Peter Beinart makes an interesting, if somewhat contradictory, argument at the Daily Beast regarding Dick Cheney’s argument that the Obama administration doesn’t really think it’s fighting a war against terrorists. On one hand, Beinart argues that the Obama administration successfully rebuked Cheney through its reference to its own rhetoric, in which they used the term “war” as recently as the inauguration almost a year ago. Beinart then argues that Cheney was right after all, and that Barack Obama should embrace the idea that he isn’t fighting a war against radical jihadist terrorism:
It was your garden-variety partisan smackdown. After the underwear-bomber attack, Dick Cheney accused President Obama of “trying to pretend we are not at war” with jihadist terrorism. The White House responded by quoting Obama’s inaugural address, in which the president declared that “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred” and his Nobel Prize speech, in which he reiterated that “we are at war.” Democrats congratulated themselves for making Cheney look like an ass, again.
But they missed the larger point, which is that while America is obviously at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it isn’t actually at war with jihadist terrorism. Rather than proving Cheney wrong, the White House should have done something more audacious: Prove him right. …
Why doesn’t the White House recognize this? Because while Cheney and company love the word “war” precisely because they define it as military conflict, Americans in recent decades have gotten used to employing the word to mean something more like “national mobilization.” As a result of Washington’s “wars” on poverty, drugs and cancer, the word’s meaning has grown fuzzy. It is this fuzziness that allows the Obama administration to try to have it both ways. On the one hand, they claim that for them, war means mobilizing the economic, diplomatic, and ideological aspects of American power, with the military playing only a supporting role. On the other, they can brandish the macho-sounding “war” to deflect Republican charges that they’re soft on national security.
This makes for an interesting and provocative argument, which should be read in full. If I could boil Beinart’s argument down to its essential, he says that we should use the word “war” for explicit and total military involvement. Using “war” in the context of poverty, cancer, and drugs cheapens the term and makes it much too broad for application in a variety of efforts. Later in the piece, Beinart states that only those who have been impacted by foreign wars and foreign attacks understand the death, destruction, and horror of actual war, and if we understood that much, we wouldn’t apply the term to the present conflict or domestic issues like poverty.
I hate to state the obvious, but the US actually does qualify for Beinart’s contrasting case. What was 9/11 if not an attack on the US by foreign forces that left massive death and destruction? Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks, and more would have died had not the passengers of United 93 courageously took action to prevent it. In the smoking pit of death at the World Trade Center, Americans understood that war had been declared on the US, and that we had failed in preventing the first offensive on our home soil.
Beinart makes a good point about the use of “war” on domestic policy issues, but neglects to provide the full etymology of its use. The “war on poverty” didn’t come from reactionary neocons, but from the rhetoric of the anti-war Left and its political leaders. They demanded that the resources the US used in fighting its (imperialist) wars be used instead to fight the ills of humanity, starting with poverty. Lyndon Johnson adopted that rallying cry for his Great Society, and it passed easily into the political lexicon from there.
But on the Cold War, Beinart is on shakier ground. While it is true that the US and the USSR did not fight a war on a battlefield, both mobilized as though at war with the other. We fought active wars in places like Vietnam and Korea, proxy wars in South America, and near wars in Europe. We did fight ideological and economic battles as well, but Beinart misses the fact that it was a massive military expansion that finally broke the back of the Soviet economy and forced the Russians into retreat in Europe. And it was covert war in Afghanistan that broke the Soviet military, although in the words of former Rep. Charlie Wilson, we managed to “f* up the end game.” Without their defeat in Afghanistan and their economic exhaustion from keeping pace with the American military buildup, would the Soviets still have crumbled in Eastern Europe?
In the present case, we are most definitely at war. War also involves ideological and diplomatic efforts, as any student of World War II, the last truly “total war” could attest; those are not mutually exclusive. In fighting and killing jihadis in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, we are using our military to fight straight-up battles against foreign networks of terrorists before they get a chance to use those resources against our citizens here at home, and we use our intelligence assets to find them there and elsewhere (Pakistan, mainly) and root them out through less public means. We’re not serving subpoenas and warrants on the end of Predator drone missiles, after all. Instead of pretending that we’re not at war because we’re not marching the entire 4th Infantry Division across Waziristan, we should start recognizing that war for us will be almost entirely asymmetrical but will require the same level of commitment to victory — and not in a courtroom.