Our War on Terror

28 07 2007

Samantha Power in The New York Times

The day after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush declared the strikes by Al Qaeda “more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.” Bush’s “war on terror” was “not a figure of speech,” he said. Rather, it was a defining framework. The war, Bush announced, would begin with Al Qaeda, but would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” The global war on terror, he said, was the “inescapable calling of our generation.”

The phrase and the agenda that grew out of it caught on, and from 9/11 onward, the administration used its pulpit to propagate several new premises. First, with the threat of Islamic radical terrorism, new rules, new tools and new mind-sets had to be devised to meet the novelty of the menace. As Vice President Dick Cheney put it, “old doctrines of security do not apply.” The criminal justice approach of trying terrorists would have to be scrapped, supplanted by a military approach. Second, we were told, the states that sponsored terrorism or offered lodging to terrorists had to be treated the same way as those nonstate actors who carried out the threats. Even more dramatically, America’s friends had to prove their loyalty by taking concrete steps in our global war. As Bush put it, the “duties” of peace-loving people “involve more than sympathy or words. No nation can be neutral.” By requiring governments to step up, we would be able to root out the unreliable and distribute sanctions and favors accordingly.

Third, since international treaties and institutions often constrained Washington’s ability to combat terrorism on its own terms, they should be dipped into and exploited selectively. While it was true that other countries valued those laws and institutions, the gravity of the terrorist threat would ultimately unite nations with shared interests. The urgency of the common cause would override choosiness about the means. Our allies would need us more than we would need them, so we could count on them to rally to our side in a crunch.

And fourth, in Bush’s view, wartime demanded a strong commander in chief, and he would be far more effective prosecuting the war if he could free himself of the meddlesome legislative, judicial and even interagency checks fashionable in peacetime. Surely, Bush’s team argued, the extreme continuing threats to our national security warranted a dramatic expansion of presidential power.

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