The New War on Terror: How we failed to realize that old ways won’t open new doors

Many have died, yet little has changed since September 11th 2001. Until this day we keep the memory of almost three thousand men, women, children, policemen and firefighters, and sore words of Obama “Our hearts still ache for the futures snatched away” echoe in the same tone as George W. Bush’s address “We will remember the fire and ash, the last phone calls, the funerals of the children.”What was vigorously labelled by George W. Bush a tragedy, is until this day stressed to be first and foremost a tragedy by Barrack Obama. Perhaps this label is insufficient.

Thirteen years after the truly tragic events of 9/11 more have died in the events that can be called consequences of the tragedy, than during the tragedy itself. 2977 deaths is a tragedy, but it is a bigger tragedy when it sets a precedent to a quarter million of deaths. In view of at least 227 000 casualties of War on Terror launched by George W. Bush after the attacks of 9/11, tragedy seems to be a diminishing description. Triggering a tragedy, rather than tragedy itself the attacks of September 11th 2001 were but a precondition to a rhetoric adopted by American statesmen that led to the prolongation and eventually a greater loss of life during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

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figures correct as of 2010

The ‘New Wars’ Debate

First mentioned by Mary Kaldor in 1990s, the term ‘new wars’ as defined in her thesis argued that most, if not all, post-Cold War conflicts are radically different in their characteristics from classical forms of warfare as defined in the Clausewitzian theory of warfare:

  1. Decreasing economic, military and political support from the two Superpowers after the Cold War forced belligerents to create self-sustaining war economies based on spoils of war, criminal activity or private funding;
  2. Nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction have made war between nation-states improbable if not impossible;
  3. The conflicts that remain often include hugely asymmetrical warfare;
  4. Globalisation has lead to the decay of state’s legitimacy and its monopoly on violence, leading to civil wars involving unconventional non-state actors;
  5. Belligerents are more motivated by identity politics rather than control over government or territory, increasing ethnic cleansing and targeting of civilians as means of warfare

However criticized in its empiric claims New Wars thesis is today highly relevant to new forms of terrorism and resulting asymmetrical warfare – warfare in which opposing groups have unequal ressources, and the weaker opponent uses unconventional weapons and tactics, as terrorism, to exploit the vulnerabilities of the enemy.

The Political Narrative of the New “War on Terror”

Following 9/11, Bush called the attack an “act of war” which triggered a pre-emptive use of force in self-defence. Titled the “War on Terror”, it required that „The mindset of war must change […] it is a different type of battlefield. It is a different type of war“(20 September 2011). To US government this war was new because the combatants were not soldiers of one or another state, they wore no uniform and were driven by a so-called “hatred of freedom.” The choice to label the following conflict a War was more than original as it had more policy implications that one might have thought. Some even entertained the possibility that it was a mistake rather than a conscious choice of statesmen. However unexpected, the phrasing and language used to describe USA’s next conflict had a clear underlying political narrative.

As the UN Charter makes declarations of war illegal, Bush and his administration could have used any other term to describe America’s next conflict. For instance, most modern violence is described as armed conflict rather than war. However ‘an armed conflict’ implies comprehensive efforts in search of a resolution; therefore cannot justify a long-term continuous use of force. Alternatively, the terrorist actions of 9/11 could have been described as a crime that required justice rather than an act of war. Lastly, the Bush administration could have used the language of British policy towards terrorists/freedom fighters. These conflicts were always termed national emergencies which required that the police and intelligence services be provided with exceptional powers even though they operated within a peacetime framework of civilian authority. In fact, many of the most famous and desperate IRA protests demanded recognition as belligerents rather than criminals – a recognition that was immediately accorded by the declaration of the war on terror.

Benefits of the Rhetoric

So what purposes does the so-called “War on Terror” serve? It is an emotional, urgent term that responded the national grief and outrage following 9/11. Similarly to the “War on Drugs” or the “War on Crime,” the “War on Terror” carries the implication that the government is carrying out a “mobilization of all available resources against a dangerous, antisocial activity.” Classifying this tragedy as an act of war also “conferred on the state powers reserved for the supreme emergencies.” Lastly, whereas a crime would have necessitated an international policing effort and an international tribunal in a foreign capital, an act of war invited an immediate justification both on the domestic and international sphere for personal self-defence. In fact, the United States did seek and receive a United Nations mandate for the war in Afghanistan (7 October 2001). However the invasion of Iraq (20 March 2003), which Bush named „the central front in the War on Terror” was conducted despite the fact that Security Council Resolution 1441 did not authorize the use of force by member states.

It is precisely for this reason that the Bush administration benefited from arguing that members of Al Qaeda were ‘new soldiers’ engaged in a ‘new war.’ Bush’s speeches repeatedly emphasise the newness of this war effort: the morning after 9/11 the United States “entered a new world and a dangerous new war.” In what is perhaps the defining speech on the War on Terror (20 September 2001) President Bush declared that the United States faced “new and sudden national challenges” which “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” This was an obvious reflection of Bush’s legal counsel, which looked to make the Geneva Convention obsolete and legitimise otherwise unlawful use of force against enemies, prisoners, even civilians.

This rhetoric in turn quite drew on some of the conclusions of the new war thesis, specifically the ‘war model’ of counter-terrorism. In war, as opposed to a criminal investigation, lethal force may be used against anyone who is part of the enemy forces, and in some cases civilian deaths are permissible. Questioning the legitimacy of ‘quaint’ international law served to justify not only exceptional treatment of prisoners – now classified as ‘enemy combatants’ – but also more generally questioned the legitimacy of UN mandates. The rhetoric of the “new” war on terrorism, adopted by the Bush administration allowed to bypass all contradictions involved in denying enemy soldiers rights under the Geneva Conventions or the criminal justice system.

Harms of the Rhetoric

As approval ratings for the Bush administration began to fall rapidly, many writers outlined the harms of characterising both 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the “War on Terror.” Firstly, the use of the word ‘war’ coupled with constant friend-enemy rhetoric created specific expectations in the mind of the public. This created “irresistible pressure to use military force as soon, and as decisively, as possible.” The public expected news of progress and victory that the government had to deliver: this resulted in the now infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech (May 2013) in which Bush stated that the war in Iraq was a “victory” in the “War on Terror.” Second, the rhetoric of war unnecessarily united terrorist groups into one “expertly organized” network of “evil.” A classic element of what Kaldor calls ‘Old Wars’ is creating the ‘friend-enemy’ distinction. However casting ‘terrorism’ as a united enemy naturally underestimated the deep divisions within anti-American in Iraq.Instead, it exaggerated their strength, adding to their own legitimacy. British minister Hilary Benn explained this was the reason the British government abandoned the phrase in 2006: “What these groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others, without dialogue, without debate, through violence. And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength.“

Third, war rhetoric alienated sympathetic Muslims in the Middle East and throughout the West. As Kaldor outlines, many Iraqis who initially saw the invasion of Iraq as liberation were “which infuriated and humiliated” by American policies which proclaimed the United States was a “victorious conqueror.”  At an international level, the friend-enemy distinction was increasingly seen to apply not to terrorists but to all Muslims – which vastly outweighed the convenient rise in nationalism that accompanies this kind of war rhetoric, if in fact it still exists. As Kaldor has argued, this distinction, which was a tool to gain political legitimacy, is actually undermining in a world where legitimacy is now built more and more on cosmopolitanism. Lastly, and most importantly, the ‘new’ aspect of the ‘war on terror’ undermined institutions of international law and global governance. The latter sets a dangerous precedent for oppressive regimes: in fact, Russia, China, Algeria and Indonesia have already re-framed their struggles against internal dissidents as local “wars on terrorism” as a way of “both muting international criticism and garnering fresh support.”

Conclusion

These many harms reflect a cruel irony in the Bush administration’s use of the concept of the “New War on terror”: despite constantly stressing its ‘newness’, the administration ignored the changes in policy and conflict resolution that the thesis suggested. The Bush administration essentially used new technology while keeping the strategies of “Old Wars”, such as World War II – full scale invasion of Iraq is of perfect evidence. This narrative was representative of a highly problematic approach to war.

The War on Terror is undoubtedly a different kind of war, unfortunately outside of the political narrative little has changed as old ways are applied to new situations. The largely ignored policy recommendations that Kaldor and other new war theorists suggested should have been taken more seriously: provide public security rather than a war against the regime, establish political legitimacy by increasing prospects for inclusive politics, and assess the complex economic and ideological motivations of non-state actors rather than lumping them into an ‘enemy’.

All in all, President George W. Bush with along his administration repeatedly and relentlessly used this rhetoric to claim that his office had the inherent power to detain anyone he chose, for as long as he chose, without a trial; to authorize the torture of prisoners; and to spy on Americans without a warrant. President Barack Obama came to office pledging his loyalty to the rule of law and promising to reverse Bush’s policies. Yet as of now, Guantanamo Bay detention camp was not closed, no NSA officers were charged for abuse of power, US drones freely roam Iraqi skies and United States of America lead their foreign interventions in good old shoot ‘em up fashion without a hint of new approach aimed at state-building. Perhaps you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

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Copyright 2014 - Jan Kolb