By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 02/11/06):
When this bleeding war is over, will we still be at war? Whether or not a formal post-mortem (for once the term is apt) into the Iraq war is launched by a newly Democrat-controlled Congress after next Tuesday’s mid-term elections, no one doubts that this has been a war. For several years now, Iraq has been the war that would not end. Yet one day it will end, perhaps after an even worse Sunni-Shia bloodletting following effective US withdrawal.
Will we then still be at war? Were 9/11 and Afghanistan, Iraq and the London bombings, Madrid, Bali and the rest, all just pages of the opening chapter in a long saga called The War on Terror? A war with no end in sight. For all their criticisms of the way Bush has waged the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Democrats do not challenge the central concept of the war on terror. They merely claim that they could fight it better. Only a few intellectual Democrats, such as the financier and philanthropist George Soros, insist that the very idea of the war on terror is, in his words, “a false metaphor”.
Most Europeans, by contrast, agree with Soros. I have argued the same point in this column. The Nestor of British military historians, Sir Michael Howard, anticipated us all with a brilliant article in the American journal Foreign Affairs, entitled “What’s in a name?” and published just months after the September 11 attacks. When the then secretary of state Colin Powell declared that the United States was “at war” with terrorism, wrote Howard, “he made a very natural but terrible and irrevocable error”. Apart from anything else, to use this language dignified the terrorists with the status of belligerents when in fact they should have been treated as criminals. In a curious backhanded way, the coinage was itself a kind of glorification of terrorism.
Political words have consequences – especially big ones like this, when used by the most powerful state on earth – and one could plausibly suggest that much blood has flowed as a result of that choice of words. You might retort that the blood would have flowed anyway, even if the Bush administration had chosen a different guiding metaphor, and that claim can never be disproved. But it’s clearly the case that when, after September 11 2001, the Bush administration said “war”, they meant war in the familiar sense of trained, armed persons being commanded to go and kill other persons, overtly or covertly. In 2002 I asked a very senior administration official how this war on terror might end. He replied: “With the elimination of the terrorists.” Yes, from the outset they did acknowledge that this was no longer war in the classic sense of two uniformed armies of rival states meeting on a field of battle. Yet the decision to make Iraq a central theatre of the war on terror was, among other things, a kind of desperate reaching back to a more conventional kind of warfare that the mightiest army in the history of the world could clearly and swiftly win. Or so they thought.
In the last week, I have heard two powerful arguments for retaining the word war to describe the essential character of the age we’re in. Lecturing on successive days, Philip Bobbitt, the author of The Shield of Achilles, and Matthew d’Ancona, the editor of the Spectator, both insisted that we should not, as it were, throw out the baby of the “war on terror” with the bathwater of Iraq. Both counterposed the notion of war to that of combating crime, favoured by many liberal Europeans. Yes, bad mistakes were made in Iraq, said d’Ancona, but the very nature of this war is so new that it was inevitable that big mistakes would be made. The new terrible trio of rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism – so often evoked by Tony Blair – can not be beaten by the old cold war trio of containment, deterrence and non-proliferation. Terrorists are waging a long-term psychological war, aimed at reducing us to a state of terror. This is not the cold war, said d’Ancona, it’s the cold sweat war.
Bobbitt, meanwhile, talked of no fewer than three wars on terror: against global networked terrorists, against the proliferation of WMDs, and against large-scale natural and non-natural assaults on civilian infrastructure, from earthquakes and the consequences of global warming to genocide and ethnic cleansing. That just about covers all the bases.
Both made some strikingly similar claims, far-removed from the initial gung ho rhetoric of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. This, they both insisted, is a long-term, generational struggle, which requires patience as much as patriotism. Neither had a good word to say for Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib. Both agreed that this war has to be fought within a framework of international law – which, however, must be adjusted to the new circumstances. And they both emphasised the new context of what Bobbitt calls “market states”, in which citizens have become like consumers, with governments behaving like nervous company boards. Does the consumer not like the product? Withdraw it from the shelves at once. Our presence in Iraq, said d’Ancona, is being treated like a listed company whose shares on the FTSE index are in free fall. These are important points, which that segment of the British and European left broadly aligned with the Euston Manifesto (PDF) has already taken on board.
They failed to convince me, however, that the term “war on terror” should not be thrown out with the bathwater. I think it should. It wasn’t a good one to start with. Whatever the might-have-beens, it’s now inextricably associated with a particular, discredited American policy and a disastrous real war in Iraq. What would we lose by dropping it?
If we say that, however, then we need to come up with an alternative that reflects the seriousness of the challenge. It might be better if international terrorists were treated as international criminals, but the overall metaphor of crime is not up to the job. This is something more than crime, less than – or at least, different from – war. “Cold war” was already a stretch. This is a stretch too far.
A word that keeps popping up in narrative descriptions of what we are engaged in is “struggle”. In substance, that’s about right. This is a long-term struggle against multiple new threats to free and open societies. But the word “struggle” has its own troublesome baggage. It really won’t do in German; not since Mein Kampf anyway. In Latin languages it has a fine ring, albeit strongly reminiscent of old battles of the left: la lutte des classes! a luta continua! In English – English English, that is – it has a faint echo of people handing out copies of Socialist Worker on windswept street corners, as well as the unfortunate connotations of struggling, as in “he’s struggling to make the grade”. No, I can’t see president John McCain or Hillary Clinton, or prime minister Gordon Brown for that matter, taking up “the struggle”. So I’m struggling to find a better term. Ideas, anyone?