than ever-receding success markers.

Thus, in highly defensive moments, the White House has of late been comically rewriting World War II history, casting itself as the heroic defender of democracy against fascist aggression. Here is another set of misrepresentations, like those promoted before the invasion, a weak attempt to invoke an honorable war to defend a dishonorable one. In this context, the Bush neo-cons bend military history of the 20th Century as they distorted desert mirages for weapons of mass destruction.

But we are stuck with this puzzling nightmare: why, in the face of such sustained failures, does the White House make so few changes – not replace Donald Rumsfeld, nor top generals, not call for more troops, not do anything but “stay the course,” as if there were no other choices? Clearly, having never defined the objective or exit options has turned into a plus: a war without measurable standards for victory likewise has few thresholds for defeat. If there was never a clear opponent, rhetorically morphing from evil-doers to insurgents to the distortion of “Islamo-fascists,” then why should the objective be clarified by actual warfare?

Bush could never get away with so much open-endedness unless the definition of war had drastically changed, either by manipulation or blind stumbling. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, to evaluate anything man-made, you first know what it is, who caused it to be made, and for what purpose. So, why do we fight -- and why do we face endless war between enemies who forever declare victory, whatever the facts?

War is political, endless, and serves powerful interests

Scanning the classic writing about war, the current Bush-Cheney-Blair war vs. global terrorists best answers to keenly political definitions. For example: von Clausewitz’ insight “war is the extension of politics [or policy] by other means,” the assumption in Orwell’s 1984 that modern war is wholly political, thus endless, and especially Randolph Bourne’s wicked homage that “war is the health of the state.”

In fact, Bourne’s savvy split between the mystical state fed by war and the actual, functioning government is fast becoming an endangered distinction. More than any president, President Bush has bashed this separation, making war the very health of the government, indeed, the health of his government, even keys to political dominance. Eventually, giving war in Iraq a democratic imprimatur (however illusory) was a brilliant linkage, marrying the mystical sense of our state with the actual invasion and subsequent, shifting justifications. That dynastic-sounding linkage (Iraq like democratic America) made Bush’s government a big winner in the war “on terrorism.”

Success in war is now about winning elections and “staying the course,” even if more Americans feel less safe, military victories are non-existent, terrorists are coming out of the woodwork and the costs, both in dollars and lost prestige, would sober a Roman emperor. But when your party demands redemption, and that means becoming a war president, then duty and patriotism demand you find a war. And the war on terrorism, like the war on drugs or the war on poverty from an earlier time, offers the same permanence as today’s never-ending electioneering, perfectly fitting the Bush requirement to appear strong, decisive, and presidential.

The second big winner: the 'state' of terrorism

Though Islamic terrorism is decentralized, lacking the boundaries of a state, bin Laden’s al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and others share enough in common to qualify as a “state of mind,” with overlapping tactics and shared goals (using bombs to drive out the infidel west). Indeed, movable terrorists do better not having to defend a border or a stronghold (evidence Hezbollah’s vulnerability from Israeli jets). There is no question the vast majority of Muslim fundamentalist terrorists share basic values, favoring rigid theocratic governments ruling totalitarian states.

What is strangely denied is the extraordinary success of rag-tag terrorists with minimal resources (financial, technological, or military) on the west. Whether making an actual bomb threat, or the rumor of a threat, in no time thousands of travelers are disrupted, closing down airports and urban centers. By any measure of leveraging what you have, fewer terrorists with modest arms have scared more westerners than ever in our history.

Two enemies and two winners

Oddly enough, the Bush-Cheney terrorist war is that rare occurrence when each side functions as best PR agent for the other. Why else has there been no incentive to negotiate an end to hostilities, with either side declaring victory at will but never going home. Here is a fantasy for both military or religious crusaders: terrorists gain political and spiritual energy, visible in highly successful recruiting, by never winning a battle per se, but striking terror in the hearts of millions of the enemy.

But a war sustained because both sides gain in strength – that is a new modern invention, in great part laid at George Bush’s doorstep. In fact, bin Laden terrorism, both in strategy (drive away foreigners) and tactics (random bombings, holy war, sacred places) is in line with prior terrorists, including Jewish assaults against British interests. Where George Bush erred was ignoring cultural history and the nature of modern terrorism (to use the technology of the invader against itself). Even with his cruder version of unilateral pre-emption than more skilled politicians (like Bush Sr.), what Bush Jr. started was hardly unusual for modern imperial states making a line in the sand. A quick victory, a puppet state, permanent military presence, and heavy-handed threats would have achieved a conventional set of aims.

Unintended consequences

But two variables intervened to complicate the Bush strategy: the first was gross miscalculation which laid bare the nakedness of the aggression, absent either threats, plans, or weapons by Saddam, then a more serious miscalculation -- that a streamlined American occupation force could subdue the pooling of resources that terrorists added to nationalistic fervor. And yet, with more political than military agility, the Bush-Cheney team proceeded to make lemonade out of lemons, leveraging fear of terrorism (despite its nearly total absence from American shores) to suit the original goals, both domestic (dominate American politics, perhaps for a generation) and overseas (follow the neo-con dream for global American hegemony because no one could challenge it).

In the meantime, catastrophic blunders by the Bush team so offended the world, especially the Muslim world, that the invasion of Iraq was translated by terrorists into a full-fledged crusade for total dominance (when in fact half dominance was all the west wanted). That made Iraq a recruitment bonanza for the entire range of terrorists, removing incentives for al Qaeda to ever negotiate, at least for a generation.

Clearly, we are not there yet and, if terrorism truly learns to use global technology to the fullest, the old-fashioned concept of a state, with borders one has to defend, may be outmoded. What Bush and Blair taught the terrorists is they are better off without a country as long as they maintain the mystical state of Islamic fundamentalism.

In sum, the non-stop war on terrorism continues to make history, perhaps the first in which the battlefield is neutralized and everyone declares victory whenever they want. Certainly, if the estimated $500K cost for all of 9/11 inspired the West to spend $500 billion, let alone disrupt travel every few months, the terrorists have many reasons to consider this a successful war.

But there are two winners, at least in the short run: the Bush government has shown great skill in leveraging the very fear and terror concocted by the terrorists. For what Bush has done is not only revenge 9/11, say in Afghanistan (with mixed results), but acts, as if in collusion with terrorists, to broadcast the very fear and terror by which they seek to achieve their political goals.









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