Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:56 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:56 | SYDNEY

Reframing the war on terror


Sam Roggeveen


29 February 2008 11:05

Atlantic Monthly blogger Matthew Yglesias yesterday wrote a post about terrorism which captures neatly a point that I have clumsily been trying to make on this blog for some time:

...ever since 9/11, we've adopted a set of incredibly harmful and counterproductive policies. Rather than taking a focused, disciplined approach to a dangerous-but-manageable situation, the Bush administration has engaged in a series of flailing overreactions that have, improbably, actually made it possible for a relatively small group of people to dramatically alter the course of the world without expending any vast resources...

Given how firmly entrenched the wrongheaded framework is, it's generally not worth any particular politician's while on any particular day to stick his or her neck out and try to prick the conceptual bubble Bush has erected around these questions. It's risky. It makes more sense to try to just come up with ideas that make sense within the Massive Ideological Struggle framework. But as long as that framework goes unchallenged, it's incredibly difficult to make the case for liberal alternatives to the policies we've been implementing.

The point about how dangerous it is for politicians to stick their necks out for sensible policy is true in Australia too: just ask Amanda Vanstone and Bob Debus.

But there is a way out of the Massive Ideological Struggle framework  and it actually comes in one of the articles Ygelsias cites in his post. Right at the end of James Fallows' excellent 2006 Atlantic Monthly cover story on the war on terror, 'Declaring Victory', Fallows suggests some words he would like to hear from an American leader. An incoming US president could use these words at their inauguration to break away (politely and elegantly) from the Bush Administration's ideological framework. 

After warmly thanking President Bush for preventing terrorist attacks on American soil for the remainder of his term after 9/11, the new president could segue into this:

Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist—and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk—especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.

...We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation’s growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development—people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world’s scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast—and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the world’s environment, to develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people’s lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put into the hands of individuals or small groups.

The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era’s duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era’s challenges—and opportunities. With quiet pride, we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation’s history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face.

That's not so inconceivable, is it?