The jihad rages on, but the War on Terror is over.
There is no longer a national-security consensus — no longer the political support for wartime defense measures, much less offensive combat operations. While the enemy continues to fight, our will to break the enemy’s will has vanished. After a contentious week, that much is clear. The controversy swirling around shadowy intelligence programs hasn’t gotten to the bottom of those programs, but it tells us everything we need to know about . . . us.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s dog that did not bark is a metaphor worn out by journalists. This week, though, the lack of a bark was loud and clear: The bark of the national-security Right defending the wartime powers of the presidency. For a variety of reasons, many of the protagonists have developed amnesia about how we came to have the programs now provoking all the cavil: the debates over the PATRIOT Act and FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act).
After a series of attacks through the Nineties, the 9/11 atrocities destroyed the World Trade Center, struck the Pentagon, and killed nearly 3,000 Americans. In the savage clarity, our nation finally realized that what I’ve called “kinetic Islam” — a combination of militant jihadists and their sharia-supremacist enablers — was at war with the United States. The PATRIOT Act was a product of our vigorous and persuasive contention, on the national-security right, that the challenge was an enemy force, not a criminal-justice problem. That challenge demanded a national war-footing, not judicial due process.
It was precisely this contention, moreover, that beat back the Left’s effort to intrude the judiciary into the collection of foreign intelligence — constitutionally, a paradigm executive function — when FISA was overhauled in 2008.
In fits and starts over the years, progressives and libertarians have aligned against the war, for different reasons. Hardwired to find American fault in every dispute, the Left is sympathetic to Islamic supremacism’s indictment against the United States, if not its barbaric methods. Libertarians have been wary because war inexorably enhances the power of the state at the expense of liberty — Big Government is more to be feared than the jihad.
That this fear is overstated does not mean it is frivolous. It is real, and has been stoked to a fare-thee-well by the “War on Terror.” The label itself betrays our cravenness. Unwilling to name the enemy for fear of giving offense, the government framed the challenge not as an aggressor but as an aggressive tactic. It encouraged Americans to go on with their lives as normal (lest “the terrorists win”).
Necessarily, this ensured that the public would notice the war only in the government’s defense measures against the tactic. These were thus certain to become more onerous; after all, that was how politicians too timid to say “Islam” or “jihad” proved they were tough on . . . er . . . “violent extremism.” But these defense measures, erosions of liberty and privacy, could be abided only as long as the public felt profoundly threatened. That feeling would certainly not last, no matter how long we had troops on faraway battlefields, if the public was not (a) invested in victory over our enemies; (b) persuaded that being molested at the airport and similar indignities had something to do with achieving victory; and (c) convinced that the lack of similar-scale attacks in the years after 9/11 was due to the defense measures.
The most compelling claim against the war effort, argued jointly by progressives and libertarians, was that there was no conceivable conclusion to a war of this nature. Wars against traditional enemies end when the enemy — usually, a nation-state — surrenders or strikes a treaty. But how can a war against a tactic end?
Consequently, the argument went, the War on Terror would go on indefinitely, and with it the metastasizing security state. This argument is now muted on the Left. Bush-deranged progressives turn out to be quite comfortable with a security state as long as one of their own is running it. But for libertarians, the argument has grown ever more heated.
Nothing, not even war, happens in a vacuum. Over the last six years, as libertarian angst churned over surveillance, detention, military commissions, and drone attacks, the progressive-lite GOP establishment gave way to hardcore Obama statism. As a result, libertarians, quite appropriately, have become a hugely influential opposition faction. They are a big part of the Tea Party’s energy, and the Tea Party is the dynamo of the Right. Increasingly, as the Right’s ne plus ultra has become stopping Big Government’s advance, conservatives and Republicans have been more willing to overlook libertarian objections to adhesive security measures — sometimes, even to see a good deal of sense in them.