Not That Kind of War

The great military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz declared it “the supreme … act of judgment that the statesmen and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it nor trying to turn it into something which is alien to its nature.” By contrast, President George W. Bush declared, in the words of Peter Bergen, “an ambiguous and open-ended conflict against a tactic,” in the now decade-long struggle that is called the “war on terror.” The Longest War, Mr. Bergen’s “analytical net assessment,” scourges the Bush administration for its failure to heed Clausewitz’s guidance but ends by endorsing the central misjudgment made by that reckless administration. 

Mr. Bergen’s new book is a series of summary judgments of nearly every contested question surrounding the conflict. Some of those judgments are made on the basis of extensive documentation of the relevant facts; some balance grand conclusions on a very thin fulcrum of evidence; some are in significant tension with one another. Some lay waste to the shibboleths that time and events have shown to have been absurd (such as the links between Iraq and Al Qaeda). Some ratify the shibboleths of the present (such as the merger of Al Qaeda and the Taliban that policies premised on the existence of may be helping to bring about). All are proffered with supreme self-confidence.

The author, formerly a CNN correspondent, takes us on a rapid tour from the corridors of the Pentagon to the mountains of Tora Bora, from the torture chambers of the Egyptian security services to the ruins of the World Trade Center, from the streets of Fallujah to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Northwest Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is reputed to be hiding. He reminds us that Mr. Bush “raised Al-Qaeda to the status of the strategic, existential threat that the group craved to be, rather than the serious-enough problem that it in fact presented.” He expresses astonishment that in the hunt for Mr. bin Laden, “its most important mission to date in the global war on terror,” the United States turned to “a fractious bunch of AK-47 toting lawless bandits and tribal thugs, not bound by any recognized rules of warfare.” He condemns the coercive interrogation in secret C.I.A. prisons adopted by Mr. Bush as “unnecessary and counterproductive.”

As he puts it early in his account, we have allowed the war on terror to “warp US foreign policy and distort key American ideals about the rule of law, while his Administration’s obsession with Iraq could lead the U.S. into fighting two wars in the Muslim world simultaneously, seeming to confirm one of bin Laden’s key claims–that the West, led by America, was at war with Islam.”

He reserves his greatest scorn for the war in Iraq. “What the Bush Administration did in Iraq is what bin Laden could not have hoped for in his wildest dreams: America invaded an oil-rich Muslim nation in the Middle East, the very type of imperial adventure that bin Laden had long predicted was the United States’ long term goal in the region; the United States deposed the secular socialist Saddam, whom bin Laden had long despised; the war ignited Sunni and Shia fundamentalist fervor in Iraq; and it provoked a ‘defensive’ jihad that galvanized jihadi-minded Muslims around the world.”

Mr. Bergen’s telling of how the Bush administration pressed us into the war under false pretenses; bungled the occupation in ways that helped to fuel the murderous insurgency it became; and eventually managed, through a last-minute change in strategy, to pull Iraq from the brink of utter chaos, shows that Mr. Bergen is able to learn from events. In 2002, in a new afterword to his book Holy War, Inc., Mr. Bergen confidently declared that an attack on Saddam Hussein would be “a legitimate use of force under international law” and “prudent.” 

This change in attitude, unremarked upon by Mr. Bergen in his new book, is important not merely as a matter of journalistic score keeping. It goes to the heart of the kind of journalist that Mr. Bergen is–a reliable bellwether for the views and attitudes of the national security establishment upon whose disclosures he relies. It is an establishment in which large strategic errors can survive unmolested by an onslaught of facts for years, or even decades, at a time. As for the central question posed by Clausewitz, about the kind of war we are fighting, Mr. Bergen will not budge from the very conclusion that his book has done a great deal to debunk.

By the time Mr. Bergen considers the question of “the end of the War on Terror,” he has already explained to us that the likelihood of Al Qaeda acquiring “a true WMD–a nuclear device–is near zero for the foreseeable future.” He has explained to us that  “Al-Qaeda no longer posed a national security threat to the American homeland” and instead represented a “second order threat similar to that posed by American domestic terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 when he bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.” He has shown that Al Qaeda has already sown “the seeds of their own long-term destruction,” because of “crippling strategic weakness.” And yet he declares that President Barack Obama understood that “recasting the GWOT [Global War on Terror] as the GPAT, the Global Police Action against Terrorists, would be both foolish and dangerous.”

He then recites the story of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up a Northwest airliner on Christmas Day 2009 with a plastic explosive hidden his underwear as proof that Al Qaeda still retained, as he puts it, “some ability to mount large-scale plots against the American homeland.” This is an odd way of making his point, since the group calling itself “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” does not cooperate with the group known as Al Qaeda headed by Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. And the plot (which failed when alert passengers wrestled the would-be bomber) is surely an instance of a “second order threat” rather than a “national security threat.” Which is to say, precisely the kind of threat that has to be tracked down by police work, or stopped by security agents, and assuredly not the kind of threat that can be solved by shooting a missile at it.

Broadly speaking, we maintain armies with massive destructive capabilities to fight with other states–things that are, as New York Times reporter Timothy Weiner put it, “hard to kill but easy to find on a map.” Individuals who want to cause mayhem are easy to kill but hard to find, and for them we use investigative methods that fall under the legal authority, and lie within the professional competence, of law enforcement. There can be some tinkering at the margins of these boundaries to meet exceptional cases (such as when we know terrorists are operating freely in places that lack the capability or means to enforce the law, as Al Qaeda in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan were doing prior to 2001), but any departure from the basic distinction outlined above is pure Clausewitzian error. The attacks of Sept. 11 may have been, as Mr. Bergen points out, military in their intent, motivation and scale. But they could have been averted only by proper intelligence sharing, or more vigilant border security. These facts point to the conclusion that the war on terror is not now and never was a real war. That a reporter as well informed as Peter Bergen can know all the reasons why it isn’t and still insist otherwise points to the hard discursive boundary beyond which even a very intrepid writer keen to preserve his bona fides among the national security establishment is reluctant to stray. Beyond that boundary lies the truth, though it may take a further decade, and much blood and treasure wasted, before we acknowledge it.


Mr. Yang is a contributing editor of New York magazine.

  Not That Kind of War