Politics & Policy

Our Enemies Get a Vote

Finding more palatable names for the War on Terror won’t change — or end — it.

“This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

— President Barack Obama at National Defense University, May 23, 2013

They say all is fair in love and war (I’m skeptical), but that doesn’t mean war and love have much in common. When it comes to love, both parties need to be in on it. In war, all it takes is one to tango. Sure, if the non-belligerent party doesn’t want to fight, it can try to talk, or cut a deal, or even surrender. But it’s up to the guys willing to kill to decide how things will proceed.

#ad#This is particularly relevant when two parties are at war and one side wants to stop. As legendary Marine general James Mattis has said, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”

That line came immediately to mind last week when President Obama declared that history tells us the war on terror must end. As an objective statement of fact, that is of course true. The War on Terror must end. So must all life on this planet. But saying so doesn’t make it so. Some things must end on their own timetable.

In 1387, when the Hundred Years’ War was already a half-century old, Richard II undoubtedly would have very much liked the war to end. But the French didn’t want it to end on losing terms, so they kept fighting for another 66 years until the English were finally booted from French soil.

The Hundred Years’ War actually took 116 years. That is a really long time. A soldier in 1450 might have had a great-great-grandfather in the same war.

Of course, the Hundred Years’ War was really a series of wars, battles, and skirmishes that flared up and subsided over eleven and a half decades. You could say something similar about the Cold War. The Vietnam War and Korean War were flashpoints of a larger civilizational struggle.

A more apt comparison might be the long struggle between Islam and the Byzantine Empire, which began in the seventh century, in Mohammed’s lifetime. I have no doubt that Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos would have loved for that war to have ended a few centuries before he died in battle in 1453 defending Christian Constantinople. When he died, the Roman Empire died with him.

President Obama says, “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” There’s some wisdom there. I never much liked the word “terrorism” because terrorism is a technique, not a worldview. If North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile at us, we would not respond by declaring war on ICBMs, but on North Korea. If al-Qaeda had a standing army, we’d still be at war with al-Qaeda, not standing armies.

But finding more palatable terms for this war will no more end it than defining manure as a sweet-smelling flower will change the odor. After five years of using methods he now condemns, the president now says the global War on Terror is in effect over and what must replace it is a planet-wide battle on terrorist networks. That’s an interesting distinction. As military analyst Bing West writes, “English translation: The war on Islamic terrorists is not boundless, but it does encircle the globe.” No doubt the Americans — and jihadists — doing the fighting will not notice much of a change.

A lot remains unknown about what Obama actually intends to do — or will be able to accomplish regardless of his intentions. He is very fond, at least rhetorically, of treating terrorism as a law-enforcement issue. If we aren’t attacked for a while, his new approach will seem wise. If we are attacked, it will seem like folly.

And that’s basically the point. We know that there are plenty of Islamists eager to murder Westerners, even cut off our heads in broad daylight. No one doubts that they’d use something more lethal than a rusty machete if given the opportunity. And so the success or failure of Obama’s grand strategic vision depends entirely on what our enemies do next. That’s because they get a vote, and they vote “nay.”

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

 

 

 

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

Most Popular

White House

Democrats in Peril

I will just make a prediction and try to keep out of the swamp of Trump-obsession as the weeks unfold. The anti-Trump movement is now in inexorable decline; it is a little like the Nixon defense forces after the Saturday Night drama in October 1973, with the departure of the attorney general, his deputy, and ... Read More
World

Canada Is Attacked Again

Media coverage of yesterday’s monstrous van attack in Toronto, which as of this writing is responsible for ten deaths and more than a dozen other casualties, was punctuated by political press conferences of the sort that are now an inescapable part of the dark theater of public tragedies. At his first ... Read More
World

Trump and the North Korean Tipping Point

The world has been stunned by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s announcement last week that he was suspending his country’s nuclear tests in preparation for the impending meeting with President Trump. Even critics have had to concede that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric since last summer regarding the North ... Read More
Economy & Business

Trade Misunderstandings

I was distracted by other policy topics last week but not enough not to notice Peter Navarro’s article in the Wall Street Journal, headlined “China’s Faux Comparative Advantage.” Considering Navarro’s position in the White House, it is unfortunate that it demonstrates some serious misunderstandings ... Read More