By Michael J. Boyle
One of the most daunting tasks awaiting the next president will be setting a new agenda for the war on terror. Seven years after the events of 9/11 – and after two wars and billions of dollars spent on improving homeland security - the war on terror is adrift. While al-Qaeda has been denied a sanctuary in Afghanistan, it is now multiplying as a kind of “franchise terrorism” across the globe. It has also found a significant base in Iraq and has made denying America a victory there the centrepiece of its strategy. Worse still, the Bush Administration’s handling of the war on terror has left serious doubts on both sides of the Atlantic about whether this war is intellectually or morally sustainable. In the eyes of many European observers, the war on terror has driven the U.S. and European Union further apart, rather than providing them with a common agenda for action.
Much of the blame for this state of affairs lies with the Bush Administration. Rather than seizing upon the events of the September 11 to form a new global consensus over emergent security threats, the Bush Administration stubbornly refused to take seriously the concerns of key allies over issues like the treatment of detainees and the so-called “black sites” scattered across Europe. The Bush Administration also missed an opportunity for global institution-building in the war on terror. Its instinct was to preserve American freedom of action, but perversely it found it could only preserve this freedom of action at the cost of its political relationships with key European partners. After Guantanomo Bay, the invasion of Iraq, and Abu Ghraib, many Europeans are now asking themselves whether they want to play any role at all in America’s “war on terror.”
One of the jobs of the next president is to convince them that the war on terror is unfortunate but necessary, and that the bilateral and multilateral cooperation – with Europe in a key role – is essential to its success. In part, this can be done only by rethinking what it means to “win” the war on terror. For much of its term in office, the Bush Administration has drawn parallels between the war on terror and the twentieth century battles against communism and fascism, implying that the war on terror was principally an ideological struggle in which the U.S. would eventually be successful. But the reality is much more complex: terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology, and it is used by a range of state and non-state actors in the service of discrete political goals. If “terrorism” is not an ideology which can be defeated as communism once was, then the entire concept of victory implicit in the Bush Administration’s strategy is misplaced. If it is a tactic, it can at best be de-legitimized as forms of outlawed social behaviour, much such as slavery and piracy once were. But history shows that de-legitimation of outlawed social and political practices can only be accomplished in concert with other states, and through political rather than military means.
Working cooperatively with other like-minded states is the best way to de-legitimize the tactic of terrorism and to generate compliance with this emerging global norm. Seen in this light, the war on terrorism becomes less a war of ideas than a collective action problem. This is why the U.S. needs to engage seriously with European partners. On the most basic level, they are essential for generating a normative prohibition against terrorism and for constructing international order which is hostile to the indiscriminate killing of non-combatants. Moreover, European cooperation is necessary to create and sustain the kind of functional global institutions which reinforce that order and ultimately lower the long-term costs of counter-terror cooperation for the United States.
Resetting the agenda for the war on terror to reflect its normative purpose and its multilateral character is not going to be an easy task. But the facts are clear: the U.S. has spent much of the last seven years trying to manage this threat on its own through the exercise of brute power and coercion. After seven years, it finds itself exhausted by the struggle and alienated from its friends and allies. Only by admitting the limits of its own power, and engaging seriously with European partners in a transatlantic dialogue about a new agenda for the war on terror, can the next American president point a way forward from our current strategic impasse.