With Osama bin Laden now removed from center stage of the so-called global war on terror, there’s an opportunity to rethink our national security strategy. The pursuit of Bin Laden provided the pretext, in large part, for two U.S. wars, one of which is the longest in U.S. history. And the question we must ask now is, what have we achieved? And is there a more effective way to establish long-term security for not only the United States but the whole world.
On Sunday night, when President Obama announced that Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. special forces, a post on the BBC’s news blog caught my attention:
Indrajit in Kolkata, India writes: “People like bin Laden are not born, they are made. By poverty, inequality, discrimination. As long as these are prevalent in the world, I fear killing one Bin Laden won’t really solve anything.”
It reminded me of how our zeal to “capture and kill” the terrorists has lead us so far astray from addressing any of the real causes and conditions that give rise to terrorism.
Sure, the killing of Bin Laden and his inner circle at his compound may eradicate some key Al Qaeda leadership and infrastructure. And it certainly brings some relief and resolution to those who’ve suffered unimaginable losses from his brutal deeds. But it doesn’t eliminate the ideology behind him. Indeed, it may even strengthen it. A monster in the eyes of many is now a martyr in the eyes of some. Righteousness deepens, along with the desire for revenge and the resolve to prevail.
How did we get to this approach and how can we forward the prospects for peace?
In the days following the 9/11 attacks, former President George W. Bush said, “this crusade, this war on terror, is going to take awhile.” A week later, Congress and Bush enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which set the stage for the beginning of our war in Afghanistan. “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Bush said in elaborating the strategy to a joint session of Congress months later. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
He prepared the nation well for a new kind of war, one with potentially innumerable targets and no clear end. The “war on terror” framework, along with the broader Bush doctrine of unilateral and preemptive military action, was a dream come true for the defense industry.
Bush’s flawed but clever conflation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with efforts to remove Saddam Hussein later helped provide a pretext for the U.S. war in Iraq. In his prime-time press conference in the weeks leading up to the war, he repeatedly mentioned September 11, often in the virtually same breath that he invoked Hussein—enough for 45 percent of Americans to believe that Hussein was “personally involved” in 9/11, according to a New York Times/CBS poll conducted a week prior to our invasion of Iraq.
The combined wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, conducted largely under the “war on terror” banner, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, countless numbers of people injured and dislocated from their homes, and billions of dollars of military expenditures. And yet, no one has won this war on terror. That’s because it is an un-winnable war rooted in untenable ideas about our role in the world.
Though the Obama administration has discarded the Bush-era “war on terror” label, the foundational terror-fighting approach remains intact. Obama continued and escalated our troop presence in Afghanistan, now at its highest level since the war began with some 90,000 troops stationed there. And even though Obama is drawing down our military operations and troop levels in Iraq, some 50,000 troops remain.
During 10 years of wartime, we’ve been unwilling to provide for our security needs at home—in the form of health care, housing and food for millions who are struggling. While military spending climbed to record heights, the safety net steadily frayed as vital social service were slashed, the foreclosure crisis continued, and unemployment ranks swelled.
With the largest military might in world history, it’s much too easy for us to declare war on any target or tactic we choose. And if the race and religion of the target is deemed to be outside the mainstream understanding of our national identity, the task is made even easier.
When we lead with our might, rather than with what’s right, it comes back to bite us. To regain a moral footing and righteous reputation in the eyes of the world, we must take a different tact.
So if there’s any victory to be had in this moment, it will come from creating a mandate to end our “war(s) on terror” and courageously confront the root causes of conflict.
To do this, we must understand and embrace each others’ humanity, address inequities, and institute domestic and global policies that truly foster peace, justice and unity. We must begin to build a “global security net” through foreign policy that rejects inequality and wealth stratification and supports shared and sustainable prosperity. Our true power will come from leading with and modeling the values of equity and inclusion that are embodied in the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”
It’s time to replace the global war on terror approach to security with one rooted in peace through global justice and human rights. There can be no peace without justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” reminds us that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” If we are truly committed to peace and being peacemakers, if the losses and sacrifices of the last 10 years are not to be in vain, we must be willing to heed these prophetic words.
Peace Action offers a good starting point for those ready to take action by visiting their webpage: It’s Time to Make The Call—End the War!