micah holmquist's irregular thoughts and links
Welcome to the musings and notes of a Cadillac, Michigan based writer named Micah Holmquist, who is bothered by his own sarcasm.
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Friday, April 25, 2003
World War IV
This may surprise some readers but I don’t think the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” has been a complete failure. There is still a threat and I certainly believe that a non-interventionist foreign policy would be the best protection, but U.S. President George W. Bush and friends have gone after al Qaeda –the only terrorist group that has the intentions of harming the U.S. and has shown that it at least had the ability to do so with great impact- with significant success and likely prevented at least several terrorist attacks against the U.S. And to the surprise of many including “micah holmquist,” they have done so without resorting to a police state.
While this is certainly impressive, it should be noted that the “war on terror” has not been solely about al Qaeda. Just nine days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which marked the beginning of the “war on terror,” Bush was already talking about a war with “terrorism” as if it represented it was some sort of unified threat and not a tactic that could be employed by various groups with various intentions. True, Bush did focus on terrorism as growing out of Islamic fundamentalism –which hardly represents a unified entity itself- but the ultimatums were dressed in universal terms. “We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” Bush said in this speech before Congress. “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
If you doubt the universal nature of this “war on terror,” just look at the arrest last week in Iraq of Palestine Liberation Front leader Abu Abbas in Iraq. The U.S. military and Secretary of State Colin Powell have claimed this to be a significant step in the “war on terror” even though whatever else you can say about him, it is dead wrong to say Abbas was tied to Islamic fundamentalism or even much of a threat to anybody.
Even a war against “terrorism” is any and/or all forms was not ambitious enough for Team Bush, which also made the “war on terror” into a war for some level of U.S. control of weapons of mass destruction. In his January 29, 2002 State of the Union speech, Bush famously, and infamously, said states like Iran, Iraq and North Korea “constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists… We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction.”
As I argued in January 22's “The U.S. shouldn’t be preventing Iraq from possessing or developing weapons of mass destruction,” the Bush Administration was so successful on this front during the run-up to what would come to be known as Operation Iraqi Freedom that it was able to create a debate where Iraq merely possessing or trying to develop weapons of mass destruction amounted to a threat to the U.S. No evidence of intentions of using these weapons was needed. Now that victory has been achieved in Iraq, the U.S. is continuing to use this logic with regard to North Korea. “The issue for us,” State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said on Monday, “is how to achieve a verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear programs.”
The problem with both of these angles of the “war on terror” is that they are unachievable.
The Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines “terrorism” as “(threats of) violent action for political purposes.” This has gone on throughout recorded history and will continue for at least the foreseeable future. A myriad of causes, goals and justifications can lead to terrorism and can be done by both large groups and a single person. It is for this reason that unlike say a war against communism or fascism where victory is achieved by denying state power to adherents of that ideology, a successful war against terrorism means defeating any and all individuals with the right skills and motivations. In other words, in a great big world, it can’t be done.
A war against weapons of mass destruction being in the wrong hands suffers from a similar problem. Neither the knowledge that weapons of mass destruction –which is to say biological, chemical and nuclear weapons- can be built nor the knowledge and materials necessary to build weapons of mass destruction will be disappearing and, in a world where military strength is likely to remain valued, this means that there will always be a risk that groups and states that the U.S. does not want to have weapons of mass destruction will obtain them by building them, or obtaining them from one of the myriad of countries that U.S. to not trying to deny these weapons to. For instance, France has nuclear weapons and while it is difficult to imagine France attacking the U.S. or aiding those who do want to attack the U.S., things can change. It is already to surreal to hear Powell saying, “…we have to take a look at the relationship. We have to look at all aspects of our relationship with France in light of [France’s opposition to the U.S. taking over Iraq].” (And this is to say nothing of the possibility, however remote, that so long as the U.S. has weapons of mass destruction, it is possible that these weapons will fall out of the control of the U.S. Or that countries will actually increase their interest in developing weapons of mass destruction as a means of discouraging a U.S. attack.)
It was perhaps a mistake, albeit a deliberate one, for me to have called the impossibility of the U.S. winning on either of the two fronts of the “war on terror” a “problem” as it is not altogether clear if the Bush Administration sees things that way. The eagerness of at least some members of the Administration to use the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a launch pad for unrelated actions –even if you believe that the now deposed government of Saddam Hussein was in some way connected to September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, you would have a hard time arguing that North Korea was connected-indicates that they want a series of wars and perhaps that they would be more than happy to see the “war on terror” become the norm.
I bring this up in light of a question raised by Saragon in response to my April 9 entry "Stream of consciousness rant about the war." Saragon wanted to know what I thought of the idea that the U.S. is engaged in worldwide war, that began on September 11, 2001 and/or was merely epitomized by that day- and that Iraq is merely a theater in that war against a broader set of opponents than merely al Qaeda. This idea has been popularized by John Hopkins professor Elliot Cohen, hawkish writer Norman Podhoretz and former Central Intelligence Agency directory James Woolsey, all of whom have labeled this conflict "World War IV." They say that this war will be more like the Cold War ("World War III") than World War I and World II because it will be a protracted conflict. Neither Cohen, Podhoretz or Woolsey seem particularly interested in the fact that the "enemy" in "World War IV" isn't clearly defined -isn't terrorism, terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, totalitarianism, authoritarianism or some combination of these "enemies"- whereas the enemy in the Cold War clearly was the Soviet Union and the countries allied with the Soviet Union, but it seems like an important point to me. Without a clear enemy, new and previously unrelated targets can be picked up along the way, which may in fact be the point.
The Bush Administration has officially expressed many points of this argument -most notably in last September's "National Security Strategy of the United States of America"- but has not adopted all of the terminology.
To the extent that the Bush Administration acts like they are in "World War IV," and they do act very much like is the case, the U.S. is fighting "World War IV." A country with a military as powerful as the U.S. military has the ability to start wars with just about anyone it wants and justify it in any it wants. In that sense, the U.S. is involved in "World War IV." However, it is mistake to entertain the popular notions that the U.S. is anything but the aggressor in this conflict..