The “war on terror” is over

15 January 2009, 1527 EST

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband says “for a couple of years now the British Government has used neither the idea nor the phrase ‘war on terror’.”

Miliband was in Mumbai, speaking (transcript here) at the recently targeted Taj Hotel. He made a number of points that new American leaders should embrace. For example, a “war on terror” creates an enemy that does not exist:

…ultimately, the notion is misleading and mistaken…The notion of a war on terror gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama Bin Laden and the organization of Al Qaeda. In fact, as India has long known, the forces of violent extremism remain diverse. Terrorism is a deadly tactic, not an institution or an ideology

…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, and the more we magnify the sense of threat.

Moreover, fighting a “war” on terror militarizes a struggle that should be handled quite differently:

the phrase “war on terror” implied a belief that the correct response to the terrorist threat was primarily a military one: to track down and kill a hardcore of extremists. 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.

…democracies must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it. If we want to promote the politics of consent instead of terror and of democratic opportunity rather than fear and oppression, we must uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties both at home and abroad.

Why didn’t the Bush administration heed this advice years ago? Many others were offering it — since September 2001, in fact.

Actually, back in summer 2005 the Bush team did briefly appear to abandon the “war” on terror or terrorism.

Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, for instance, wanted to refer to the US policy as a “a global struggle against violent extremism” (G-SAVE). By dropping “war,” the administration could have somewhat de-militarized the conflict. As was noted at the time,

“Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the National Press Club on Monday that he had “objected to the use of the term ‘war on terrorism’ before, because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution.”

The solution is “more diplomatic, more economic, more political than it is military,” Myers said.

At the time, as my blog post made clear, Karl Rove liked the “war” framing and President George W. Bush settled the issue before the end of the summer. Bush declared in August:

Make no mistake about it, we are at war. We’re at war with an enemy that attacked us on September the 11th, 2001. We’re at war against an enemy that, since that day, has continued to kill. They have killed in Madrid and Istanbul and Jakarta and Casablanca and Riyadh and Bali and London and elsewhere.

As Peter pointed out at the time, the “war on terror” language allows Bush to “claim significant powers and the mantle of a Wartime President….Bush has successfully used the language of War to legitimize much of his policy agenda.”

When he spoke of the “rule of law” and democracies, Miliband explicitly said the UK welcomed Barack Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo. This seemed like a clear signal to the incoming administration that even America’s closest ally wants change it can believe in.