In a Guardian op-ed and a speech in Mumbai, both today, British foreign secretary David Milibrand says that the “war on terror” was a bad idea.

Since 9/11, the notion of a “war on terror” has defined the terrain. The phrase had some merit: it captured the gravity of the threats, the need for solidarity, and the need to respond urgently – where necessary, with force. But ultimately, the notion is misleading and mistaken. The issue is not whether we need to attack the use of terror at its roots, with all the tools available. We must. The question is how.

The idea of a “war on terror” gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The reality is that the motivations and identities of terrorist groups are disparate. Lashkar-e-Taiba has roots in Pakistan and says its cause is Kashmir. Hezbollah says it stands for resistance to occupation of the Golan Heights. The Shia and Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq have myriad demands. They are as diverse as the 1970s European movements of the IRA, Baader-Meinhof, and Eta. All used terrorism and sometimes they supported each other, but their causes were not unified and their cooperation was opportunistic. So it is today.

The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common. Terrorist groups need to be tackled at root, interdicting flows of weapons and finance, exposing the shallowness of their claims, channelling their followers into democratic politics.

The “war on terror” also implied that the correct response was primarily military. But as General Petraeus said to me and others in Iraq, the coalition there could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife.

FP’s Joshua Keating believes that “the Mumbai attacks helped crystalize his thinking on this issue” and cites a post from Miliband’s personal blog to back that notion up.  

MoJo’s Kevin Drum points to a separate Guardian report by Julian Borger that “British officials are signalling, in increasingly public ways, that they cannot wait for the new team to take office next Tuesday.”   As to the speech itself,

British officials said the timing of the speech was dictated more by the Mumbai attacks than Bush’s departure, but added that the transition in Washington meant the language could be less cautious than it might otherwise have been.

UK-US relations have been particular sour in recent days after Washington reneged on a pledge to back a largely British-drafted UN resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The White House over-ruled US diplomats after a demand from the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

There’s not much doubt that transatlantic relations have been strained by the GWOT because our visions for the conflict were fundamentally different.  TAP’s Ezra Klein observes that, if anything, many American conservatives thought GWOT “too limited a conception of the threat.”

Rather, we’re in a clash of civilizations. We’re threatened by fundamentalist Islam in all its manifold incarnations. And though the conservative world view is in decline, that is what the Right’s politicians are saying, what the talk show hosts are discussing, what the base believes. And you can see the appeal: It’s simple. It’s a way to understand Iran and Hamas and Lebanon and al Qaeda and Salafism and all the rest. It allows meaningless bits of trivia — think of the “connection” between al Qaeda and Iraq — to serve as crucial pieces of evidence. It’s a very, very, very dangerous formulation.

While Realist academics never liked the phrase, arguing that one couldn’t declare war on a tactic, it never struck me as problematic.  My initial understanding, when President Bush first used it publically in those days after 9/11, was something more limited:  That the tactic of terrorism — that is, the intentional targetting of civilians in order to achieve political aims — was to henceforth be considered so illegitimate as to merit the wrath of civilized people everywhere. 

The implementation, however, was much more vague than that.  Soon, only “terrorists with global reach” were the bad guys.  Not long after that, it wasn’t so much terrorists as rogue regimes, like Saddam Hussein’s, that were friendly to terrorists who were the target.  (Not to be confused, of course, with allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which were even more friendly to terrorists but otherwise useful and therefore given a free pass.)   Seven-plus years later, I haven’t the slightest idea what the GWOT entails.

That, not the phrase itself, is the problem. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 


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